But now, with the advent of huge Intel machines and the approaching release of a new version of Windows that will run on them, the company is changing its tune.
For heavyweight business computing jobs such as housing a large company's sales transaction database, Microsoft's preferred philosophy has been to share the load among lower-end servers grouped into a "cluster". It's been a tough sell, however, with large corporations sticking with mainframes or Unix servers.
But the coming .Net Server 2003 version of the Windows operating system, combined with the faster Intel servers on which it will run, has spurred Microsoft to start talking more seriously about large multiprocessor servers, known in the trade as "big iron."
"Some of the benchmarks out there are really quite phenomenal," Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates boasted Sunday during a speech at the Comdex Fall 2002 trade show here. "The number of processors built into systems is now building up to 32 and 64."
Microsoft knew full well that there was a place for big iron, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice, but salespeople know to sell the wares they've got in hand.
"You're not going to sell what's five years in the future," Eunice said. "They finally have the goods."
Though Unisys' 32-processor ES7000 server has been available with Windows for more than a year, the speed record Gates referred to was set by a new NEC server with 32 Itanium processors. That system climbed higher than any other Windows server on the most widely watched server speed test, processing transactions about 50 percent faster than the previous Windows champ and coming within striking distance of the top Unix servers.
While customers won't rush to buy the latest speed demon without a full suite of software and a healthy dose of internal tests, such benchmarks give Microsoft, Intel and their allies a more serious claim to the high-end server market, where prices, prestige and profit margins are higher. The high-end market has been a sanctuary for Sun Microsystems, an avid Unix fan that, unlike IBM and Hewlett-Packard, has steadfastly refused to sell Windows.
"They're definitely breathing down the necks of the Unix guys," Eunice said.
Sun remains unfazed. Its Sparc processor and Solaris version of Unix have "a commanding lead in 64-bit servers and will continue to lead in the data center as an ideal platform for server consolidation, transaction processing, data warehousing and mainframe re-hosting," Shahin Khan, Sun's chief competitive officer, said in a statement.
Intel servers today use 32-bit processors such as Pentiums or Xeons, but the company's 64-bit Itanium can address vastly larger amounts of memory.
Microsoft already has begun adjusting to this comparatively unfamiliar world where fewer systems ship but where prices are higher. Server companies must pay Microsoft US$24,000 for a copy of its top-end DataCenter version of Windows 2000, said Mike Mitch, senior marketing director of servers for NEC in the Americas.
Already the economic recession and intense competition has forced Sun, HP and IBM to deeply discount their Unix servers, and the future doesn't look much brighter. Research company Gartner Dataquest projects that Intel servers in 2003 will for the first time generate more revenue than Unix servers, US$20 billion, compared with US$18 billion.
NEC's big iron
NEC last week began selling the 32-processor Itanium server, called the TX7 in Japan, as the Express 5800/1000 in the United States. Right now it comes only with Linux and is geared for technical computing tasks such as materials stress analysis for engineering. When the thrice-delayed .Net Server 2003 OS becomes available in April 2003, a Windows version of the NEC machine will go on sale.
The system doesn't come cheap. The configuration used to set the Windows transaction speed record costs US$1.8 million, about US$800,000 of that for the 256GB of memory, Mitch said. Lower-end versions aren't as stratospheric; an eight-processor system with 8GB of memory starts at US$166,000; a 16-processor system with 16GB of memory starts at about US$365,000.
One key requirement for operating systems on these large servers is support for a concept called nonuniform memory access, or NUMA. Systems with a handful of processors can all share a single memory bank, but larger servers often are split up with four-processor modules each located next to its own patch of memory. Processors running a particular task can fetch information from memory that's not in their local cell, but it takes longer--hence the term "nonuniform."
To get maximum performance, information needed by a computing process should be stored in the memory next to the processor running that computing process. That's a key feature being added to the next version of Windows, and NUMA-oriented server makers including NEC, SGI, Fujitsu and IBM are working to build it into Linux as well.
Dell Computer, though, the up-and-comer in the Intel server market and one of Microsoft's strongest allies, isn't interested in big iron. The approach, favored by companies such as Dell rival Sun Microsystems, is doomed to eventual extinction, said Joe Marengi, senior vice president of Dell's Americas division.
"You're talking about spending US$1 million for a box," Marengi said in an interview at Comdex. "The market will continue to get smaller and smaller and smaller for that kind of box."
Instead, Dell believes clustering eight-processor servers is the way to go--in particular, with Oracle's new 9i Real Application Clusters database software designed to run across a group of cheaper servers.
"I can make a case that the highest thing you need is an eight-way," Marengi said. Clustered databases will work. "There's no question on this," he said.
Not everyone agrees, though. A large Las Vegas casino chain couldn't get enough performance out of its Dell eight-processor servers and now is installing the NEC 5800/1000, Mitch said.
HP backs both
Hewlett-Packard, the No. 2 Unix server seller after Sun, is hedging its bets. In 2003, it plans to sell 64-processor Superdome systems with Itanium processors and Windows, but in the long term, it believes clusters of low-end systems will prevail.
Distributing databases across multiple servers is "significantly more difficult" than putting them on single large servers, said Timothy J. Golden, director of marketing for HP's Industry Standard Server Group, in an interview. "However, that's ultimately what we hope to do."
HP has bet three separate server lines on Intel's Itanium processor, a chip HP helped to develop. The Itanium is designed specifically to work better than Pentium and Xeon processors in large multiprocessor systems.
Golden promised HP soon would place well on Itanium benchmark tests as well.
Like NEC's 5800/1000, Unisys' ES7000 and IBM's x440, HP's servers can be divided into independent partitions, each with its own operating system. That would accommodate Linux, the HP-UX version of Unix and Windows.
"Microsoft is extremely excited about big-iron Windows," Golden said.
Microsoft is indeed breathless with anticipation. "Win.Net Server 2003...will catapult us into very high-end machines," said Bob O'Brien, group product manager of the Windows.Net Server division.
But Illuminata's Eunice urges caution before declaring Microsoft the victor.
Although Microsoft continues to improve its database software, and business partners are steadily gaining experience with high-end machines, "the market for that (big-iron) Windows is early," Eunice said. "This is at the edge of the envelope."