Scalability Politics

Last May, at Microsoft Scalability Day, Bill Gates declared that Windows NT and BackOffice are scalable. To prove his point, Gates demonstrated a 64-bit very large memory (VLM) preview version of NT 5.0 and SQL Server running on a Digital Alpha-based server, a Transaction Server application servicing 1 billion transactions per day, an Internet Information Server (IIS) system handling 100 million hits per day, and more. These demos were cool, and they show that Microsoft is committed to scaling NT in the future.

Unfortunately, some of the best examples of NT scalability weren't at Scalability Day. One week before Scalability Day, Oracle demonstrated Oracle Parallel Server for NT. This product lets an Oracle database scale up to a cluster of four 4-way symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) systems. This capability is ahead of Microsoft SQL Server by more than a year. Microsoft's product will not provide scalability clustering support until SQL Server 8.0, due in late 1998.

At the same time, Tandem demonstrated a cluster of 16 quad-Pentium Pro servers working together on a 2Terabyte Non-Stop SQL database. The database was distributed into 700 partitions spread across 480 disk drives. Tandem demonstrated a SQL query generated from a Web page that queried millions of rows. The demonstration was based on a real-life data warehouse application for Target stores. Tandem's Non-Stop SQL Database is years ahead of SQL Server scalability. Also, IBM and its Transarc subsidiary executed 14,000 transactions per second (1 billion transactions in 20 hours) on NT-based servers using IBM's DB/2 and Encina products. According to Jocelyne Attale, IBM's vice president of Windows NT Marketing, IBM asked to participate in Scalability Day, and Microsoft refused permission.

So why weren't these demos at Microsoft Scalability Day? If the point of Scalability Day was to prove that NT scales, the Oracle, Tandem, and IBM demos really would have driven home the point.

No, the point of Scalability Day was to show that you can tune Microsoft's BackOffice components for throughput. Because Tandem, Oracle, and IBM have products that compete with BackOffice, Microsoft did not allow their demos on the stage. Microsoft didn't even let Digital, which is unquestionably pro-NT, announce all of its 64-bit NT very-large memory (VLM) partners, because that announcement would have meant mentioning Oracle and Sybase.

What's happening here is scalability politics that favor Microsoft to the disadvantage of its partners. The time is too soon for Microsoft to be so partisan. Such enterprise players and Microsoft partners as Digital, Tandem, IBM, NCR, and Oracle are working hard to make NT scale into the enterprise. Microsoft needs to acknowledge that if achieving that goal takes a non-BackOffice product, then so be it. Only if NT's scalability were not in question would it make sense for Microsoft to push BackOffice to the exclusion of competing products.

Meanwhile, Microsoft can improve BackOffice until it can compete on its own merit and not just based on its tight integration with NT. None of the other players can tune NT to make their product perform better.

To be truly scalable, a system needs to be optimized for total throughput, recoverability, availability, and support. In fact, support may be the single biggest factor in achieving scalability. The dark side of scalability is that if the system goes down in a large enterprise environment, you can make a lot more people angry more quickly than in a small-system environment. Instead of affecting 50 people, problems with a business-critical NT application can affect 500 or 5000. If problems arise (and they will), you'll want somebody on your site to fix it within a few hours. And you'll want software that can manage large-scale throughput. These things are what the enterprise players have been delivering for years. Microsoft has stated that it relies on its partners to provide support, but you won’t find out about those partners from Microsoft if they compete with BackOffice.

The good news is that Microsoft is dealing with scalability issues head on and letting us know how they're going to get there. I remember going through the same growing pains with IBM's System/38 and AS/400—always bumping up against the edge of performance and throughput. The reality is that no one is dismissing Microsoft's efforts to scale NT. With the exception of Sun, every enterprise player wants to provide solutions for the next wave of enterprise computing on NT.

If Microsoft can put aside its partisanship, NT will achieve its future role in the enterprise quicker. Microsoft isn’t the only NT game in town. If you need enterprise scalability today, look to Microsoft's partners that have mature products and a history of scalability, and avoid the politics.

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