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Linux distributions continue to amass on the border of Windows Server’s enterprise territory, but top executives at Microsoft Corp. are not blinking. That’s because the real battle for software growth this year, they say, will center on low-cost, high-volume x86 hardware and drawing enterprises away from proprietary Unix.

Officials for the Redmond, Wash., company contend that Microsoft is more than holding its own against proprietary Unix flavors such as Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Solaris, IBM’s AIX and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s HP-UX. Part of that confidence stems from the numbers. “Microsoft sold more units of Windows [Server] than all flavors of Unix combined for the first time,” said Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s senior vice president for Windows Server, in an interview.

“This is a very big deal. Now the world ecosystem around IT makes more money on Windows than they make on all of Unix combined. That’s a pretty big deal to us.”

Some enterprise users, such as Brian Riley, a senior programmer and analyst at a large U.S. health care services company, said server choices are dictated by the application. And in his case, that means Windows. Riley is replacing two IBM AS/400s with an application that runs on Windows Server 2003. The company still runs AIX on some x86 boxes.

“The real issue is the platform on which the applications are being written because that is the platform that people are going to choose. They usually choose the application first, then base their operating system choice on that,” Riley said.

And, despite accelerating growth of Linux in the enterprise, Microsoft is as confident as ever. A study released late last month by IDC, of Framingham, Mass., shows that many enterprises will choose Linux as their application platform over Windows.

The report, which surveyed IT managers in 10 countries on customer adoption plans and perceptions relating to Linux, predicted that revenue growth for packaged applications and infrastructure software running on Linux will exceed $14 billion in the next four years, growing at a compound annual rate of more than 44 percent.

The IDC report, “Worldwide Linux 2004-2008 Forecast: Moving from Niche to Mainstream,” also found that the combined worldwide market for desktops, servers and packaged software running on Linux is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25.9 percent worldwide, reaching $35.7 billion by 2008. Meanwhile, new and redeployed PCs running Linux are forecast to grow to $10 billion and 17 million units by 2008 with an installed base of more than 42.6 million units.

Microsoft’s Muglia downplayed the significance of those figures. The percentage growth of Windows will be smaller than for Linux because of Windows’ much larger installed base, Muglia said, adding that Microsoft continues to track how well it is doing against Linux, which grew by a smaller percentage last year than it had in 2003.

“Its growth has slowed, and we still view Linux as a technology that is used by our competitors to build competitor technologies to Microsoft,” Muglia said. “By and large, we are doing more than holding our own in most categories and are even going after some categories where Linux has dominated.”

Click here to read about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s claims that Windows is more secure than Linux.

James Dobson, a systems architect at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., disagreed with Muglia’s assessment, saying that Microsoft is wrong to state that vendors are using Linux to make competitive systems. “It is the customers that are building systems and solutions with Linux. This is the major benefit of a real open system,” Dobson said.

Muglia also disputed industry reports that most Unix migrations from proprietary x86 systems are to Linux rather than to Windows, saying that Microsoft research shows that about 60 percent of those migrations are to Windows.

Next Page: Going after Novell customers.

The only area where Linux is winning is in companies where Unix customers want to take their custom applications and move them to x86, Muglia said. “There is an unstoppable trend in the x86 market to move away from proprietary Unix systems like Sun[’s] Solaris,” Muglia said. “That trend means that the majority of those systems in the future will be running Windows, with a minority running Linux and an even smaller minority running Solaris.”

The real issue is determining how vulnerable proprietary Unix systems are to migrations to low-cost machines and whether those migrations will be to Linux or Windows.

Muglia contended that both Sun and Novell Inc. could become vulnerable to the move away from proprietary Unix as Microsoft targets customers from both companies. Novell is trying to move its legacy NetWare customers to another platform, primarily Linux, but “that is a tough transition, and we expect to be able to pick up a fair number of those customers over the coming years,” Muglia said. He added that Microsoft recently started a program to lure NetWare customers to Windows, a program that will be ratcheted up this year.

Riley said Microsoft is ignoring the fact that those companies that were marketers of Unix for the enterprise are now also pushing Linux. “I am talking specifically about HP, IBM and Novell. I think Microsoft is using selective statistic reading and are downplaying the threat,” Riley said.

Sun officials said the battle for software market share among Solaris, Linux and Windows will be hard-fought at the low-end, low-cost x86 level, especially in the small-tier to midtier space.

“I think Linux is taking customers away from Microsoft at the low end as people are looking at getting more security through a Linux/Unix platform,” said Paula Patel, director of market development for Solaris 10 at Sun, in Santa Clara, Calif. “In the one- and two-way space, the migration is away from the Microsoft-installed base, while Linux does not compete at the eight-way-and-above platform, which is the Solaris sweet spot.”

Muglia said Solaris has always played into the high end of the market rather than on the volume side, but he dismissed any threat to the Windows Server business from the upcoming release of Solaris 10. In fact, Muglia said, as Microsoft has moved into the high end with Windows, it now has the opportunity to win customers from Solaris. “I certainly don’t see a substantive threat from Solaris taking out Windows,” Muglia said.

For his part, John Loiacono, Sun’s executive vice president for software, shrugged off those comments, saying Sun’s upcoming release of both Solaris 10 and Open Solaris will continue to meet existing and new customer needs.

Sun is concentrating on shipping Solaris 10 and making Open Solaris available this quarter. The company will also continue to innovate on its business model, especially around the Java Enterprise System and its pricing, he said.

Next Page: Microsoft focuses on Service Pack.

If Sun has one advantage over Windows, Linux and other Unix implementations, it may be in security. Ryan Durante, a program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory, in Rome, N.Y., which manages the DODIIS (Department of Defense Intelligence Information System Infrastructure), is currently shifting thousands of intelligence analysts’ desktops to Sun Ray hardware running Trusted Solaris.

This initiative for the Defense Intelligence Agency is known as the DODIIS Trusted Workstation program.

“We do use Windows as well as other versions of Unix. But, in our Opinion, Trusted Solaris is the most secure operating system out there. We expect this move to yield tremendous administrative savings and to be more secure,” Durante said. The move will help enable the DIA, which manages about 30,000 desktops across more than 900 sites, to consolidate to five data centers by late 2008, he said.

Sun, however, is also collaborating more with Microsoft due to the companies’ legal settlement last year, which could enable Microsoft to lure some business away from Sun, Muglia said. “Sun is now building x86 boxes, and you can run Windows quite well on those boxes. This is the first time we have seen a Sun box running Windows,” he said.

But competitive threats or not aside, Microsoft’s Server team’s focus for this quarter is getting Windows Server Service Pack 1 out the door. The SP1 Release Candidate was made available early last month. “We feel great about that; the landing gear is down, and we can see the runway. We are doing well on that release, which is our focus,” Muglia said.

One new feature in SP1 is the security configuration wizard, which locks down systems, Muglia said. Moving into next quarter, Microsoft will get closer to the second, and final, beta for Windows Server Release 2, Muglia said.

In the second half of the year, the company will focus on finishing off the R2 release and releasing the first beta for the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, and preparing for Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference in Los Angeles in September, said Muglia.

While it is still too early to know exactly what features will be in that early beta release, Muglia said Longhorn is based on the Server 2003 SP1 code base, which is “incredibly stable [and] 64-bit-enabled. A lot of work has gone into role-based management of that code base, and there are many features on the plate around management, infrastructure, reducing reboots and allowing people to target very specific configurations. We are very much on track for a 2007 delivery,” he said.

But customers seem unexcited about this focus, except for the security-related improvements that will come. Programmer Riley said his company has no plans to be the first to migrate to Longhorn, “so we really do not care when the beta comes out. We will probably be dragged, kicking and screaming into it around 2010.”

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