Sun Fed enters NT debate

When Scott McNealy, the president and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., first coined the phrase "The network is the computer" in 1987, only one application was available for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system, and Microsoft had not reached the $400 million mark in total revenue.

Today, Microsoft is several times the size of a $400 million company, and more and more people are coming to realize that what McNealy told them more than a decade ago is, in fact, reality. The explosion of the Internet and data communication technologies has ushered in an era of distributed client/server computing, bringing with it greater demands for stable, reliable and secure operating systems. Enter the Windows NT/Unix debate, with the relatively young Microsoft offering vying for business with the decades-old Unix operating system.

Until recently, Sun Federal Inc. had been noticeably absent from the Windows NT/Unix struggle that has been taking place in information systems shops across government. But Sun Federal is responding with a new focus and a new outlook on the Windows NT/Unix tug of war.

Sun Federal is focusing on peaceful coexistence between Unix and Windows NT, and it is attempting to educate government customers on the benefits of both platforms, particularly emphasizing those areas where Sun and the Solaris operating system make the most sense.

"I think the whole discussion [on whether Unix or NT is going to win] is irrelevant," said Mike Singer, manager of special projects for Sun Federal. "When the day comes that NT wins or Solaris wins, the customer loses."

According to Sun Federal officials, Windows NT is the right solution for certain things, such as file and print operations, but Sun Solaris and Sun workstation and server platforms are the right choice for many other operations, particularly for high-end servers. "The two [operating systems] need to come together in a truly heterogeneous environment," said John Leahy, director of government affairs for Sun Federal. However, "NT does not scale...[and] it's not ready for mission-critical applications," he added.

The issue of Windows NT's scalability and reliability has taken center stage in the great operating system debate. However, officials at Sun Federal said they see a clear distinction between the capabilities of the two operating systems in terms of their ability to support high-end, multiprocessing platforms.

"For many of our competitors, when they get up to the four-way [processor] machines, it's the operating system" that can't handle the load, said Anita Weber, Sun Federal's systems engineering manager. Sun's entry-level departmental and data center server line supports from eight to 30 processors, she said. Sun's high-end offerings can support up to 64 processors in a single chassis.

The 30-processor range and above "is an arena in which the Microsoft platform cannot play," Leahy said.

James Gruener, a senior analyst with Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based information technology research and consulting firm, agreed. "There are still a lot of issues surrounding the reliability and scalability of the NT environment," he said. "The move to NT is not happening in the database and mission-critical space yet."

The reason for Microsoft's absenteeism in the high-end, multiprocessor space has been Windows NT's inability to handle large-scale multithreading, or the process of being able to link multiple applications to different processors, Gruener said. "This is Microsoft's biggest problem right now, [and] Unix has been able to accomplish this through its inherent simplicity" for some time, he said.

One of the ways Sun Federal has captured the high-end server market has been through the introduction of its Starfire server line, which runs on Solaris and scales from 16 to 64 processors and offers more than 20 terabytes of storage space and 64 expansion slots, the company said.

The technology used in the Starfire came with Sun's 1996 acquisition of the Cray Business Systems Division of Cray Research Inc. The Starfire line is specifically designed to meet the needs of the government data center, said Joanne Heider, director of Sun Federal's High-Performance Computing Operations.

Starfire platforms have become popular among several government intelligence agencies, which are using the boxes for signal and image processing, Heider said. The boxes are also replacing IBM Corp. mainframe systems at the Defense Manpower Data Center.

While Sun claims Windows NT does not scale, "that's a traditional viewpoint but it does not reflect what is happening today" in the market, said Mitra Azizirad, director of technology for Microsoft's eastern region. When you start talking about systems that support more than 30 processors, "you're actually only talking about 1 [percent] to 2 percent of the market," he said.

Leading Sun Federal's charge in an expanding government market is a focus and commitment to providing "access to the [Internet for] anyone, from anywhere, at anytime, on anything," Leahy said.

New Flavor of Java

For Sun Federal officials, the future of open architectures and Web-based solutions is predicated on the future development of Java and Jini, a Java-based application code under R&D that will create network clients out of cell phones, smart cards, electronic wallets and potentially a billion other devices.

"Microsoft made the operating system the issue, [and] Java solved that issue," said Leahy. "We're about 85 percent there" when it comes to the Java Virtual Machine promise of "write once, run anywhere," Leahy said. "Jini will enable spontaneous networking of a wide variety of hardware devices and software. With Jini, a disk is not a peripheral to a computer, it is on the net."

In addition to general acceptance of Java by government agencies, Leahy pointed out that the Java runtime environment is now part of the Defense Department information infrastructure common operating environment, a standard computing environment for command and control applications defined by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

In addition, Sun Federal entered into a cooperative R&D agreement with the Navy to re-engineer the Joint Maritime Command Information System code using Java and successfully produced a cross-platform version of the software that relied on one-fifth the amount of code used in the original version.

"One of Java's greatest strengths is in its simplicity," said J. Steven Fritzenger, Sun Federal's senior Java technologist. However, "Jini takes the idea of Java from our traditional computer environments and pushes us into the embedded devices space."

During a recent demonstration at Sun Federal's offices, company officials showed Sun's solution for interoperability between Unix and Windows NT platforms. Using the SunLink PC tool, Sun technicians demonstrated transparent integration of Sun servers into a heterogeneous network environment. With SunLink PC, client machines can run anything including NetWare, MacOS, OS/2, Windows, Windows 95, Windows NT, Windows for Workgroups and even DOS.

"A heterogeneous network environment is not a problem" for Sun Unix-based servers, Leahy said. "What we are really talking about is choice. If you go down the Microsoft path, you are going down the path of no choice."

More importantly, Leahy said the decision in various places in government to move to Windows NT might be due in some degree to an increasing "threshold of pain" for dealing with Microsoft operating system failures and weaknesses. "But what do you do when failure is not an option?" Leahy asked.

Microsoft also is working to create more interoperability between the two operating systems. Microsoft in the fall will ship NT services for the Unix Add-on Pack for Windows NT 4.0 that will solve the Unix-NT interoperability issue, Azizirad said. It also will be incorporated into NT 5.0 when it ships next year.

"Interoperability is very much our mission," said Tim McCaffrey, Microsoft's federal engineering systems team manager. Our goal is to "reduce the risk of vendor lock-in."

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