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June 10, 1997updated 05 Sep 2016 12:57pm


By CBR Staff Writer

From Computer Finance, a sister publication.

Digital Equipment Corp and Microsoft Corp both claim that NT Workstation has a lower cost of ownership than Unix. Now that NT platforms are beginning to achieve Unix-like performance, does the claim still hold up?

By Tony Baer

There has never been much question that Windows platforms are less expensive than their Unix counterparts. Historically, the entry cost of Unix workstations began at $5,000-$6,000, the point where high-end personal computers left off. But, Unix has always had a performance advantage. Excluding DEC’s Alpha 64-bit RISC chip, no Windows processor has come close to the speed of RISC processors from Sun Microsystems Inc, Silicon Graphics Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co, or IBM Corp. This was critical to CPU- intensive applications, such as high-end graphics, animation, and any type of three-dimensional engineering analysis or design work. Until now, DEC’s Alpha processor has been something of an orphan. As the earliest commercial 64-bit RISC architecture, it was the most powerful commercial processor on the market; unfortunately, that distinction sold few copies of DEC Unix, which it also supported. On the Windows side, it was designed to run NT – before its time. Accordingly, relatively few 32-bit personal computer software products were ported to the 64-bit Alpha. Adding insult to injury, until recently Alpha personal computers cost about $2,000 more than their nearest Intel counterparts. With the emergence of the Pentium Pro, Alpha now has serious Wintel competition. According to published reports, Intel plans to release its 400 MHz Pentium IIs within a year. DEC has already lost the distinction of having the only 64-bit commercial RISC processor on the market; it is now also beginning to lose the distinction of having the only 64-bit operating system as well. The squeeze is certainly on for DEC.

Tenuous foothold

It must make the case for NT on Alpha soon, or lose its tenuous foothold. Against this backdrop, it and Microsoft recently sponsored a total cost of ownership study for high-end workstation applications conducted by Deloitte and Touche. The study concludes that NT’s total cost of three-year ownership is 36% cheaper than Unix for technical applications, resulting in aggregate savings of over $1m for 25-seat installations. The report focused on three applications traditionally reserved for Unix, including MDA mechanical design automation, DCC digital content creation, and GIS geographic information systems. The applications involve heavy number crunching and graphics generation. To make the cost comparisons as uniform as possible, the study focused on the most popular software applications in each segment, including: Parametric Technology Corp’s. Pro/ENGINEER, Softimage Inc’s Softimage 3D and Research Institute Inc’s Arc/INFO and Arc/VIEW. Additionally, the study counted costs only for standard groups of functionality. The study also focused on a limited number of hardware providers to keep the sample manageable. For Windows NT, the study was restricted to DEC Pentium 200 and Alpha platforms; for Unix, the study sample consisted of Sun, HP, and Silicon Graphics RISC workstations. Within each platform type, upper- and lower-level platform choices were compared. This was an attempt to compensate for the flux in price/performance. The study was based on findings from 113 organizations, with an overall breakdown of 57 Windows NT sites versus 56 Unix sites. Costs were broken down into vendor costs, maintenance and support costs, opportunity costs – value-added activities not undertaken because the user is bogged down performing non-value-added support or maintenance tasks with his or her machine or software and the penalty of duplicating Unix and personal computer desktops. Based on the 113- organization survey, 51% of Unix end users also had personal computers on their desks. Entry-level hardware prices for DEC Pentium Pro 200 machines ranged from $7,400-$9,600, against $8,300-$19,300 for ‘comparable’ entry-level Unix workstations. High-end configurations included DEC Alphas, ranging from $20,300-$22,000, and $25,700-$35,600 for the Unix counterparts. As for software, the study took a conservative stance, assuming prices to be equal for Windows NT and Unix versions of the same products, with prices ranging from $7,995 for the DCC application, $17,800 for MDA, and $18,000 for GIS. In fact, the study noted that in the future, software pricing for NT versions will gravitate more toward the high-volume, low-cost personal computer pricing model. The study claimed that Unix technical support costs were almost triple those for personal computers: $4,540 for Unix versus $1,868 for personal computers annually. The huge difference was based on the assumption that Unix requires more care and feeding. For instance, in the 113 organizations studied, Unix required a higher support/end user ratio. Furthermore, the report claims that Unix experts command higher salaries than their NT counterparts because of Unix’s greater complexity. While we consider these findings credible – since NT has much more in common with Windows 3.1 than Unix – we also believe that NT requires additional skills not always present in LAN support groups. However, we believe that the report assumptions of personal computer support requirements for Unix users were excessive. Unix users were assessed a rate of 40% of personal computer support costs, reflecting that half of them also use desktop personals.

Opportunity costs

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The most difficult factor to guesstimate is opportunity costs, the survey found that NT users spent an average of 3.2 hours weekly performing ‘self support’, compared to 4.6 hours for Unix users. Using a salary estimate of $100,000/year, for technical professionals, this translates to an annual average cost of $8,000 for NT users versus $11,500 for Unix. The three-year total cost of ownership figures were as follows: MDA: $68,000 for NT versus $107,000 for Unix; GIS: $65,000 for NT versus $104,000 for Unix; DCC: $57,000 for NT versus $100,000 for Unix. All three applications averaged, produced three-year figures of $63,000 for NT versus $104,000 for Unix. This figure is useful only for comparison since actual costs will vary based on application type and usage. We won’t quarrel with the overall conclusion: that Windows NT workstation is probably cheaper than Unix. Naturally, this assumes comparable computing power and application functionality. We do believe that in a few cases, the study exaggerated the advantages of NT – especially when it came to support costs. But there are some caveats. The price of NT’s success is higher migration costs. Current market figures show that many more NT seats are being sold than Unix. With the Unix technical computing market fairly mature, cost of migration is a trivial issue. Conversely, NT’s newer market presence means more users are getting their first installs. And that means migration costs. For the ‘high-end’ NT workstation users may not be immune from the two-personal computer policy if they want to run commonly available personal computer packages. NT clearly has a lower cost of ownership than Unix, all factors being equal. But in real life, they rarely are.

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