Can Microsoft Keep the Server OS Lead?

Opinion: Longhorn is going to face some very tough competition as Microsoft strives to hold off Linux and Solaris on the server front.

Recently, for the first time ever, Microsofts server shipment numbers surpassed those of Unix. Soon, however, Microsoft is going to be asking its server customers to switch to Longhorn Server, the next version of its Windows Server, which is due in 2007. Will they switch? Can Unix make a comeback? Can Linux overtake them all?

Those are all good questions. Lets try them on one at a time.

Historically, Microsofts server customers do not move very quickly. Even today, many users are still using the now obsolete Windows 2000, and a decent number are still hanging on to the downright decrepit Windows NT.

Why? Because businesses already own them, businesses know they work, and the server operating systems—and the hardware they run on—are already paid for. In other words, never, ever underestimate the power of the installed base. And thats never truer than when upfront costs come to the fore.

Microsoft is trying to make Longhorn Server a compelling upgrade. At TechEd 2005, Bob Muglia, senior vice president for Windows Server, suggested that Longhorn for 64-bit servers in particular would be optimized for high-end business applications that are often found on high-end Unix systems.

/zimages/2/28571.gifMicrosoft has quietly released a new Longhorn Server test build Click here to read more.

At this point, though, its really not Unix systems that Longhorn will be competiting with. It will be Linux. Linux, with its year-to-year growth of 20.8 percent, leaves Windows 4.7 percent year-over-year growth in the dust.

Of course, Microsoft would argue that its product is better, safer, and helps you grow strong bones in twelve different ways. At least one recent study, albeit sponsored by OSDL (Open Source Development Labs) and Linux management company Levanta, shows that Linux is both cheaper upfront and has a lower total cost of ownership.

More to the point, with todays powerful hardware, businesses want to get the best possible performance out of their servers and that means virtualization. Linux, thanks to projects like Xen, has it. Longhorn doesnt.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Xen project.

While Microsoft does have an add-on virtualization program, Virtual Server 2005 R2, for Server 2003, its not clear when, or if, it will be available for Longhorn. What we do know is that virtualization will not be built into Longhorn. If Microsoft sticks to its plans, well see virtualization in Longhorn R2 sometime in 2009.

Red Hat, on the other hand, is pushing to incorporate Xen in its next production Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, which is expected to arrive in the third quarter of 2006.

For enterprises that want to lower their costs while getting more productivity out of existing hardware, Longhorn is going to have to prove itself.

Even current Windows 2003 users may be reluctant to move to Longhorn when it first arrives. After all, many of them can recall that when Server 2003 first hit the streets, very few applications, including Microsofts own, could run on it.

Lets also not forget that Hewlett-Packard and IBM are both continuing to switch over to Linux on their servers. And, lest we forget, that same study that showed Windows leading in the server operating system space also showed IBM and HP as Nos. 1 and 2 in the hardware server races.

Finally, lets not count out the one major company, Sun, thats sticking like glue to Unix. Sun is pushing hard in the server space with its new line of AMD Opteron-powered Sun Fire servers, its continuing embrace of the open-source approach and server-oriented acquisitions such as that of Aduva, makers of an important Linux and Solaris data center management program.

Microsoft may be No. 1 for now. But Longhorn isnt going to be able to waltz into the lead. Its going to have prove itself against tough competition. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

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