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Fact or fiction? The all-Windows data center

The all-Windows data center: Financial and cultural issues prevent Microsoft from making major data center inroads.

The all-Windows data center: Just a few short years ago, the notion of an all-Windows data center in a company of any size would have seemed absurd to all but perhaps the most Microsoft-centric shops. But then Microsoft delivered the Windows Datacenter Server in September 2000, and that changed everything -- at least from a technology perspective.

With the ability to scale up to 32 processors, Windows Datacenter offers features previously found in only the most heavy-duty operating systems. It supports up to 32G bytes of physical memory and offers failover support for hardware redundancy. It has the ability to dynamically allocate server resources for applications and processes based on specific service-level requirements, and it allows for remote server management from any desktop, among other functions.

In addition, Windows Datacenter is sold and implemented much like other high-end platforms: through partners that configure hardware, operating systems and applications to suit specific customers' needs. Although Unisys Corp. has been the primary hardware vendor thus far, with its ES7000 mainframes running Datacenter, IBM Corp. has recently signed up to offer the operating system on its xSeries 440 16-way machines.

This move is sure to broaden Datacenter's appeal, says Tom Bittman, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. There are currently about 400 Datacenter licenses in production environments at customer shops, he says. Additionally, other customers are trying out the product in a more limited fashion, and there are copies of Datacenter being used by software vendors and other Microsoft partners to test their own products.

Most customers are using Datacenter as a means of consolidating smaller Windows servers used for Exchange, Web or other applications, Bittman says. Typically, organizations are not using Datacenter as their only operating environment.

Microsoft, which through a spokesman declined to be interviewed for this story, lists several Datacenter customer case studies on its Web site. Among the organizations featured are Credit Suisse First Boston and the city of Minneapolis, among a few others.

In Minneapolis, the plan is to eventually go to an all-Windows environment, says Jason Powell, director of architecture in the IT group. That won't happen for at least four or five years because of financial constraints and a lack of applications, he says. But the idea is to eventually replace the city's AIX servers with Windows servers. One big driver is that the cost of administration is lower in the Windows environment than with AIX.

Currently, Powell says, the city has consolidated about eight database servers onto Advanced Server. The project is about halfway done, with another eight to 10 servers left to go. Although it's taken longer than expected, the pace has to do with manpower issues, not any technical problems, he says.

"We have a modest operations staff, and their primary job is to satisfy our production environment," Powell says. "The consolidation project is secondary." Plus, the staff has taken its time to ensure that there are no contention and performance problems.

Overall, though, Windows in the data center has been growing slowly. In a recent survey conducted by the Yankee Group, only 2% of 5,000 customers contacted said they use the platform. In comparison, 24% said they use Windows Advanced Server, which supports eight processors. Fifty-seven percent said they use the lowest-end Windows server.

One reason behind Windows' slow growth in the data center has to do with finances, and another is cultural. "Microsoft hasn't played in the data center," says Laura DiDio, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group. "At the high end, Unix is entrenched and isn't going away. Microsoft has a lot of proving to do here."

Gartner's Bittman agrees. "There's an enterprise reluctance to replace what's already working," he says. With the largest platforms, there's an existing infrastructure and skill set already in place, and "there's not a willingness to change the architecture unless there's a driving reason." Although many IT workers understand the Windows Server platform, another set of skills is required to grasp Datacenter, with all its high-end processes, Bittman explains.

Another problem is financial. A fully loaded Datacenter platform costs about as much as a comparable Sun environment, Bittman says. And especially today, given the economic environment, "the mood in IT is very cautious," DiDio explains. "Most enterprises can't come up with any compelling reason to switch."

A third issue has to do with the lack of third-party software support for Datacenter. "The applications didn't materialize," DiDio says. Because there was little demand by customers, software vendors didn't see the need to do the development work needed to port their software.

All that said, Microsoft will continue to add features and functions to Datacenter, analysts say. Support for 64-bit applications is coming, as is more integrated support for the .NET framework and Microsoft's Common Language Runtime environment.

Although Bittman expects to see more room for Windows in the data center, he expects it will be slow going. "Customers are really waiting to see," Bittman says. "They want to see someone else doing it first."

For her part, DiDio is less optimistic. "Unless something really radical happens, I don't see Windows having any real role in the data center anytime soon," she says.

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