The announcement in late October that Compaq Computer was to make big moves into the high-end workstation market was more than just a drive by the world?s biggest PC vendor to enter this high-margin business. It was a clear signal that the dominance in this sector by Risc-based systems running variants of the Unix oper- ating system was under threat.
It is no secret that companies such as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems have already faced increasing competition from a growing number of suppliers using a combination of Windows NT and Pentium (and then Pentium Pro) processors. But the very fact that Compaq?s name is on these boxes puts quite a different slant on things.
So what exactly is the threat (or opportunity, depending on whether you are currently selling Intel-based products or more Risc) to traditional workstations? In the case of Compaq, the threat is coming from the Professional Workstation, which Compaq claims is the most ?competitively priced, feature-rich, standards-based workstation product available?.
The company boasts that its first technical workstation family provides customers with ?highly integrated and optimised Windows NT Workstation and Intel 200MHz Pentium Pro processor-based solutions? for running a wide range of specialised applications. It also offers the kind of personal productivity software this platform has always been associated with.
And in case there may be a few in the high-flown world of the workstation who may not know much about its pedigree, Compaq went to considerable lengths in its announcement of the Professional Workstation to be as immodest as possible.
?Compaq is a proven leader in driving industry standard technologies into new markets, delivering cost-effective solutions and capturing significant market share across multiple product categories, including the Pentium Pro server market,? says John Rose, senior VP and general manager of Compaq?s enterprise computing products group.
?These successes have enabled Compaq to create a robust workstation platform ? complete with high-end graphics and multiprocessing capabilities ? that delivers unmatched price/performance and unprecedented integration.?
Unlike some past ventures outside its core PC market (such as its ill-starred venture in the PC laser printer sector and Tele Compaq a decade ago), Compaq seems to be doing much more than just testing the workstation waters. ?Compaq is serious about establishing a leadership position in the workstation market and has created the infrastructure necessary to compete successfully in workstation environments that were once the exclusive domain of companies like Sun, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Digital and Silicon Graphics,? says Rose.
Some analysts, such as International Data Corporation (IDC), suggest that Compaq is making its move at just the right time ? after others have already blazed the trail for the success of NT systems in the workstation sector. ?IDC forecasts that the Windows NT workstation market will grow at 44 per cent a year through the year 2000, and that Windows NT workstations will outship Unix workstations in 1997,? says Tom Copeland, director of workstation research at IDC.
?With its experience in both the PC and server markets, Compaq is well positioned to become a significant player in the emerging Windows NT workstation market.?
The other key factor in this move ? at least from Compaq?s perspective ? is that the company is not going into it alone. At the product launch, the company had 16 software and hardware vendors declaring their support for its entry into the workstation market ? including Wintel ringleaders Microsoft and Intel.
Also along for the ride were independent software vendors (ISVs) in three market segments: mechanical computer aided design (MCAD); financial applications, and interactive content development; and independent hardware vendors of professional 3D graphics subsystems.
In fact, Microsoft and Intel almost have more to gain from the success of Compaq?s entry into the workstation business than Compaq, as they will reap huge benefits if Compaq starts an even bigger rush by other Windows NT-based PC vendors to move into this sector.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Jim Allchin, Microsoft senior VP of the desktop and business systems division, should be treating the announcement as a major boost for the credibility of Windows NT.
?We are confident the combination of Compaq?s new Professional Workstations with Windows NT Workstation will provide customers with the performance, support and integration they need to run the most advanced graphics and technically demanding applications,? he says.
Perhaps more important in the short-term is the support of MCAD companies like Autodesk, Bentley, Parametric Tech- nology Corporation, Structural Dynamic Resources Corporation and EDS/Unigraphics. These companies produce software for engineers and designers to create 3D and 2D mechanical designs and analysis. They are key to cracking the traditional workstation market.
In some cases, it would appear this support owes as much to good business as it does to good friends. For example, the ringing endorsement of Compaq?s plans by Autodesk VP of corporate marketing Jim D?Arezzo sounds almost as enthusiastic as when D?Arezzo did a similar marketing job at Compaq.
Despite this, it is clear that Autodesk ? and the other supporters of Compaq ? would not be waving the flag if they didn?t believe it was worth making the investment in the NT workstation platform. And the support is not limited to those in the engineering sector.
The vendor says it has also developed relationships with financial ISVs such as the Marketnet Group and Dow Jones Telerate, which deliver financial information via multiple live feeds to brokers and analysts who make real-time, critical decisions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the company has worked closely with the Microsoft-owned Canadian graphics specialist Softimage, which it says has certified the 3D graphics subsystem in the Compaq Professional Workstation ? along with Kinetics and Adobe.
Meanwhile, in recognition of the fact that many workstations operate in a heterogeneous hardware environment, Compaq has entered into an agreement with Hummingbird, a software manufacturer of PC-to-mainframe communication services and PC-to-Unix connectivity software.
The company says customers will be able to ?try and buy? Hummingbird NFS Maestro and NFS Maestro Solo and evaluate Hummingbird Exceed applications, which allow customers to display Unix-based graphics applications running across the network. Compaq claims this should eliminate the need to have a secondary workstation for Unix-based applications.
Compaq further announced its expanded relationship with Elsa, a well-known vendor of 3D graphics solutions used for high-end visualisation, 3D animation and Cad/CAE applications. Select Compaq Profes- sional Workstation models will include the Elsa Gloria-L graphics accelerator.
Future models of the Compaq Professional Workstation will also include products from Intergraph Computer Systems. The company is a pioneer of 3D graphics solutions for Windows NT in the areas of visual computing, Cad and engineering, and has also produced its own NT workstations.
Finally, Compaq offers a glimpse ahead through the announcement of a strategic alliance with Integrated Computing Engines. The aim of this alliance is to offer customers ?a well-integrated rendering solution that delivers super-computing class performance? in future workstation products.
But alliances and strategic announcements of software support alone will not win huge numbers of new customers for Compaq ? particularly the workstation customers that the company is seeking. These range from financial and entry-level Cad professionals with 2D graphics requirements to engineers requiring graphics-intensive 3D capabilities.
Much of that interest will have to be driven by what is on the spec sheet and the prices associated with those specs. On first inspection, the baseline specifications look pretty good. You get up to two 200MHz Pentium Pro processors, Windows NT Workstation 4 (3.51 is available through a licence exchange agreement included in the box); a Wide-Ultra SCSI controller; up to 512Mb of ECC Dimm memory; eight-speed CD-Rom drives; and an integrated Netflex-3 auto-sensing network interface card.
According to Compaq, this integrated network card is auto-sensing in the way that it provides transparent connection to traditional 10Mbitps or high-speed 100Mbitps Ethernet Lans.
To bring the display up to workstation standard, the 2D graphics-oriented models include a Matrox Millennium accelerator card with 2Mb of Windows Ram (expandable to 8Mb) and up to 1600 x 1280 resolution at 256 colours; up to 64Mb of standard memory; and up to a 4Gb hard drive. Prices range from $4,300 to $5,300.
Models designed for 3D graphics-intensive applications ? which require fast shading and texture mapping ? come with an Elsa Gloria-L graphics controller. This includes a 3D graphics accelerator, 8Mb of frame buffer memory (VRam) and 8Mb of Z-buffer memory (DRam) upgradable to 16Mb; one or two Pentium Pro processors; up to 128Mb of standard memory; a three-button mouse for use with more complex Cad software; and a 4Gb hard drive.
The dual processor system is also optimised for multitasking and multithreaded applications that perform CPU intensive tasks such as final rendering used in the animation field. These workstations range in price from $8,200 to $10,200.
Compaq is also moving its PC approach to high-end software installation into the workstation market with the in- clusion of its Smartstart installation and configuration CD software in all workstation models. The idea of this is to let customers more easily install and integrate their operating system, as well as select ?try-and-buy? Unix connectivity ap- plications and utilities.
Also included are Compaq?s management tools, which the company says ?reduce the management complexity of networks and simplify the inventory, management and troubleshooting of Compaq products?, and help lower cost of ownership over the life of the workstation.
Network managers, meanwhile, may be happy to see the inclusion of Compaq Insight Manager, which provides network administrators with fault, configuration, performance, asset and remote management of Compaq workstations.
On first inspection, Compaq appears to have a solid offering here ? and one that should prove attractive to any customer considering Windows NT-based workstations. It also affords dealers the opportunity to move up into a market that has traditionally been able to carry better margins and aftersales support and service contracts than the cut-rate (and cutthroat) mainstream PC sector.
So if you have ever had a hankering to get into the workstation business, but were wary about moving from Windows/ Intel-based systems and NT networks, now is your chance. But be prepared to do a lot of groundwork in getting up to speed in the kinds of specialist applications (particularly the engineering and financial sectors) if you want to gain credibility with the more sophistica- ted customers in this arena.
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