Integration products bring Windows appls to Unix platforms
- By John Monroe
- Mar 03, 1996
Federal agencies that need togive users access to Unix and PC-based applications have a growing array of solutuions from which to choose. And many agencies are in the process of making their choices.
Options range from workstation-based software for single users to server-based solutions for workgroups. Each type of product has its own appeal—and limitations—in terms of performance, administration and other factors.
The market is well-defined: Unix workstation users who need occasional access to PC applications. Typically, such customers are technical workstation users who want nothing more sophisticated than a word processor or spreadsheet.
"These are somewhat niche solutions, but they are solutions to a very significant problem," said Tom Copeland, director of workstation research at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.
As a whole, PC/Unix integration solutions aim to give users 486-class performance on Microsoft Corp. Windows applications. Performance varies with the type of application, but even lower-range performance levels fit the needs of the occasional PC user, vendors said.
Federal agencies have been at the vanguard of PC/Unix integration, often acting as beta sites for new products. Products are cropping up in Defense and civilian agencies as well as on many federal contracts. PC emulation software from Insignia Solutions Inc., for example, is now available on seven contracts, including the Navy's Tactical Advanced Computer-4 through Hewlett-Packard Co. and the Defense Intelligence Agency's Systems Acquisition Support Services program through BTG Inc.
Wabi, an integration product from Sun Microsystems Inc.'s SunSoft Inc. subsidiary, has also made headway among agencies. The product comes bundled within SunSoft's Solaris operating system and other Unix operating systems. Because of these ties, the technology is quietly proliferating across the government market.
Several other vendors have made their entry in the last year. The Santa Cruz Operation Inc., HP, NCD Systems Corp. and Tektronix Inc. have attempted to address weaknesses in the earlier products in terms of performance and application compatibility. They also offer workgroup-based solutions designed to run on Microsoft's Windows NT—a lead Insignia and SunSoft have recently followed.
The plethora of products puts the burden on federal users to determine which solution fits their needs. For example, the Computing and Communications Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory considered both Sunsoft's Wabi and Tektronix's WinDD before settling on NCD's WinCenter Pro, which it first tried in beta version.
"[WinCenter] just seems to work right now," said Tom Schlagel, a programmer analyst at Brookhaven, citing performance and ease of management as critical factors.
However, other solutions may emerge as stronger options down the road as the application technology evolves, Schlagel said.
Wabi Sparks Market
The market for this integration technology really sprang to life just three years ago, when SunSoft introduced Wabi.
Wabi allows users to recompile Windows applications to run on SunSoft's Solaris as well as other Unix operating systems. HP, IBM Corp. and SCO each have licensed Wabi with their flavors of Unix.
SunSoft pitched Wabi as an alternative to early PC emulation products, which some users viewed as perpetual underachievers in terms of performance. Emulation technology runs DOS or Windows applications by re-creating much of the PC hardware environment in software and running that on top of Unix.
Wabi, in contrast, runs a portion of the Windows instruction set natively on the Unix workstation and directly translates Windows application programming interface calls into X service calls. This avoids the overhead associated with emulation, which can strain performance, particularly on low-end systems.
However, because Wabi does not run the full instruction set, it cannot run every application. SunSoft has certified about 24 applications as Wabi-compliant, including such popular office automation tools as Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite. SunSoft estimates these 24 applications cover about 80 percent of the most popular Windows products.
Other applications may or may not run, depending on their API sets. In particular, users who want to run home-grown applications can run into trouble. But support for custom applications is not the focus of Wabi, SunSoft noted.
"Wabi actually supports almost all Windows applications, but the importance to the customer remains the leading applications," said Andy Halford, director of engineering for PC desktop integration at SunSoft, Chelmsford, Mass.
Insignia Boosts Emulation
SunSoft resells Insignia's SoftWindows emulation package for users who need to run other applications. SoftWindows runs more applications than Wabi, but sometimes at slower speeds.
"We wanted to always allow a customer to simply go to the long aisle of PC software and decide which applications they wanted to run, and it would run on the platform of their choice," said Dick Heermance, director of corporate marketing at Insignia, Mountain View, Calif.
Performance has become less of an issue as Insignia's engineers have improved the efficiency of the company's software, according to Insignia. Where SoftWindows once needed 30 reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) instructions to one Intel Corp. x86 instruction, it now runs nearly one to one, said Heermance. Also, "we get boosts because the chips keep getting faster," he said.
SoftWindows is "a black box solution....so you can take your off-the-shelf software and make it run," IDC's Copeland said. It is ideal for the occasional user "[who] wants it to be hassle- free and easy to use," he said.
Although Wabi brought a lot of attention to the PC/Unix integration market, SoftWindows has an edge with many users, industry analysts said. "Access to a broad base of applications is very important [to Unix users]," said Greg Blatnik, an analyst with Zona Research, a Redwood City, Calif., research firm.
More recently, a slew of vendors have addressed performance and compatibility concerns by developing solutions that run Windows applications on a separate Intel server rather than on the Unix workstation.
By using Intel x86-based servers, these solutions do not take a performance hit from emulation, and they can run the whole spectrum of Windows applications. But more than that, server solutions are workgroup-oriented and thus allow organizations to increase performance simply by beefing up the server rather than the individual desktops. This approach makes the environment much easier to manage, analysts said.
Tektronix, Beaverton, Ore., made a big splash in late 1994 with WinDD, which allowed first X-terminals and then Unix workstations to access applications on a Microsoft Windows NT application server.
Tektronix's solution has two elements. First, the company licenses technology from Citrix Systems Inc. that turns a Windows NT platform into a multiuser server. Second, it offers client software that runs on the workstation to support its Internal Console Architecture compression protocol. ICA reduces the bandwidth requirements between the client and applications server by as much as 75 percent, the company said.
WinDD performance varies, depending on the processing power of the server and user demand, users said.
One WinDD customer is the Global Combat Support System (GCSS) shop at the U.S. Transportation Command. The group uses WinDD to provide 40 to 50 concurrent Unix workstation users with access to a custom-built, Windows-based decision support tool. The application runs on a quad-Pentium processor with 512M of RAM.
Having mostly Sun workstations, the group originally envisioned running its application on SunSoft's Wabi. But Wabi was not compatible with the custom application, said John Jorgensen, a project manager at the GCSS organization.
The group does use Wabi to run Microsoft Office software automation applications. But given the success it's had with WinDD, the organization is "actively considering moving the Windows NT server into a wider role," Jorgensen said.
The Computer Science and Mathematics Division at Oakridge National Laboratory, another Sun workstation shop, uses WinDD to support 10 to 15 concurrent users typically running data-intensive database or development applications, said E.M. Oblow, a senior research staff member at the lab.
The lab uses a 90 MHz Pentium computer from Dell Computer Corp. as its application server.
WinDD addressed the limitations of previous solutions, Blatnik said. "Tektronix started the ball rolling with WinDD, and they have continued to enhance it up to today, and it has a proven track record," he said.
Yet WinDD's use of a proprietary protocol—ICA—can be a drawback, according to industry observers and users. Some users report difficulty setting up and administering WinDD with its use of client and server software. Also, one federal user, measuring client performance, found the WinDD compression technology can drag down performance on the end-user system. Although the compression process reduces bandwidth requirements, it takes up time and systems resources.
Earlier this year, Tektronix addressed this issue by introducing a version of WinDD that uses the standard X protocol rather than ICA.
That is the approach NCD has taken with WinCenter Pro, another Windows NT server-based software package based on Citrix technology. WinCenter Pro, introduced last year, has been tested at several civilian agencies, including the Agriculture Department, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Users have found few problems getting WinCenter Pro software up and running and report excellent performance.
Hughes Technical Services uses WinCenter Pro to support staff working on NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System Core program. Running on a Windows NT server with four processors and 512M of RAM, WinCenter Pro supports nearly 50 people running office applications.
The only time performance becomes an issue is with Lotus Development Corp.'s cc:Mail, said Gilbert Smith, senior Unix systems administrator at Hughes. Unlike other applications, cc:Mail runs constantly, Smith said. Also, cc:Mail is a 16-bit application that requires extra memory because the 32-bit Windows NT runs it as a virtual process, Smith said.
In another twist, several other vendors have licensed technology from Locus Computing to run applications on Intel-based Unix servers rather than a Windows NT platform. Locus is a unit of Platinum Technology Inc., Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.
This approach—adopted by HP and SCO—does not require client software because it uses the standard X protocol. The use of an Intel/Unix server over a Windows NT server can be an advantage for a Unix-centric shop that does not want the management burden of an additional platform, observers said.
HP designed its HP 500 Application Server with management concerns in mind. This package takes Locus' Merge software running on a SCO OpenServer 5.0 platform and adds a variety of HP Unix systems administration tools.
Although the Application Server does not run on HP's own HP-UX operating system, the administration tools are designed to provide a similar look and feel to the HP-UX environment, said K.P. Chavda, marketing manager for HP's Panacom Automation Division, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Additionally, the Merge solution allows file and print sharing between Unix and Windows users because they access the same server, said Dennis Bordelon, marketing manager for Platinum Technology's Locus Laboratory.
At the moment, Merge software, based on 16-bit technology, does not fully support 32-bit applications. That support is expected later this year, and it will be sufficient for most corporate customers, according to HP's Chavda.
Since the emergence of these solutions, SunSoft and Insignia have followed with their own workgroup products. SunSoft introduced WabiServer, which can run on either its own RISC SPARC chip or any Pentium processor. Insignia signed an agreement with NCD to market WinCenter technology under the name NTrigue.
These moves are not surprising, analysts said. As the market for integration has developed, "there seems to be a workgroup orientation," Blatnik said.