Windows NT or OS/2? Two Virginia rivals went opposite ways in deciding which to use as the primary operating system for their computer servers.

Falls Church-based First Virginia Banks Inc. picked International Business Machines Corp.'s OS/2 Warp 4. Crestar Financial Corp. of Richmond picked Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT.

Though one study predicts big banks will shift dramatically to Windows NT, the chief information officer at First Virginia Banks Inc. says he is pleased with the choice he made two years ago.

"We evaluated both," said John Joback, who is also president of First Virginia Services Inc. "OS/2 created a very stable environment and good stay-up time"-more than 99%-"and provided greater security than NT.

"Windows is not foreign to us," Mr. Joback said. "But when it comes to everyday crunching, uptime in business is what matters. We needed a system that worked and was available all day."

"We had too many problems with Windows NT locking up the system," he said. "But like Timex, OS/2 just kept on ticking."

First Virginia faced the choice when it decided to create a local area network, Mr. Joback said. OS/2 offered "centralized control over the wide area network and local area network," he noted, "whereas NT was more decentralized." OS/2 permits software distribution and changes to be made overnight, and NT does not, he said.

First Virginia, which has $9.1 billion of assets, has just completed upgrading 400 servers and 4,500 client workstations throughout 385 branches in Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee. The system serves the company's 19 banks, its mortgage subsidiaries, and a full-service insurance agency.

The company also upgraded line speeds from 9.6 kilobytes per second to 56 kbs to connect branches to its mainframe system.

The investment came to $13.5 million, 12% less than projected. "We've been extremely pleased," Mr. Joback said. "The end result is the satisfaction of our branch employees, and they're happy because it's usable."

The bank's stringent standards for security and controls were not compromised, Mr. Joback said. Future enhancements will include laser printers so the bank can produce laser-generated forms in place of standard, preprinted documents.

Challenging rumors that the demise of OS/2 was approaching, IBM launched the Warp 4 version in September 1996. It acts as a transition platform to enable clients to keep running existing applications and evolve to pure Java and the Internet.

"Almost every big bank in the world is looking at it," said John Soyring, IBM's director of worldwide technical projects.

Banks that have already adopted OS/2 Warp 4 include La Caixa in Spain, Banco do Brasil, Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corp., and Cera Bank of Belgium.

But last month Crestar announced that it had switched from OS/2 to Windows NT. The bank said it had deployed Windows NT throughout its branch network, converting its 400 branch servers in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington from OS/2.

And Mentis Corp. of Durham, N.C., said a 1996 survey found that fewer than half the big banks using OS/2 as their primary server operating system expected to still be doing so at the end of 1998.

As part of its 1996 study of banking systems and technology, Mentis asked 700 financial institutions about their preferred operating system.

"Currently OS/2 is cited by 37% of large banks"-those with more than $1 billion of assets-"as being their primary server," said Beth Phillips, senior project manager. "However, when we asked those banks what their primary operating system for servers would be in 1998, only 15% cited OS/2."

Fifty-three percent of large banks expected NT to be their primary operating system by yearend 1998, up from 8% at yearend 1996, the Mentis study found.

IBM's Mr. Soyring disputes these figures, claiming that the industry trend toward thin clients can now be handled by Warp 4.

"Banks can continue to use OS/2 to make the smooth transition to network computers. The next logical step for them would be to use our Workspace On Demand product."

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