Microsoft probes Unix territory

Microsoft Corp., making an unprecedented foray into Sun Microsystems Inc. territory, is scrambling to put together a Unix version of its messaging software after being shut out of the Army's strategic program for deploying commercial hardware and software to the battlefield.

The Army has chosen to base its Army Battle Command System (ABCS) on secure messaging software from Lotus Development Corp. running on Sun's Solaris, a Unix operating system, because of security concerns the Army has with Microsoft's Exchange messaging software and Windows NT operating system.

ABCS workstations provide the core computing platform for the Army's Force XXI initiative, which aims to field commercial networks, computers and other technology in the battlefield to enable soldiers to access information on troop location and strength, logistics support and other command and control data.

As a result of the Army's decision, Microsoft is working with a third company to develop a Unix client of Exchange to support the Defense Department's secure Defense Message System (DMS) program, said Mary Ellen O'Brien, director of DOD sales for Microsoft Federal.

Microsoft is concerned that the Army's choice of Lotus Notes for the battlefield would erode support for Exchange at Army posts, O'Brien said. "That's why we're addressing the issue," she said. O'Brien declined to identify the company developing the Unix client and did not say when Microsoft expected to field the product.

The Army decided to choose Lotus software over Exchange because security is such a concern in the battlefield, said Terry Edwards, director of the Force XXI Technical Integration Center at Fort Hood, Texas, where Force XXI systems are being developed and tested by the 4th Infantry Division, the Army's first "digitized division."

Because much of the message traffic in a digitized division will use wireless transmission, Edwards said, "security becomes a paramount issue." He said that the secure, DMS version of Lotus Notes running on Solaris "provides us with better security" than a Microsoft solution. He added that "Lotus Notes is a far more technically superior product."

Industry analysts see the development of a Unix/Exchange client as a big step for Microsoft.

"I think that Microsoft might finally be growing up," said Dan Kuznetsky, an analyst at International Data Corp. "They are realizing that if they want to be a good corporation, they have to be a good partner."

Microsoft's strategy is to get into the high-end, enterprise market. To do that the company has to be able to work with the software and hardware that already is in place, Kuznetsky said. "Microsoft, from a broader perspective, is facing a significant challenge to [its] approach," he said. "[Microsoft has] to start embracing solutions that are already in the environment."

The Army also has decided to go with the Solaris operating system despite choosing to switch some users to workstations based on Intel Corp. processors rather than the reduced instruction-set computer chips that usually run Sun workstations.

While the change in hardware could have dictated a switch to Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, Edwards told FCW in an interview at Fort Hood that the Army has decided to stick with Sun technology - specifically the Solaris x86 software designed to run on Intel platforms - for the same security reasons. "[Windows] NT cannot support our security requirements," he said.

The decision to go with Sun, even though Intel processors usually mean going with Windows NT, is not all that surprising, analysts said.

"Sun certainly has a long, successful track record of dealing in secure environments," Kuznetsky said. "If I was running a secure environment, I would be very concerned about the stories I've been seeing about security problems in [Microsoft's] Internet Explorer, Exchange and [Windows] NT."

Col. Robert Raiford, director of the Army's DMS program office, said, "The combination of Lotus with DMS [on] the Solaris operating system provides us with the best solutions for the ABCS tactical warfighter. This solution is optimized for the mobile users, enabling soldiers to easily receive and send high-security messages."

Edwards added that the Army's Force XXI project stands ready to evaluate and deploy competing products from Microsoft "if they can provide the capabilities we need."

Charles Cephas, a solutions architect for Microsoft Federal, said the company provides highly reliable security "out of the box.... Policywise, you have to make sure you configure it correctly."

Jere Caroll, manager of Army operations at Sun Federal, said, "This is a big deal.... It's a nose under [Microsoft's] tent."

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