How will Merced alter OS landscape?

Can Merced-powered Windows NT creep into high-end Unix space?

By Rebecca Sykes

July  1998
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Boston (July 6, 1998) -- The operating systems battle between Windows NT and various flavors of Unix will not be significantly altered by the introduction of Intel Corp.'s 64-bit chip Merced in mid-2000, according to a number of analysts.

Microsoft Corp. is working to make its Windows NT operating system run on Intel's 64-bit chip, and most Unix vendors have pledged that their Unix operating systems, some of which have run for several years on their own proprietary 64-bit chips, will work on Merced as well.

But Windows NT powered by 64-bit Merced will not necessarily give Windows the muscle it needs to jump from its stronghold on desktops and departmental servers into Unix's traditional space at the high-end, analysts said. In fact, Merced may instead give the Unix operating system a slight boost over Windows, because Merced will bring to Unix the lower-cost benefits of a commodity, standard industry hardware architecture, they said.

"It really does level the playing field for Unix on the volume and economies of scale side," said Laurie McCabe, an analyst with Summit Strategies Inc. in Boston.

If Unix on Merced gives mainstream computer makers a push to install the Unix operating system on their PCs, Unix vendors can enter the mass market in a way they have not done before, analysts said.

"It brings the commodity world to Unix," said Jon Oltsik, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, MA. "The benefit to Unix is that the acquisition cost/price differentiation really goes away."

For some Unix vendors, part of that lower cost will be discontinuing the manufacture of their own proprietary 64-bit chips.

"It should lower the cost for Unix vendors who choose to go with Intel because they won't have to continue developing their own proprietary platform to run Unix on," McCabe said. For example, Hewlett-Packard Co., Merced's co-developer, has announced that it will transition over users of its 64-bit Unix-based PA-RISC platform beginning in 1999, she said.

But Unix on Merced will not knock Windows off the desktop. Unix will still cost a bit more and be more complex to manage for some time, analysts said.

Nor will Windows NT on Merced necessarily gain the strength it needs to wedge into Unix's high-end space, analysts said. Compared with Unix, NT on Merced will likely continue to have issues of reliability, scalability and security, even as NT continues to nip at the bottom of the Unix market, Oltsik said.

In fact, Merced may simply help the two operating systems do better in their own respective niches -- Windows NT on desktops and departmental servers and Unix in the high-end, mission-critical area, analysts said.

For many IS managers, that ongoing operating system duopoly will necessitate the continued management of multiple operating systems, both Windows and Unix.

"It's not going to be which one will survive. It's which one will operate most efficiently in which part of the enterprise," said John Young, vice president of enterprise systems planning at the Clipper Group Inc. in Wellesley, MA.

And that may make the chip's maker, Intel, the real winner on Merced. At PC Expo several weeks ago, Intel's Ron Curry underscored that both Unix and Windows are important to the company.

"Our OEMs have asked us to support both and we're making every effort to make sure that happens," said Curry, who is Intel's director of marketing of microprocessor products. "We have the premier companies in the industry debating whose environment is best on our processor."

Even Sun Microsystems is warming up to Intel, announcing late last year that it would adapt its Unix-based Solaris operating system to Merced. Only IBM Corp. has been mum on Merced, declining to specify its plans for adapting its 64-bit Unix-based AIX operating system, which it shipped in October. A source close to the company said that IBM was placing its 64-bit bets on AIX running on its own PowerPC chips.

Sun's symbolic smile at Intel underscores that the status quo in many shops -- Windows NT co-existing with one of the various flavors of Unix -- will not change any time soon. In fact, Compaq Computer Corp., which recently acquired Digital Equipment Corp. and its Unix operating system aims to have "the most NT-friendly Unix," according to John Rose, general manager of Compaq's enterprise computing group.

IS managers are in tune to the co-existence of the two operating systems and their likely continued presence in their shops. When Forrester Research asked 50 Fortune 1,000 IT managers what their strategic direction for servers was, 76 percent said they will continue to buy both NT and Unix, Forrester's Oltsik said. The rest said that they would move to NT on the high end once it passes muster, but for now they would stick with Unix at the high end and NT at the low end, he said.

The data was gathered more than a year ago, but Oltsik said that anecdotally there appears to be no shift away from its findings.

"I have not run into a single customer who was saying, `what's my server strategy, given that Merced is due?'," Oltsik said. "The vast majority say `Unix and NT forever'."

--Rebecca Sykes is a correspondent with the IDG News Service


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