Leader: Progress in NT alliances?

There have been fine words from Sun and Compaq on how they will work with Windows NT. Could this mean peace in our time ? Martin Veitch thinks so.

I have in my hand a document that guarantees peace in our time. It's a cut-and-paste press release combining the very best of the news that Sun will make its software and hardware more interoperable with Windows NT, and the news that Compaq will make Digital Unix more interoperable with Windows NT. But unlike Neville Chamberlain's famous piece of parchment, you shouldn't go sneezing at it.

If you're too busy to have read both stories, the Sun news at least deserves your consideration. I may have fallen out with Sun worshippers who questioned my opinion that Intel's WTX workstation blueprint will kick their Ultra workstations out of financial houses but I have huge respect for the company.

If you'll forget its limp lettuce marketing, Sun really is a terrific business. Great technology, great focus, great channel. And talk to Sun folks off the record and they'll often tell you that their chief executive Scott McNealy's Microsoft-bashing leaves them slapping their foreheads so often that it sounds like applause.

But while the boss has busily been patronising potential customers by telling them how stupid they are for buying PCs and Windows, Sun's salesmen have been living in the real world, convincing enterprises that Solaris and NT can peacefully co-exist. Co-existance is what both the Sun and Compaq announcements are all about.

Those sales reps have an interesting new weapon in Sun's Project Cascade, a set of services that will let Sun's servers run NT where it will be most useful - application servers, messaging and so on. So you keep Sun's fault-tolerance and scalability without sacrificing your Microsoft applications. Cute. I also like the idea of a PC add-in card that we're promised won't cost the earth - no more software emulation - and storage that lets you protect your investment by working on both NT and Solaris.

As for Compaq, the folks there are getting so clever it makes you sick. Compaq has always been a huge booster of NT. With its Tandem and Digital acquisitions, it inherited industry-leading operating system knowledge. Compaq knows that Digital Unix and NT are different beasts. The Alpha processor is the only 64bit chip that has a happy relationship with both NT and Unix. Given the delays to NT 5.0 and IA-64, it makes sense to push IA-64 and Alpha, and NT and Unix.

Compaq may have been more interested in hardware, services and user base than operating systems and microprocessors when it bought Digital but it has carved a very clever path with those latter tools. Making Digital Unix shake hands nice and tightly with NT is smart. Compaq has shown it has the best NT/Unix roadmap out there. Digital also deserves plaudits - both firms long ago had the vision that it is better to work closely with Microsoft than against it. I'm expecting a response from IBM and Dell soon.

These moves demonstrate a sense of realpolitik that is rare in this industry. IT companies are beginning to realise that when running multi-billion-dollar businesses it's a good idea if you're not driven by a single ego. They are realising that it is useful to find out what your biggest customers want and act on that information - and that if networks depend on a mixture of key system software, it's a fine thing if the software vendors actually speak to each other.

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