NationsBank Corp. making network computing a reality by putting a new operating system from International Business Machines Corp. on 25,000 branch workstations.

The rollout, which began in February and is expected to be complete by yearend, involves IBM's Workspace On-Demand operating system. Released last August, Workspace On-Demand incorporates Internet browsers and uses Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java programming language to ensure that applications can be delivered to all users, regardless of which computer systems they may be using.

Retail banking workstations in 3,000 NationsBank branches across 15 states will have a consistent look and feel. Users will have access to the same information, no matter where it resides within the bank's computing environment.

Because changes can be made once at the server level and distributed to all users-according to Java's "write once, run anywhere" motto-NationsBank also expects the system to be cheaper to manage. Finally, the bank expects training time and costs to be reduced because of users' familiarity with the browser interface.

The approach is an extension of IBM's OS/2 operating environment. Workspace On-Demand runs on the OS/2 Warp server, which can implement Windows NT, Java, OS/2, or DOS applications. NationsBank has embraced Java. "Not only does Workspace On-Demand get us where we want to be-to a thin- client, server-managed environment-but we can get there without having to make radical changes to our current infrastructure," said Jon Hamm, vice president at NationsBank.

He said workstation disk drive and memory upgrades were minimal, no new support structure was built, and the bank continues to use the same applications.

Other banks piloting IBM's Workspace On Demand are Bank of Montreal, a group of German banks called Fiducia, Chevy Chase Bank in Maryland, First Virginia Banks Inc., IAG Credit Union, and Trustmark National Bank of Jackson, Miss.

Jeff Smith, director of IBM's OS/2 business line management, said NationsBank is "our largest implementation by far."

James Moore, president of Mentis Corp. of Durham, N.C., said the cost savings and efficiencies of network computing are well recognized, but it is not yet viewed as ready for prime time. He said a high-profile operator like NationsBank will probably give the technology a boost.

It may also give IBM a boost. Its OS/2 system has been under pressure from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT. A recent Mentis survey showed that while 18% of institutions with more than $1 billion of deposits run Windows NT on servers today, 55% expect to use it by 1999.

Meanwhile, 21% of big banks run OS/2 today but only 7% expect to be using it by the end of 1999. Mr. Moore called that "a significant drop."

The same trend is occurring on the desktop. Today, 13% of big banks are running Windows NT, and 42% expect to run it within two years. Sixteen percent are running OS/2 on the desktop, but only 3% intend to do so by the end of 1999.

Other Microsoft operating systems are making similar inroads. Among big banks, Windows 95 and Windows 97 penetration is expected to increase from 11% in 1997 to 29% in 1999.

Mr. Moore said big banks are increasingly interested in moving to network computing. Mentis Corp. estimates that 17% of large banks will have network computing in place by 2000.

"Bankers have acclimated to what network computing is all about, and year-2000 is forcing some to look at their current processes," he said. "These factors make clear that banks will move vigorously toward network computing. The question is, how fast?"

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