Unix vendors tackle NT integration
Sun, however, appears to be dragging its feet
The time has come for Unix vendors to contend with Microsoft's Windows NT Server. Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and IBM all have plans in the works to facilitate Unix and NT integration. So where does Sun stand in this flurry of activity? (2,000 words)
After nearly two years of speculation regarding when Microsoft's Windows NT Server would be ready for prime time, the market is beginning to speak. Microsoft's large installed base of Windows desktops, which fuels the firm's marketing prowess, sustained NT through its early shortcomings. Commercial users now appear willing to give it a whirl. For enterprise-wide networks, that begs the question of how far Unix vendors and third parties are willing to go to compensate for Microsoft's well-established penchant for ignoring industry standards.
"We are beginning to see an explosion of NT servers in large corporations," said Jean Bozman, International Data Corp.'s research manager for the Unix and Server Operating Environments group. According to IDC numbers, 393,000 Windows NT Server licenses were purchased in 1995, and Bozman projects 720,000 licenses will be purchased in 1996 (see chart below). She says the 1996 number is a conservative estimate, and market performance may exceed expectations.
Just how far NT has come? Well, even Apple Computer is ready to climb on board. Senior Apple officials confirmed the firm's Servers and Alternative Platforms division, created by CEO Gil Amelio, is looking to supplement its new server line with an NT offering. The division's first three machines debuted in February using IBM's AIX operating system on PowerPC-based machines.
Stan Tims, group marketing manager for Motorola's PowerPC RISC microprocessor division, says Motorola and Apple have been collaborating on a couple of server alternatives including an NT Server design.
"Until this recent growth spurt, I don't think a lot of people were concerned with Unix and NT Server integration," Bozman said. "Now some real interoperability issues are just beginning to hit home."
Digital and Hewlett-Packard have jumped on the issue early and are trying to carve out a competitive advantage over "some vendors" they describe as religiously committed to a Unix-only strategy. IBM plans are less specific, but it too is touting efforts to make AIX plug-n-play better with Windows NT Server.
The intended target for their barbs is clearly Sun Microsystems. Asked what vendor other than Sun they were alluding to as a Unix zealot, these firms' spokespersons were at a loss.
In many respects, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM have established a lead in marketing communications, not network integration of Unix and NT servers. The status of NT integration with Unix is in its infancy, Bozman said, as Unix vendors, independent software vendors (ISVs), and resellers, now realize large environments will mix and match Unix and NT servers for several years to come. The market is just beginning to hear about the first wave of efforts to glue the two environments together in a more cohesive fashion, Bozman said.
HP leads the pack
HP is making the clearest case toward this cohesiveness, according to Bozman. It revealed at a recent analysts meeting that it is porting OpenView Network Node Manger, part of the firm's network and system management infrastructure, to run natively on Windows NT Server. New Novell and Windows NT-based Open agents were also announced. Those elements should make it far easier to monitor and manage NT servers on corporate networks.
OpenView extensions are just a small portion of what HP calls its IT Collaboration Suite. According to John Verrochi, product manager for HP-UX, the suite of tools will help "bridge the gap between NT and Unix in very meaningful ways," and should reduce the complexity and cost of ownership in the process.
The IT Collaboration Suite provides six important categories of functionality: system management (including configuration and problem management, software distribution, and asset control), messaging and groupware, distributed application access, security services, directory services, and enterprise networking.
HP's electronic messaging system, OpenMail, facilitates person-to-person and interapplication communication within heterogeneous environments. OpenMail can be installed on a range of operating systems including different Unix versions as well as Windows NT. In addition, OpenMail will expand the list of supported clients, including the support of Microsoft's Exchange client and Netscape's Navigator.
HP also has object technology that simplifies Unix/NT integration. The company will mesh different object models across operating systems for Unix, NT, and Windows 95. In the Windows world, Microsoft has chosen OLE/COM, while in the Unix world, Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) is standard. The current release of HP ORB Plus 2.0 delivers access to CORBA objects on Unix and NT to OLE users on NT. HP promises additional announcements by the end of the year that will bring CORBA and OLE/COM even closer together.
HP's security strategy includes its new HP Praesidium Authorization Server that supports the various Windows operating systems, as well as HP-UX on the desktop and Windows NT and HP-UX on the server.
The number of NOS -- Network Operating Systems -- supported by HP-UX were expanded to include Advanced Server/9000 for interoperability with NT server environments. It enables HP-UX servers to be part of an NT domain, delivering file and print, user administration, and other desktop management capabilities.
"There is little doubt that NT was initially embraced more by the press than by corporate users," Verrochi said, "and some users are still scratching their heads over NT's extremely limited scalability." That said, Verrochi indicated that millions of Windows desktops makes the interface very attractive to IT users who are more familiar with Microsoft's proprietary ways than with Unix servers and the variability that persists in the open standards process.
Microsoft's old buddy
Like HP, Digital is now evangelical in its zeal for Unix and NT integration and has been promoting its early commitment to that proposition.
"A lot of people are now having to rethink their position on the need to integrate Unix and NT," said Patrick Smyth, director of marketing for Digital's Unix Business segment. "We were out there early with a relationship with Microsoft and are in good shape. The vendors that used to say, `Over my dead body' have come to see Digital was right."
Digital staked out a leading role among Unix vendors by inking an agreement with Microsoft to develop clustering technology for NT Server. Even staunch backers of NT concede that lack of clustering support and poor scalability are among the OS's biggest shortcomings. The Digital-Microsoft partnership, therefore, positioned the company in a leading role.
The original agreement called for Microsoft to use code developed by Digital to implement Windows NT Server clustering, but things have not worked out as planned. Other vendors, including HP, did not want to be the odd man out of the deal, so Microsoft announced it would develop its own NT clustering code, called Wolfpack. While Digital can promise technology six to 12 months sooner than Microsoft, it must also promise that Digital Clusters for Windows NT will be compatible with whatever Microsoft's ships as Wolfpack.
In spite of the collapse of the clustering technology collaboration, Digital still remains an aggressive vendor of Windows NT, selling it on both Intel PCs and Alpha-based systems. Ports of NT to Alpha, help in moving Unix and NT applications to Windows NT on Alpha, and an aggressive program to assist VAX/VMS customers with NT integration gives Digital a great deal of credibility with customers on the Unix and NT front, Smyth said.
In contrast to HP and Digital, IBM has its own PC operating system in OS/2 and doesn't mind pointing out NT Server's faults. In spite of Microsoft's marketing steamroller, NT is well behind Unix generally, and AIX specifically when it comes to open client/server standards and scalability, said Robert Henson, manager for worldwide AIX marketing at IBM. In fact Henson says he does not see any functional superiority in Windows NT Server when compared with AIX.
Regardless of Henson's evaluation of NT Server's capabilities, the market reality, he concedes, is that a fair number of NT desktops and small servers will be brought into many large enterprise networks, and IBM will "enthusiastically" do what is necessary to support them. IBM's RS/6000 division is even planning a version of Windows NT for its smaller servers and desktops.
In the area of system and network management, IBM's is still in the process of merging Tivoli's technology with its NetView and SystemView components, and specific plans are in the works to support NT Server in that process.
And Sun stands alone
So given the lay of the land, are Sun Microsystems and SunSoft truly lagging behind their competitors in Windows NT Server support? And what about persistent rumors of a Windows NT port for SPARC workstations?
"Sun has not said very much about how it plans to deal with the NT Server phenomena," IDC's Bozman said. "Perhaps they will embrace NT servers the way they decided to embrace PC desktops a year or so ago. If the network is the computer," says Bozman, "then they better expect NT servers to be part of that."
The one thing Sun does not plan to do is sell or support a Windows NT port on SPARC hardware, according to a spokesperson for Sun Microelectronics, the division of Sun that would recruit alternative operating systems for SPARC-based computers. SME is not working with anyone at this time and has no plans to do so.
There is no doubt Sun needs to do a better job informing people about its plans to support NT, said Brian Croll, director of marketing for Solaris server products at SunSoft. But that doesn't mean that Sun is ignoring the issue.
"Every system vendor is going to have to gracefully handle NT desktops and servers. We are very committed to doing this at Sun," Croll said.
And while open system vendors have to step up to the plate and get the job done, he said, it should be noted that Microsoft seems to have done what it could to make life more difficult for users -- pushing LAN Manager rather than NFS, insisting on their own naming scheme, and sticking with OLE when the rest of the computing world embraced CORBA.
"It would be one thing if these technologies were better, but they are not. They are simply different. And that makes life rougher for everyone," Croll said.
Sun may not be taking special steps to support NT because the basic services required for printing and file sharing are already bundled within Solaris. Croll concedes, however, that SunSoft probably does need to improve the convenience with which these items are installed, configured, and managed.
Above the NFS and TCP/IP layer, SunSoft has looked to joint efforts, like the Object Management Group, to define generally accepted methods of interoperability between heterogeneous servers and desktops. Sun has energetically participated in the process and will continue to do so, Croll said.
Sun's real investments in enterprise networking and management are focused on leapfrogging current technology in favor of Java-based Internet and intranet strategies. Declaring a "new age of system and network management", as SunSoft did when it announced Solstice Workshop in late May, is certainly going a bit too far, but Java-based management APIs and browser-based user interfaces will enable a much higher degree of platform independence than the computing industry has seen to date.
Among the partners signed on to support Solstice Workshop are many of the leading networking and network management vendors, including Cisco Systems, Tivoli Systems, Computer Associates, and 3Com Corporation.
A production version of Solstice Workshop is due out this fall, and it will take about six months for applets to begin appearing.
In the mean time, Edison, NJ-based UniPress Software is gearing up to eliminate one NT integration shortcoming of Solaris, in comparison to HP-UX, AIX, and Digital's Unix. Under contract with Microsoft and AT&T, UniPress developed LAN Manager for Unix and the NT Advanced Server for Unix (ASU). DEC, IBM, and HP have licensed the technology, but Sun did not, said UniPress President Mark Krieger.
UniPress released its own version of LAN Manger for Solaris and also plans to release a Solaris version of ASU. UniPress lobbied for Sun to adopt the package and make it available under Sun's name, but with little success, Krieger said. So UniPress will release it on its own towards the end of the summer.
The state of Solaris and NT integration, from Krieger's perspective is fairly good for users who are happy and experienced with doing things the way Sun expects with PC-NFS and TCP/IP. This is problematic for people more familiar with Microsoft technology than with Sun products.
ASU completes what LAN Manager for Unix started, said Krieger, which is supplying a large set of Unix daemons that know how to speak NT protocols. ASU can, for instance, be configured as a primary or backup domain controller. Among other NT and Windows protocols, ASU supports NetBIOS over TCP/IP and SMB (Server Message Block) for file and resource sharing and printing.
Sun currently offers most of the LAN Manager for Unix protocols -- ported by Syntax (Federal Way, WA) -- as part of its SolarNet package.
As users face Windows NT Server and Unix integration issues, it is important for them to clearly define the level of interoperability they require for particular applications. Although interoperability may demand more work than users would like, it can certainly be accomplished. Basic networking has been established. Varying degrees of distributed network management can bridge the two environments. And specific applications, such as database driven applications, can be enabled by software applications supplied by that particular vendor.
While Unix system vendors clarify the specifics of their integration solutions and become more concrete in their time tables, users need to make sure they do not count on magical breakthroughs. Unix and Windows NT Server are fundamentally different beasts. Demanding an artificially high-level of interoperability between the two, when better options exist, is for now an unrealistic expectation.
About the author
Barry D. Bowen is an industry analyst and writer with the Bowen Group Inc., based in Bellingham, WA. Reach Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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