Sun Microsystems Inc. is attacking Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq at the low end of the server market, where the Windows NT operating system has been making inroads.

Today at an event in New York, Sun Microsystems plans to launch the Ultra Enterprise 450 for the Unix platform.

The work-group server market generates $11 billion a year, it is estimated, and is expected to grow to $25 billion by 2000.

Servers are increasingly in demand for data base, general computing, electronic commerce, E-mail/groupware, Internet/-intranet, and file and print applications. Sun said its product, in contrast to most others, aims to handle the whole spectrum.

"We have talked to many banks doing global business that required the same data bases," said Cyril Reif, director of technology for Sun's financial services group.

"They needed their servers to be more powerful and more reliable. So we're taking our Unix reliability, scalability, and security and bringing it to Compaq's price point and working directly with PCs to manage the system."

Sun's four-processor server, supporting as many as 100 users, will cost under $20,000. That is said to be comparable to prices for Wintel systems- those that combine Microsoft Windows and Intel microprocessors.

"We've broken through the ($20,000) barrier to take on NT directly and take our capability down to the work-group level," said David Douglas, director of marketing for Sun's work-group server division. "We can deliver service the same as the NT service."

The Ultra Enterprise 450 may be of interest to financial institutions looking to bring data warehouse access to every worker in a department.

Call centers, telemarketing, and extranet solutions can be based on the server.

Over the past two and a half years Sun has upgraded its operating system, Solaris, to offer personal computer services at the server level rather than the desktop.

Although Sun has no intention of running Windows NT at the server level, to the person at the desktop NT would seem to run similarly, and Solaris would be transparent to Windows users.

Sun executives said the new server makes enterprisewide capabilities affordable and can easily adapt to existing environments.

Financial services companies "are historically the largest users of mainframe technology and Unix systems," said Mr. Reif. "But lately there has been a lot of frustration in having to solve the LAN (local area network) or work-group server situation. Current systems do not have the robustness because they grew from the desktop. Now we're allowing banks to standardize their server software on one platform."

He said the many banks that have a hodgepodge of systems now can standardize on the robust Unix platform.

"This allows banks to focus on a common operating environment and not on a mix-match environment, which I think is as significant as the price," Mr. Reif said.

He added that there are fundamental limits to NT servers in terms of scalability-a charge Microsoft has set out to refute.

"As we look forward, the bank of the future will have a central mainframe which will be used for high-volume transactions," Mr. Reif said. "It will be surrounded by a layer of servers doing data warehousing, decision support, call centers, and interconnectivity. Client devices like PCs, Macintoshes, and network computers will all come from a standardized server."

"NT gained a lot of market share replacing network servers," said Mr. Douglas. "Now we see people deploying live business applications to communicate with their customers and partners.

The requirement on servers has changed dramatically. The ease of use is still there, but security, performance, scalability, and reliability have become very important."

Sun's server can upgrade from an old environment and can interpret any front-end device. The Ultra Enterprise 450 will compete primarily with the Compaq Proliant 6000, which mainly has Novell Netware boxes on NT.

Sun's benchmark results "trounce the competition," said Mr. Douglas, far exceeding the Compaq 6000 on performance for the same money.

"As intranet and electronic commerce volumes increase, there will be no need for banks to change their technology or their environment," Mr. Reif said.

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