DOD foresees migration to Windows NT
- By John Monroe
- May 11, 1997
Four years after its introduction Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system appears poised to sweep Unix off the vast majority of Defense Department desktops according to high-level DOD officials.
DOD has long been a stronghold for Unix technology because of its ability to run high-performance applications and to host large networked environments.
But speaking at the DOD Software Technology Conference earlier this month Rear Adm. John Gauss director of the Defense Information Systems Agency's Joint Interoperability Engineering Organization outlined a strategy for weaning the department off the Unix environment first migrating end-user systems then servers to Windows NT.
"My goal is to try to influence the Defense Department to get out of the Unix business entirely " Gauss said. Gauss' statement - along with earlier indications of the growing influence of Windows NT - has raised concerns among DOD and industry observers about the potential loss of competition if the department standardizes on an operating system owned by a single vendor.
However the momentum behind Windows NT continues to grow. Several DOD officials from the individual services speaking at the conference or last week by telephone confirmed that Windows NT likely would become the predominant system in the next several years displacing Unix from most application areas except as a high-end server or very high-performance platform.
The strongest message came from Gauss whose organization at DISA is responsible for overseeing development of the Defense Information Infrastructure (DII) Common Operating Environment the evolving set of commercial hardware and software that makes up DOD's standard computing environment. COE will serve as the base platform for the Global Command and Control System and the Global Combat Support System (GCSS) DOD's tactical and mission-support applications.
COE at its inception was based primarily on Unix and Unix-related technology.
However over the next several versions of the standard beginning with Version 3 due out this summer DISA gradually will shift the focus from Unix to Windows NT first on the desktop and then throughout the enterprise.
By Version 6 expected to be delivered in the next several years "I hope to achieve Unix fading out of the picture entirely " Gauss said.
Pete Hayes general manager of Microsoft Federal said the company sees DOD users shifting focus from Unix to Windows NT. Hayes declined to guess how long it would take for Windows NT to become the dominant platform. However he said "We think it is going to happen...but we don't think it is an overnight thing."
A Brewing Battle
The battle between the two operating systems has been brewing since Microsoft introduced Windows NT four years ago to expand its reach from standard PC desktops into the workstation and server markets.
Microsoft made Windows NT a credible bid in the federal market by supporting Posix the industry-standard interface between an application and the Unix operating system. Ideally an application written for a Posix-based operating system from one vendor will run on Posix-based platforms from any other vendor.
Support for Posix has allowed Microsoft to bid Windows NT for what traditionally would be Unix-based solutions even though Unix vendors have harshly criticized Microsoft's support for Posix as being quite limited.
However Gauss in expressing his preference for Windows NT took the Unix vendors to task because they each have built so many extensions to the basic Unix operating system that application portability is limited. Unix vendors "will not come to terms and make Posix an open standard " Gauss said.
Other DOD officials echoed Gauss' concerns. The concept of COE arose because as information technology has come to play such a major role in DOD service commanders have become more aware of the problem with a lack of interoperability between systems. The services also point out the dramatic cost savings that can be accrued by fielding mostly Windows NT.
Ken Heitkamp technical director at the Air Force Standard Systems Group cited interoperability as a primary concern.
With DII "we are trying to put in place a software environment in which the applications we either buy or build can peacefully coexist in a joint environment " Heitkamp said. "We need to be able to take Air Force applications and let them coexist and interoperate with the Army Navy and Marine applications. Windows NT provides that peaceful coexistence."
The Air Force plans to use Windows NT as the primary client system for the service's GCSS systems. Unix systems still will play a role as large centralized servers running in one of DISA's Defense megacenters Heitkamp said.
However "there will be instances to put servers both at the base level and in a deployed environment. Therefore we must have servers that are deployable. In that environment I see Windows NT [being] used as the predominant operating system " he said.
The Marines are moving away from costly Unix workstations primarily because of cost concerns. A Marine working group recently crafted a new IT procurement strategy that will focus on desktop computers costing about $2 500 as the primary client platform according to Col. David Chadwick the Marines' deputy chief information officer describing the strategy at the DOD Software Technology Conference.
Such a strategy will involve buying desktops based on the Intel processor which runs most PCs rather than the reduced instruction-set computer chip used in most Unix workstations. Buying lower-cost desktop systems will allow the Marines to buy larger volumes of computers or to buy much-needed services Chadwick noted.
Anthony Battista fielding team leader at the Army's Small Computer Program office said the Army still plans to support both environments. "Whenever we go out with a requirements survey [before a procurement] there are still a number of people who are Unix-based and want to continue along that line " Battista said.
The Army has conducted only one procurement focused primarily on Unix - Army Workstation-1 - but that program also included the option for vendors to bid an alternate operating system which most vendors interpreted as meaning Windows NT. The Army subsequently canceled the contracts because of protests. Perhaps the most dramatic proposal came from Navy computer users out in the fleet as part of the Information Technology for the 21st Century initiative.
IT-21 aims to create a seamless Navy computing environment stretching from a ship to shore operations. As conceived by Adm. Archie Clemins commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet and endorsed by the Atlantic Fleet end users of IT-21 primarily would use Windows NT workstations running a suite of Microsoft messaging and office automation applications. News of the initiative angered several vendors - among them reportedly Novell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.
Some observers saw the Navy taking a first step toward IT-21 last month when it awarded a blanket purchase agreement to Digital Equipment Corp. to develop a Windows NT-based version of the Joint Maritime Command Information System the Navy's and the Marines' primary command-and-control application.
A Note of Caution
While the overarching concept has been endorsed by the Pentagon a note of caution about strategy specifics has been sounded by Marvin Langston assistant secretary of the Navy for command control communications computers and intelligence electronic warfare and space programs.
Although such a homogeneous environment clearly offers superior interoperability the lack of competition creates its own risks according to Langston. Selecting one vendor whose products are not fully interoperable with other vendors' products effectively means giving up on whatever innovations come out of other corners of the market. "It is not good business for the government to be in the business of locking itself into one vendor " Langston said. "We have to have a broader portfolio."
And DOD may migrate many applications to Windows NT Langston said. "We are going to have a heterogeneous environment for many years to come no matter what."
Some industry vendors and DOD personnel continue to express concerns about the viability of Windows NT as a standard platform particularly as an enterprise server. Not only do Windows NT servers not scale as large as Unix-based servers but the Microsoft platform still lacks the management tools available on Unix several sources said. Some observers said DOD is betting that Microsoft and its partners will address many of the weaknesses that currently plague Windows NT. That kind of assumption does not strike some people as a good one.
Heitkamp for example said he still has concerns about the scalability of Windows NT even though he knows Microsoft and other industry vendors have taken on that issue. "That is why we will continue to use a combination of Unix and NT environments " he said.
Sun and other vendors have said DOD should avoid standardizing on a platform that is owned and controlled by one vendor. John Leahy Sun's group manager of government affairs and public relations noted that Microsoft continues to have problems with its efforts to boost Windows NT scalability particularly in the area of clustering. "If you are tied to a single source you rise and fall with them " Leahy said.
"It is a long-proven fact that competition produces the best products at the best price for the end user " he said. In that regard "the disadvantages of standardizing [on a single-vendor platform] far exceed any advantages you might accrue " he said.
Gauss however believes the change is coming starting with the desktop. "My crystal ball says all platforms on people's desks will be Windows NT by the end of the century."