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May 31, 1999

Microsoft NT's Desktop Redemption

By Monica Simms

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  • Microsoft NT's Desktop Redemption

Afew years ago, what analyst would have predicted a turnaround in Wall Street's perception of Mighty Microsoft? The 800-pound Seattle area gorilla, with the ubiquitous Windows software, was viewed as providing little more than a supporting role in transaction-processing systems.

UNIX was the real muscle on Wall Street, and still is, providing the most powerful number-crunching, mission-critical trading applications on the Street. Financial firms, in fact, have historically relegated Microsoft Windows to word processing, file and print, as well as to other light-weight tasks in the enterprise while high-end trading systems have been dominated by UNIX.

But a turnaround in Microsoft's Wall Street fortunes is finally evident. At the same time, Microsoft is winning over corporate America with its attractive, easy-to-use Windows graphical user interface (GUI), taking PCs by storm for productivity tools such as MS Word or Excel.

To be sure, Microsoft isn't actually kicking sand in UNIX's face these days. But recently, the software powerhouse has made significant headway in supporting mission-critical trading systems, particularly on the front-end, or desktop PCs. Since Microsoft introduced its 32-bit multi-tasking NT operating system in September 1996, many firms have migrated their UNIX front-ends to the familiar Windows interface to improve their trading environments.

Now, NT is more prevalent on the desktop than UNIX, according to the Tower Group, a securities consultant firm based in Needham, Mass. Figures show a massive 123 percent jump in Microsoft NT's desktop installations in 1998 over the previous year.

"Certainly on the desktop we see that NT is making very, very strong headway," says Larry Tabb, a group director at the Tower Group. "We see little growth in the UNIX workstation on the desktop trading floors or within the securities industry. NT has pretty much won the desktop battle."

On back-end server processing, however, Microsoft has a ways to go, largely because reliability and scalability limitations remain. "On the server, we still see significant usage of UNIX," Tabb said. "NT is making great strides, but there are still many people who are not satisfied with the scalability and reliability with NT in the server environment."

But Microsoft continually enhances NT in what some customers say seems like a continuous stream of service packs, or upgrades to earlier releases of the software. Microsoft has added a number of features to NT that financial firms need to run and manage their complex, heterogeneous networks.

For example, NT 4.0 added several important enhancements over NT 3.X, including improvements to its user interface, networking support and added security and reliability. And Microsoft's successor to NT, Windows 2000, is expected to include features that will make it easier for network administrators to manage distributed NT desktops and remotely roll out software and operating system upgrades to client PCs and servers.

"It's often very painful for IT professionals on Wall Street to manage all of their technology, to be able to remotely log in and check the status of a machine or debug an application that's sitting in a remote office," said Matt Connors, Microsoft's worldwide securities industry manager. "So being able to manage distributed PCs is going to be significantly easier [with Windows 2000]."

UNIX Optimism