The hotly contested world of midrange servers will be one of the first battlegrounds facing Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 after its April 24 launch.
Staring down the software giant are Unix and Linux, which have remained the most popular midrange server operating systems to date.
But with the promise of more powerful Itanium processors on the horizon and companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard expected to deliver eight-way 64-bit systems, Microsoft has an opportunity to strengthen its standing in the enterprise.
Most observers agree that Windows Server 2003 has the technical muscle to elbow its way deeper into the enterprise and can effectively compete against the crop of Linux distributors also looking to edge their way up in the enterprise.
"We will have to run [Windows Server 2003] through its paces here, but if it proves reliable and scalable enough for the buck, then we'll take a harder look at it for replacing some of our lower-end Sun stuff," said Marc Huff, a network administrator at a large pharmaceuticals company in the Midwest.
Industry observers agree, arguing Windows is still perceived to be more suitable for hosting low-end application environments and for handling typical file-and-print responsibilities.
"Windows Server 2003 is a step in the right direction -- it is a better product than Windows [Server] 2000. But most customers we talk to have still not drawn the conclusion that Windows and Unix technologies are equal. Performance is not the issue, but perception is," said Al Gillen, research director of system software at IDC in
Still, Gillen and other observers sense a developing turf war within larger enterprises as delivery of Windows Server 2003 draws near. On one side are long-time Unix administrators who continue to scoff at almost anything Microsoft delivers labeled for the enterprise. On the other side are Windows supporters who think Windows Server 2003 is more attractive from a price-performance standpoint and will be gentler on shrinking IT budgets.
Throwing a spotlight on the OS competition is growing demand for midrange servers thanks to a number of rapidly improving Intel and proprietary hardware technologies. And the success has, to some degree, come at the expense of pricier high-end systems.
IDC noted in its most recent server data that systems priced less than $100,000 continue to be the bright spot in an otherwise depressed market. The low-end server market grew close to 14 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, as compared to an overall decline of 5.2 percent for all systems.
"I wouldn't go too overboard on the recent midrange success, but it is heating up because of what we see as a return to normality of the traditional server market. There will be some dogfights in the midrange Unix space this year," said Vernon Turner, group vice president of server research at IDC.
In its report IDC attributed much of this growth to the increasing power and function of low-end systems. Unix vendors have pushed higher-end tools such as partitioning and redundant components further down their product line. Intel sellers have responded in kind with more powerful servers that add more and more Unix-like tools and faster chips.