Datacenter Server: A Windows You Can Trust?

Windows 2000 Datacenter Server must overcome the Windows legacy of reliability issues before it can gain acceptance in the enterprise data center.

Oh-oh. You just cut over the accounting system in the data center and something's wrong. Accounting can't process payroll. It's been three days. Then you tell the executive vice president, who just rebooted his Windows 98 laptop for the third time today, that you've cut over to Windows 2000 DataCenter Server and his face turns crimson. "You've trusted our corporate data to Windows?" he bellows. "You're fired!"

Surely, most IT managers would never allow a migration project to get to this point. And to be fair, users of both Windows 2000 Server and Datacenter Server report solid reliability, breaking with Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's history of promising more and delivering less in this area. But in the data center, where merely being good enough doesn't cut it, the thought of running mission-critical back-end applications on a Windows platform may be enough to make some IT managers break out in a cold sweat -- particularly those who already have stable back-end systems in place. "If you're printing out the paychecks, it's not acceptable to say, 'Oh, we know about that problem, and it should be in the next service pack, which should be available six months from now,' " says Dan Kuznetsky, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

For better or worse, Windows' image has been built on a legacy of reliability issues. "Microsoft does have a reputation for putting the 80% solution out on the market as quickly as they can. I think that's something that they have to live with and deal with in the tech community," says Tony Bernard, director of technical architecture at Freemarkets Inc. in Pittsburgh.

Bernard, who is moving a database to Datacenter Server, says, "We're experiencing all the availability that was promised so far." But he's migrating a SQL Server database from Windows NT -- a clear win. "Windows 2000 is better than Windows NT 4, so we're moving in that direction," he says.

For established enterprise back-end systems, it's a different matter. "I'd be quite surprised if it made sense to do that," says Mike Giresi, director of telecommunications and desktop services at Camden, N.J.-based Campbell Soup Co., when asked about replacing his back-end Unix systems with Datacenter Server. Giresi isn't about to uproot a stable, running system without a compelling business case to do so. And he's not likely to consider Datacenter Server unless it's proven to be absolutely reliable.

Microsoft faces the task of building trust in the nascent enterprise platform. The stakes are high. "If they have problems, [Datacenter Server] will be set back in the data center, maybe even for a decade," says Kuznetsky. "Reliability, scalability, interoperability and availability are of the utmost importance. Microsoft has some challenges there." But, he says, "a major component of that is perception, not reality. They have to overcome the perception of this being Windows NT."

Microsoft has gone to extra lengths to change that perception. In addition to the reliability features built into the core architecture of the product, Microsoft has allowed only a select list of vendors to install the operating system on a small number of certified systems in order to avoid installation problems that might sour users on Datacenter Server. And a business case certainly can be developed for Datacenter Server. "If you look at the operating cost, you'll find that a Windows [2000 Datacenter Server] cluster from Compaq can do about 270,000 transactions per minute for about half the cost of a Unix-based system," says Joe Clabbe, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc.

Nonetheless, most users' biggest concern remains reliability, Clabbe says. Even Microsoft acknowledges that users have reliability concerns. But Peter Conway, director of enterprise servers at Microsoft, says, "The concerns are generally founded on their previous experiences with, frankly, Windows 95 and early versions of Windows NT. We need to separate concerns about [Windows 2000] versus concerns of reliability around the Microsoft platform." The Windows 2000 platform, Conway emphasizes, is "rock solid."

Whether IT managers believe that or not, one thing is clear: IT managers aren't going to implement Datacenter Server on mission-critical systems until they're satisfied that those systems will be bulletproof. And it's going to take time and experience with Datacenter Server before IT managers -- and their top management -- can equate this version of Windows with the reliability demanded by data center applications.

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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