The OS Decision

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 01, 2000
by Alan S. Kay

Are OPERATING SYSTEM vendors pulling your customers in different directions? Help guide your customers down the right path to bolster their business and yours.

These are confusing times for the people who sell IT tools to small businesses. Technologies have multiplied as rapidly as sports franchises, and these technologies--particularly the Internet--have intensified competition to a level never before seen.

When it comes to the operating systems that are powering today's distributed, Internet-based enterprise computing, solutions integrators are delivering mixes as heterogeneous and varied as the businesses themselves. Unfortunately, that doesn't quell the mental tug-of-war your clients may be going through.

Under the best of circumstances, picking the right OS isn't easy. Faced with a wide array of choices, it can raise blood pressure and cost a company time and money. Conversely, though, if you can help a company to pass through the minefield of an OS upgrade without a disaster, you can win a loyal customer.

Although it's largely invisible to users, an OS can influence a business's productivity and competitive edge in the marketplace. It does so directly by its robustness and security features, and indirectly by the mission-critical applications it supports.

In a 1998 research report, GartnerGroup wrote that choosing an operating system for business use is not only difficult, but anxiety provoking. "During the next five years," analyst Michael Gartenberg wrote, "enterprises must be prepared for a series of complex overlapping migrations that will challenge even the most seasoned IT professionals."

Microsoft on the Desktop
No discussion of small business operating systems goes on for very long without Microsoft coming up. "From a solutions provider standpoint," says Kelly Mason, an account executive at ComputerNet Resource Group, "most of what is sold is obviously Microsoft."

But most of what is sold is operating systems for use either on standalone PCs or networked desktops. Users today are familiar with the Windows desktop that first proliferated in Windows 3.1 and has matured in Windows 95, Windows 98, and most recently Windows 2000.

Small businesses that have been built from the ground up often run Windows 95/98--a situation that provides resellers and integrators with lots of opportunity. "I'm getting away from Windows 98," says Robert Turner, president of Martian Technologies, a San Diego solutions provider. "I don't like it. It breaks too often."

Larry Leffler, president of Innovative Computer Concepts, also in San Diego, reports, "We've been recommending that small businesses move into Windows NT Workstation. We believe they'll have more satisfaction with the product than with Windows 95 or 98, which are designed more for home use." According to Leffler, the push to migrate the desktop to the more robust Windows NT 4.0, or its latest incarnation - Windows 2000, is part of his company's initiative to gear people up for the rapidly approaching new age of computing. The hallmarks of this new age: integration with the Internet and modular software. "Our goal is to get them out of the ma-and-pa home office mindset."

Microsoft is trying to help. The roadmap of future Microsoft operating systems leaves Win98 at a dead end and the future to WinNT's descendants in the Windows 2000 family.

Published reports indicate the average system uptime of Win2000 Professional is more than 17 times that of Windows NT Workstation 4.0, and 50 times than that of Windows 98.

But those familiar with the history of Microsoft operating systems caution that Win2000 Professional (and in fact all the versions of Win2000) cannot safely be considered mature and ready for business use until at least after the issuance of the first service pack. Kevin Knox, a senior research analyst at GartnerGroup, for example, urges companies considering a migration to Win2000 to "focus on a stable product, which will be after the service pack is available and the product comes into the production environment in stable form." Knox says it will be six to eight months after the product's February release before there'll be much benefit derived from moving over to Win2000.

Whenever a company does the migration, though, Win2000 Professional will deliver fully on its capabilities only when it is paired in a business environment with Win2000 Server, a much more complex software package. In particular, the Server OS's Active Directory is a dynamic database of users and resources that's intended to make the OS a viable business alternative to Novell Inc.'s NetWare.

While many operating systems can power client computers, there are few viable alternatives to Windows for business use. In part, that is the result of Microsoft's success in establishing its desktop GUI as synonymous with computing for millions of business users. More importantly, Windows OSs support the most popular productivity applications, including the components of Microsoft's Office suite--Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The desktop OS that has historically been the best designed and easiest to learn and use, Apple Inc.'s MacOS, neither runs on Intel-architecture PCs nor runs Win32 applications natively, and so it is popular for business use only in graphics shops and schools. The best designed and most elegant Intel-architecture OS, IBM's OS/2, is no longer actively marketed by the company, so it has fallen behind the times in hardware support.

Battle for the Server
Historically, businesses running client-server information systems have rallied for server-side platforms on one or another of the Unix variants or on NetWare. Both environments have loyal followers among enterprises and suppliers, but in the last half-decade Microsoft has made significant inroads, to the point where it is considered a contender by many, and the heir apparent by some.

Reports can be misleading, since many solutions providers have developed loyalties to one or another OS company. With that caveat, though, suppliers have consistently reported that the server versions of Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0--Standard, Enterprise, and Small Business Server (SBS)--have been the OS of choice, particularly for new small business installations. Moving forward, all of the applications within Microsoft BackOffice SBS 4.5 will be updated to run on Windows 2000. The upgrade will be called SBS 2000, and is slated for release at the end of the summer, says Steve Brown, Microsoft product manager for Office and BackOffice Small Business Server.

At MicroAge Inc.'s Thunder Bay, Ont., Canada office, Sales Manager Steve Hogg says he's loading Windows 10 times more often than other OSs on the IBM Netfinity and other servers he sells for the small and medium business marketplace. "Size of the business doesn't seem to matter," Hogg adds; "my two biggest customers are on a Windows platform. It seems more to matter how long the company has been networked for; if they are new, it is almost always Windows."

In the case of companies with existing installations, though, NT can be less profitable, despite the name recognition. Some IT consultants say a Microsoft installation can be more expensive than, for example, an equivalent NetWare installation, because of a greater need for post-installation technical support. "I have more technical support issues with Windows-based systems," says Joey P. Sims, senior account executive at Pony Computer Inc. in Solon, Ohio. Sims speculates that's because of the less expensive systems companies try to run Windows on.
Turner also voices the concern that, as he puts it, "Microsoft has poisoned the pool" by lowering the expectations business customers have for the performance of operating systems. Since Windows will run on inexpensive computers, he says, that's what buyers want. Then they get used to the inevitable periodic crashes and system problems caused by both Windows and the generic hardware, and over time come to assume that such crashes are endemic to computers.
Leffler, whose company sells Microsoft OSs exclusively, has a response to that concern. Sure, he says, it's very tempting for small businesses to want to spend as little as possible for a system. But how long will it be up and running? "To use a computer for your business, which is your livelihood, you have to be willing to move up the road," he says.
It's the job of the IT consultant, Leffler observes, to work with the client to clarify not only what the company needs, but where its long term best interests lie. His approach is to tell a client, "Yes, I could sell you Product A for $1,000 less. But you're going to be paying me over the course of the year $2,000 in support fees. On the other hand, I'll set you up with a great product--you may pay $2,000 to $3,000 for that particular system, but your support costs will be much less."

Coming from its individual user and workgroup roots, Microsoft has also been fighting an uphill battle on the issue of scalability. In the networking arena, its abilities often are compared to those of NetWare, a time-tested large-scale network operating system (NOS) extant, and for a number of years the NOS of choice for corporations. Microsoft's products, says Turner, can't deliver as companies grow, and won't scale much above 50 to 100 users. Brad Gordon, formerly a sales manager at Think Tank NetWorking Technologies in Merrillville, Ind., a Novell partner, recommends NetWare 5.0 for Small Business, which he says will scale up to 500 users.

Novell plans to ship the commercial version of Novell Small Business Suite (NSBS) 5.1 in late June. Some of the improvements expected in the next version are easier application integration capabilities and Internet capabilities from connectivity to hosted services. Through the use of templates, NSBS 5.1 will enable small businesses to create their own Web sites with a storefront that conducts online transactions and catalogs. There will be a monthly fee associated with each additional service added. "The whole idea is to get small businesses into the digital age so they can start to think about the future and sell on line," says Rick Balazs, product manager for Small Business Suite at Novell. "It's a great service opportunity for a solutions provider to set up customers on the Web."

Power of Applications
Overriding all else, though, when it comes to OS choices there are two compelling facts: that the Windows name splashes across the monitor every time an office computer boots up, and that the current Windows OSs support the applications that have become business standards.

While Gordon reports Think Tank has seen an increase in requests for NT for application servers, he's not convinced it's always the best solution. "NT does a great job running applications," he says, "and it works okay in a smaller environment." But for larger installations, he notes it requires more administration than NetWare, isn't as easy to manage, and "definitely isn't as stable."

In addition to the issues that affect end users, integrators must pay attention to factors that influence their bottom line. The solutions providers interviewed all reported that margins on OS sales are not a very important part of their revenue picture; they make money on hardware and services. Turner is particularly critical of Microsoft because of the combination of its OSs' ability to run on low-margin generic hardware and restrictive licensing policies that make it difficult to get a computer loaded with multiple OSs to create a dual-boot machine. "They've crippled the OEMs' hands," he says; "no value can be added to the box."

Kelly concurs: "Resellers are not very happy with Microsoft about the quality of the product and the licensing agreements," she says.

The Coming of Unix
For reasons that are at least in part emotional, the veteran IT professional's choice for a business operating system is likely to be neither Novell NetWare nor Windows NT nor Windows 2000, but rather Unix. Unix was the quintessential hacker's operating system, and one that many of today's IT professionals grew up using. It's a mature system, one that easily supports multiple users and multiple processors, and has a large pool of compatible applications, many of them available on the Internet at little or no cost.

Unix has for years had the potential to become the business operating system, but its vendors--despite repeated attempts--have been unable to develop a common code base that would allow application interoperability across the various versions. Also, the productivity tools available for Unix environments are considerably less familiar, and in some cases less sophisticated or harder to use, than Windows based products.

Some solutions providers have reported requests for Unix for high-availability servers for use in e-commerce. Pony Computer's Sims says he sees Unix requests from research oriented scientists in search of power and stability. And Dennis Anderson, formerly a technical service manager at Net\Works Inc. in Fridley, Minn., notes that his company, which serves small businesses, doesn't see many requests for Unix, which he characterizes as more of an enterprise-class OS.

In its defense, however, Unix vendor Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) is maintaining its commitment to the SMB space with OpenServer 5.0 and UnixWare 7.0 operating systems. One main difference between the two is the clustering capabilities found in UnixWare 7.0 for more reliable access and availability to data. (OpenServer 5.0 doesn't offer a clustering feature.) OpenServer 5.05, which will ship later this summer, will surpass version 5.0 with technology improvements such as a built in Apache Web server, an open source proxy server, Network Address Translation, GUI enhancements, and support for USB. UnixWare 7.0 is the migration path to Monterey, Intel's 64-bit product, which is scheduled to ship this fall season when Intel's Itanium processor is available, says Tamar Newberger, director of product marketing at SCO. The company's server division will continue to develop SCO's UnixWare operating system for the Intel platform, while pushing the firm into the growing Linux marketplace.

The Linux Phenomenon
Anderson is among many who believe one of the most interesting recent developments has been the rise in popularity of Linux. The Linux kernel uses no proprietary code, so it is available to anyone to use or modify as needed, so long as the changes are made generally available.

Linux currently is enjoying a remarkable burst of popularity. Kelly calls it the hot new market. Major database companies have released versions for Linux. And both IBM and Sun Microsystems acknowledged Linux's impact on the marketplace by modifying their versions of Unix, AIX, and Solaris to run Linux applications. And the new packaged Linux versions from Caldera and Red Hat are a revelation. They offer almost seamless automated installation--Sims says it installs faster than Windows products--as well as a choice of GUIs, and even suites of easy-to-use productivity applications that will read and write files in standard file formats.

The freeware nature of Linux is a two-sided coin for integrators. Businesses historically have been wary of open source software--suspicious of its provenance, leery of a product for which a specific vendor cannot be held accountable, and, not surprisingly, concerned about the value of a product that doesn't have a price tag.

But Linux is proving to be a very robust OS, suitable for use in high availability situations. And Linux, in common with commercial Unixes, has considerably more stringent hardware requirements than Windows, allowing for the sale of customized, higher margin computers.

The Linux buzz appears to be developing at a fortuitous time, since Linux as a possibility can figure in considerations of upgrading to Windows 2000. Many will choose to migrate to the new version of the OS. One of the biggest benefits of such a move, says Leffler, will be the role the new product plays in facilitating use of the Internet.

But Leffler acknowledges what many have been saying, that for most Microsoft shops, the migration to Windows 2000 will require a substantial hardware upgrade to provide the disk space and processor power that will be needed to drive it. Faced with these hardware costs, says Kelly, companies may be more open than has been the case in the past to a migration instead to Linux. Linux is less demanding in terms of processor power, and Sims says it's also far less demanding in terms of vendor support. "Linux will take a big chunk of that market share," Kelly predicts.

Things will really get interesting when Linux evolves to the point where it offers ease of use and application support to allow it to compete with Microsoft for the desktop, at least in enterprise installations. Linux partisans say that day is rapidly approaching, and should arrive in a year or so; Microsoft boosters say they don't think so.

That's then, though. For now, those systems integrators that are platform neutral are adding Linux to their arsenal, and even some Microsoft partners are checking it out. "We understand there is a position for Linux right now," says Clifford Musante, vice president of operations and technology for San Francisco-based net.world Inc. "We know we are going to have to work with Linux. We're preparing for that. We're business people; we have to embrace what our customers need and want."
Jamie McAfee and David Myron contributed to this story

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