Ready for Big Iron Windows?

By Drew Robb

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Having conquered the consumer desktop space, Microsoft has spent the last decade trying to muscle in on the enterprise market. With the release of Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, Redmond hoped to have finally evolved a server operating system that could mount a serious challenge to the dominance of the big UNIX vendors. Yet after its release in 2000 it failed to catch fire.

That may well be changing, however, due to the marriage of Windows 2000 Datacenter server and the Unisys ES7000 Server. For the first time, Windows has found a hardware partner that can give it the scalability, reliability and availability to rival Sun and IBM systems, and at about half the cost.

"Unisys has brought the Intel world much closer to the high availability, scalable 'mainframe-class' environment than any other vendor," said David Frielander of Giga Information Group. "The architecture developed by Unisys provides a far more scalable technology for multiple processor servers than the existing commodity Intel-based servers."

The ES 7000 is based on the Unisys Cellular Multi Processing (CMP) architecture. It supports partitioning to create "servers within a server," process control, multiple operating systems, up to a four-node cluster, up to 32 Intel Xeon processors, 64GB of memory, and 96 PCI adapters for I/O. Once released, it is designed to operate with the 64-bit Intel Itanium processor.

CMP also offers dynamic reallocation of resources as well as mainframe-style crossbar technology to eliminate bottlenecks typically associated with bus-based SMP (Symmetrical Multi Processing) machines that limit you to no more than eight processors. Additionally, it has dedicated connections between memory, processors, and I/O components. Result: Mainframe levels of processing power at an industry-standard price point.

Not Just A Software Product

Perhaps the biggest difference between this Wintel platform and previous attempts by Microsoft to enter the midrange market is that you can't buy it off the shelf.

"Windows 2000 Datacenter should not be viewed as a software product," said John Eck, analyst at Gartner Group. "It should be regarded as a computing solution that encompasses hardware, software and services."

To be able to achieve the high performance that system managers have come to demand from midrange and mainframe systems, you can't expect to sell it like just another desktop plug-and-play system. Getting close to mainframe performance out of a high-end Wintel platform requires extensive tuning, a solid hardware foundation, mainframe systems expertise and an understanding of enterprise-scale IT maintenance.

"If you have people installing Datacenter Server who are familiar with other Windows platforms such as NT or Windows desktop systems, they will not achieve good results as they have no experiences in disaster recovery, mainframe-type operations or large-scale server deployments," said Mark Feverston, vice president of Unisys Server Programs.

This is where Unisys comes into the picture. With several decades of mainframe experience under its belt, the Blue Bell, Pa.-based company is ideally positioned to give big iron respectability to the Windows server operating system.

"Because of the engineering talent at Unisys, they can take 32/32 bit processors and give about the same power as the E10000 from Sun with 64/64 bit processors," said Jeff Raikes, Microsoft's group vice president for worldwide sales and support. "And Unisys is doing that at a fraction of the price."

Unisys, then, stands front and center among a short list of OEM's like HP, Compaq and NEC who are certified to offer Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. To join the elite group, you have to offer a robust enough hardware platform, a guarantee 99.9% availability, 24/7 support, on-site support, change management, and a minimum number of Microsoft Certified Professionals on call in the support center.

The bottom line: no finger-pointing between the software and hardware vendors. If the enterprise user has a problem, one call is all they should ever have to make to resolve it. Certified OEMs then are held 100% accountable for the system as a whole.Unisys, for example, places a heavy emphasis in support services to obtain maximize performance. A large group of support and implementation staff are available to walk users through the planning, prototyping and deployment of the ES7000 server. Customers can take advantage of a wide range of services such as setup and installation of Windows NT/2000, pre-installation analysis, hands-on sessions on the platform's system management applications, capacity planning, Active Directory planning, customer training, benchmark services and performance analysis.

Fewer Servers

While Mainframe and UNIX shops are not beating a path to their local Unisys dealer, the ES 7000/W2K Datacenter platform is gaining ground among existing Windows shops as an effective means of server consolidation. British Columbia, Canada-based Mark Anthony Group (the maker of Mike's Hard Lemonade), for example, saw its server population grow from two to 18 within a few months.

"Our support staff realized we needed to consolidate our servers to help sustain system manageability," said CIO Josie Bradley.

Mark Anthony Group implemented the Unisys ES7000/Microsoft Windows 2000 Datacenter Server combo resulting in fewer servers to manage, simplified systems management, server load balancing, and gaining the ability to add processors to the server as business grows.

"We wanted technology that offered mainframe stability, but in a client/server environment," said Bradley. "That's been difficult to find but it's finally arrived. We can run three critical applications in the same environment, plus assign processors to meet changing demands. We can also add more processors over time without doing a forklift upgrade."

Wait and See

Despite this vast upgrade to the Microsoft midrange arsenal, though, sales have not been easy to come by. With IT spending still tight, many appear to be waiting to see how the ES7000/Windows 2000 Datacenter performs for their more adventurous peers.

Analysts, too, are appreciative of its mainframe-like features but express caution overall.

"The Unisys ES7000 deserves is position, but users must still recognize that this is a young product addressing an equally immature market," said IDC analyst Martin Hingley.

It might be a year or too, then, before the world is ready to embrace big iron Windows.