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Can Windows take on the enterprise back end?


Can Windows take on the enterprise back end?

By unveiling the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, Microsoft fired a shot across the bow of its UNIX competitors in the enterprise server market. But a question remains: Can you trust Microsoft to deliver continuous uptime to power your computing enterprise?

By Garry Kranz, contributor

A cynic would say that reliability and Microsoft are opposite concepts. The Redmond, Wash.-based software behemoth has endured its share of software glitches, blips and other availability/reliability issues related to versions of Windows 95 or Windows NT. So it was with some trepidation that IT managers regarded Microsoft's latest foray into the enterprise server market with the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server.


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Microsoft is touting Datacenter Server as its answer to UNIX in the big-iron data center market. "Microsoft is trying to establish its reliability (in the enterprise market) and in order to do that they need a product that establishes credibility," said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass. Enterprise customers need to decide if they are willing to take the risk to prove that the server can live up to its promises.

Building for scale
Datacenter Server is equipped to support up to 32 processors, an important feature in permitting scalability. Tom Bittman, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, said Datacenter provides "about 99.6% uptime" and could accommodate as many as 2,000 concurrent users accessing a database system.

Datacenter also supports up to 64 gigabytes of memory, enabling data-intensive applications (such as those running databases) to process information much quicker. Advanced clustering, along with dynamic load balancing and partitioning capacity, promise greater reliability and availability of data and applications. Should one server fail, for example, the remaining servers will automatically absorb the load and keep the system running.

DH Brown Associates, a research firm in Port Chester, N.Y., is high on Datacenter's ability to rival UNIX. "Windows 2000 clearly takes a major step up in the enterprise food chain and now resides legitimately on the same field as UNIX competitors," wrote Tony Iams, who authored a recent report on Datacenter Server. "Moreover, the business programs that Microsoft has put in place around Windows 2000 Datacenter Server will give broad classes of users the confidence to deploy high-end applications on its platform."

UNIX shops need not apply?
FreeMarkets, a Pittsburgh-based company that creates online markets for industrial parts, raw materials, commodities and services, is reporting success with the Windows-based environment. "After implementing the Microsoft Datacenter server, we are experiencing the reliability and scalability that we wanted to achieve. We are experiencing the 'five nines' availability that we wanted to achieve," said John Benzinger, vice president of information technology at FreeMarkets.

TIES, a Minnesota-based education outsourcing provider, is also migrating to a Windows-based environment by using Unisys's ES 7000 server to support key student information applications on Datacenter Server. Lee Whitcraft, co-executive director of TIES, said the primary motivation in shifting from a mainframe was reducing total cost of ownership.

Other observers, while acknowledging Datacenter's place in the enterprise market, are more restrained. The most likely adopters are companies already running a Windows 2000 computing environment. Despite the examples of FreeMarkets and TIES, the incentive isn't there for most mainframe and UNIX shops to migrate to Windows 2000. A 32-way Windows 2000 Datacenter Server running on an ES 7000 could cost about the same as a comparably sized UNIX box. It also requires a Windows-based skill set. "If you're a mainframe shop with mainframe practices in place, switching to Windows 2000 is a fairly large paradigm shift," said IDC's Gillen.

Gartner Group estimates only between 300 and 400 implementations of the Windows Datacenter Server will take place through 2001. By 2003, only about 2,500 instances of the server are expected. Microsoft's goal, say analysts, is to corral a handful of high-profile vendors to prove its ability.

Microsoft, OEMs hold hands
Many reliability and stability issues associated with Windows and Windows NT stemmed from hardware compatibility issues beyond Microsoft's control. In rolling out Datacenter, Microsoft seeks to avoid this by packaging hardware, software and support services together. Customers can't buy Datacenter Server in stores or even from Microsoft; only Microsoft-certified vendors, known as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), can install the application on qualified hardware. Joint support queues are established between Microsoft and each vendor.

Bittman said Datacenter Server attacks reliability and manageability issues on four key fronts: hardware compatibility, vigorous certification, joint support and services/products. "Datacenter is not just a technology but a program. What makes it different is the support services [being packaged] along with the platform and system integration. The OEMs are working with Microsoft to stop any finger-pointing," said Bittman.

Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology journalist in Richmond, Va. Contact him at

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