Sun takes on Passport--with hardware

Sun Microsystems is stepping up its effort to consign Microsoft's Passport to oblivion by bringing something the software giant lacks to the network-authentication battle: hardware.

Sun Microsystems is putting some products and services behind its effort to consign Microsoft's Passport software to oblivion.

Sun has long opposed Passport, which acts as an authentication gateway that lets computer users surf the Web without having to constantly enter personal information on different sites. On Tuesday, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun will bring something Microsoft lacks to the battle: hardware.

As first reported by CNET, Sun will debut two collections of servers, storage, software and services to house information on customers, employees or business partners. The system can be used to govern who is granted access to network services such as Web-based order forms, system administration consoles or stock option plans.

The system will be a foundation for products Sun will ship later that support the Liberty Alliance Project. Liberty, which Sun initiated, governs how an authorization system can join with other systems so users get the benefit of single sign-on abilities, Sun Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Schwartz said.

Sun launched Liberty in 2001 as a way to thwart Passport and has secured support from many major companies, including AOL Time Warner, United Airlines, Fidelity Investments, Vodafone and Visa. Liberty hasn't yet released its specification.

Illuminata analyst James Governor said Sun's efforts will result in a direct competitor to Microsoft's Passport authentication service, but more importantly, allow Sun to take a leadership role in Web services security.

"Network identity is the crucial underpinning for Web services. That's the thing that most concerns users," Governor said. "This is an area where Sun has a chance to establish real mind share and start driving Web services standards."

Sun's Platform for Network Identity comes in two versions. The $150,000 Enterprise Edition is for internal computer networks and includes two Sun Fire 280R servers, a 72GB StorEdge D2 storage system, the iPlanet directory server software and 10 days of consulting from Sun's Professional Services group. It can manage up to 10,000 online identities at a cost of about $15 per user.

The $999,995 Internet Edition can manage up to 250,000 identities at $3.90 apiece. It includes four Sun Fire 280R servers and a 145GB storage system as well as the iPlanet software and 10 days of consulting services.

The system can be used as a standalone authentication and identity system or as a front end to an existing system, Schwartz said.

Sun has invited Microsoft and IBM to join Liberty, but thus far the companies have refused to join, Schwartz said. Microsoft said it would consider joining if the Liberty group moves on from being a Microsoft-bashing club.

But with the antitrust suit Sun filed Friday against Microsoft, warm feelings between the two companies are likely to remain in short supply.

Sun's identity system announcement is an important and smart marketing message for the company's Sun One Web services strategy, Governor said. Sun had been late in staking its claim in the Web-services area and had done a poor job of explaining its technology and strategy before stepping up its efforts the past six months. Because Microsoft and IBM created nearly all the important Web services standards, particularly in business-to-business integration, the two companies have built reputations as the leaders in the Web services market.

"This is positive for Sun One," Governor said. "In the past, they were followers, but this is a chance to define the space."

Indeed, Sun hopes Liberty will stand right up there alongside the pantheon of obscure acronyms such as UDDI, SOAP, WSDL and XML that make up Web services, Schwartz said.

"We will work to make it a de facto standard," Schwartz said. "I believe Liberty should be considered a peer along with SOAP, UDDI and WSDL."

Because of its iPlanet Directory Server, Sun is well-positioned to capitalize on managing identity and authenticating users and authorizing them to access services, Governor said. Microsoft, however, also ships directory software as part of its Windows 2000 operating system for servers. A directory server is infrastructure software that stores information about computer users and resources, such as PCs and software.

Sun's announcement on Web services identity puts the onus on IBM to announce details of its Web services security plans. "It puts pressure on IBM, which has been really quiet in this space," Governor said. "IBM has to decide which part of IBM owns this: Tivoli (management software) or Websphere (e-business software)."

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