Microsoft shifts gears
- By John x_Zyskowski
- Aug 28, 2000
Next month when manufacturers begin to sell powerful PC servers to run the
new Windows 2000 Datacenter Server software, the event will mark a significant
shift in the way Microsoft Corp. sells and supports its most sophisticated
If Microsoft and its hardware partners are successful, agencies that
need reliable, powerful computers will have a less expensive option. But
it may mean a trade-off in future product flexibility.
Microsoft will sell the Datacenter Server, the final piece of the Windows
2000 family, only through certified hardware manufacturers. To be certified,
manufacturers will use a Microsoft test plan to prove that the high-end
operating system runs properly on their products. The Datacenter Server
cannot be purchased separately: It will come pre-loaded on the certified
systems and priced as one unit.
But the control doesn't end there. Microsoft and its partners will also
have to certify other hardware and software that can run on the machine.
In the past, Microsoft sold its products through resellers and manufacturers
without trying to control customers' use of the products or making their
proper use a prerequisite of technical support. Now, they say the lack of
oversight had a negative impact on product performance.
"Windows NT [the predecessor to Windows 2000] got slammed for its reliability,"
said David Ouart, a consultant at Microsoft's government division in Washington,
D.C. "When we were building Windows 2000, Microsoft talked to lots of customers.
The customers who complained most about NT's reliability did things like
putting NT boxes under peoples' desks and had few controls over them.
"The customers who got the highest reliability treated their NT servers
like they were a Unix or data center box, with strict procedures for introducing
new parts or software."
In exchange for exerting more control over the environment in which
the software is used, Microsoft believes it can ensure that the system will
run 99 percent of the time. That commitment will be included in the sales
contract, said Microsoft spokesman Keith Hodson.
"The flexibility that everybody has had in the Wintel market has had
an impact on [system] availability," agreed Irv Epstein, vice president
of corporate alliances at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa. Unisys was recently
certified by Microsoft to sell the Datacenter Server with its e-@ction Enterprise
Server ES7000 systems. "The degree to which components are certified together
influences the degree to which you will have availability," Epstein said.
Prices for a fully configured ES7000 will range from $150,000 for an
eight-processor system up to about $850,000 for a 32-processor system. Epstein
said that price range is about one-third less than comparable Unix systems.
Unisys will certify a set of off-the-shelf applications for the platform,
from database systems to customer relations management packages. If customers
want to run their own custom-developed applications on the Datacenter Server,
Unisys may be able to certify the applications but would likely negotiate
separate support and system availability targets into the contract, Epstein
That kind of control may be necessary to deliver the availability that
the companies promise, but it calls for a degree of restrictiveness not
traditionally a part of the Windows PC market.
"There's a big downside to this, and that's flexibility to the customer,"
said Al Gillen, research manager for systems software at International Data
Corp. "You're not going to be able to mix and match parts the way you could
in the past."
For example, customers will not have the option of shopping around for
what they believe is the best network card, but will have to choose from
those that are certified. "There may be one, or maybe 10, but the fact of
the matter is there will be some subset of the broad set of parts available
for all Wintel systems."
That's a tradeoff that Epstein and Ouart say enterprise customers will
be willing to make for almost perfect system availability. Industry experts
note that buyers of proprietary systems have made similar compromises for
Epstein said customers are free to use third-party service providers
to support their Unisys ES7000. But by going with the certified hardware
manufacturers, customers can take advantage of a unique support structure.
For example, Epstein said, Unisys will support its ES7000 customers with
a help desk in Mission Viejo, Calif., staffed by Unisys and Microsoft employees.
The desk will have access to the Windows 2000 source code and can escalate
a call directly back to Microsoft's support center in Redmond, Wash.
"Because the software is certified to operate with a given set of hardware
and has been tested and verified, there are a lot fewer variables to chase
down if something doesn't work right," Gillen said.
Other hardware manufacturers certified in the Datacenter program include
Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM
Corp. Other participants include Amdahl Corp., Fujitsu Siemens Computers,
Hitachi Ltd., International Computers Ltd., NEC Computers Inc. and Stratus
No government agencies are known to have purchased a Datacenter Server-based
computer so far, but Epstein said many agencies are interested in the Unisys
solution, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Justice Department
and the Internal Revenue Service.