March 1, 2002

Sun tempts NT administrators to Cobalt and Linux, but will they bite?

Author: JT Smith

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

Back in December 2001, Microsoft finally laid out its plans to retire NT Server. By July 2002, NT will no longer be available from most channels and support will be seriously curtailed on January 1, 2003. That gave the newly born again Linux vendor Sun an idea: sell Cobalt RaQ and Qube servers at a 20% discount to NT license holders. In short, Sun is tempting customers away from Microsoft's upgrade path of Windows 2000 Server and the forthcoming .NET server to low-end Linux boxes.

Peder Ulander, director of marketing for Sun's Cobalt division, sells the idea saying, "In addition to offering a cost-effective, easy-to-use alternative to Windows NT Server, Sun Cobalt server appliances provide the continuous uptime and rock-solid protection that every organization needs to remain profitable in today's competitive e-business marketplace."

Cost effectiveness is the key. Many NT administrators have not made the jump to W2K no matter how much Microsoft encourages them. As Michael Silver, a Gartner Research director, explains in his paper, When Should You Migrate Servers to Windows 2000, "Many enterprises have been having trouble cost-justifying a migration to Windows 2000 Server and Active Directory."

In today's tight economy, return on investment (ROI) is the hot buzzword, and many NT administrators can't see any immediate ROI by moving to W2K Server. Many believe there's simply no good financial reason for them to move to W2K.

Support is another matter. NT becoming an orphan operating system will finally drive most NT users to another operating system. Thomas Bittman, Gartner's vice president and research director, observes that NT administrators should finalize their operating system migration by 2004 or face serious support problems.

Sun is also following the conventional IT wisdom that now sees Linux as the operating system of choice for low-end servers. Tony Iams, an analyst with D.H. Brown, for example, speaks for many when he recommends Linux for departmental servers, Web servers, appliances and, the one concession to high-end computing, high performance clustering with Beowulf.

For some NT users, though, this conventional wisdom makes a lot of sense. Some argue that Cobalt boxes with Samba for NT style file/print services delivers better performance than NT and can fit right into an NT primary domain controller/backup domain controller. Technically speaking, it's much easier to integrate NT and Linux/Samba than it is to move from a PDC-based network to Active Directory.

Is Sun's offer tempting enough? Specifically, Sun is offering the rack-mounted RaQ XTR, 4i and 4r plus the Qube 3 Professional and Business edition appliances at 20% off. These boxes should price at $1,350. To further tempt NT administrators, Sun is also including its Chilli!Soft, an active server pages (ASP) server in the package.

Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice president for system software research, isn't sure that will be enough. He says, "IDC's survey-based research shows that Linux often enters the organization's network to support basic infrastructure applications such as Web services, file services, print services, DHCP services, DNS services, email, etc. That being said, it might be difficult for Sun to capitalize on this opportunity. For the most part, these systems are PCs or workstations being used as servers. Furthermore, the folks bringing Linux-based systems in are often doing it on their own to solve a tactical problem. The corporate IT folks are often unaware of the presence of Linux in their network. Once Linux proves itself able to handle the work, it gets considered for other tasks."

The problem, he goes on to say, is that "Sun's thrust seems to be aimed not at these individual contributors but at the corporate IT people. The corporate IT folks are not very likely to select Linux-based systems unless they are already Sun users."

Still, even if Sun isn't able to capitalize on the slow folding up of NT, there will be plenty of other opportunities for Linux to replace NT s via the unofficial channels Kusnetzky mentions. One way or the other, NT is headed for computing's dustbin. Given the reluctance of current NT administrators, CTOs and CIOs to make the expensive and technically difficult W2K upgrade, Linux and Sun may have a rare opportunity to make inroads into what have previously been Microsoft-only shops.

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