Powell positions Sequent as new mainframe alternative

Casey Powell chairman and chief executive officer of Sequent Computer Systems Inc. sees a fairly well-defined market for his company.

In general Powell is positioning Sequent's high-end servers as a mainframe alternative. But that does not mean Sequent plans to go head-to-head with the mainframe vendors. Instead Powell simply wants his company to be the best alternative for organizations that choose to introduce new systems into the data center environment.

Sequent's strategy is something like the popular joke about two men in the woods who find themselves trying to run from a bear Powell said. One man stops to put on sneakers. "You fool!" the other man calls back. "Those shoes won't help you outrun a bear."I don't have to outrun the bear " the other man replied. "I only have to outrun you."

On the one hand Powell's strategy sounds conservative avoiding any predictions about the death of the mainframe. On the other hand Powell believes that Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT - which Sequent supports and is just now pushing out of the workgroup computing market - eventually will play a major role in the data center.

Banking on NUMA

One part of Sequent's strategy is technology which the company addresses with NUMA-Q a high-end server architecture that draws its processing power from large strings of Intel Corp. processors working in parallel. NUMA-Q runs either Unix or Microsoft's Windows NT or both on the same box.

The key to NUMA-Q is the Non-Uniform Memory Access architecture. This architecture - in which each processor uses its own memory but also can access the memory of other processors - scales higher than standard symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) systems but unlike massively parallel processing systems NUMA-Q can run standard applications without alteration.

But such technology is neither unique to Sequent nor Powell believes sufficient in itself. Sequent also has focused on the intangibles necessary to make NUMA-Q a viable solution for the data center Powell said.

"Glass House"

Historically Sequent developed SMP systems that targeted the midrange computing market which is a different proposition than selling into the data center Powell said. "The glass house has a different set of rules and different language " he said.

Over the last several years Sequent has been retooling itself for this new market. First and foremost the company had to build "intellectual capital." That is Sequent had to find people who knew how to sell and most important support high-end computers.

"We have made the investments in people who understand the market that is the polar opposite of the PC market " Powell said. These high-end systems have a very high technical complexity but very low volume while PCs are the inverse. With the PC "it doesn't matter who you buy it from you just plug it in and use it. Our business is just the opposite " he said. "The value proposition is very different."

According to Powell 30 percent of what the company sells is the platform with the remaining 70 percent being professional services. Sequent's federal organization has grown by about 50 percent since the beginning of last year said Dan Twomey manager of business development for Sequent's Federal Operations Division McLean Va.

However Sequent even with its portfolio of professional services cannot meet all its customers' requirements. Probably half of the services component will come from systems integration partners. In the federal market that includes such integrators as Electronic Data Systems Corp. Federal Data Corp. and SRA International Inc. Twomey said.

The Windows NT Question

Of course Sequent is not pushing into the data center with just another brand of mainframe. Instead the company is banking on the need for open-systems technology. The question is which operating system: Unix or Windows NT?

"You must today have a path to NT in the data center " Powell said.But Windows NT which Microsoft is still scaling up to run on large PC servers seems to customers a long way from being a factor in the data center Powell said.

"They can't see when it will happen...[or] how it will happen. They are not going to take a risk today that NT is the way to go " he said.

The problem is not that customers do not believe Windows NT has a role in the data center but that they cannot foresee how such a migration would happen Powell said.

Customers will not make that change straight from such data center stalwarts as Digital Equipment Corp.'s VMS or IBM Corp.'s MVS Powell said. Instead customers will migrate to Windows NT via Unix he said.

Sequent's strategy is to provide the path to Windows NT with NUMA-Q 2000. Because the Sequent platform gives customers the option of running either operating system or both they have the freedom to lay out their own gradual migration paths. Users might run a Unix application on one quad of microprocessors and run Windows NT applications on another quad porting applications from one to the other only when they are comfortable enough.

"In this environment their concern is not how great we can do it but how safely we can do it without anything going wrong " Powell said.

Any such migration will be a while in coming. But even the fact that Sequent can discuss the possibility is a major change from the days when Sequent first got into the server business in 1983 Powell said. At that time "if we had even breathed the name `IBM' or `mainframe ' nobody would have bought from us " Powell said.

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