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Alliance server plans ambitious, experts say

The Sun-Netscape Alliance's plan to combine their two application servers into one unified software product is a difficult, but not impossible task.

The Sun-Netscape Alliance's plan to combine their two application servers into one unified product is a difficult, but not impossible task, analysts say.

The Alliance today laid out its roadmap for Sun's NetDynamics and Netscape's application servers. As reported earlier, the Alliance will release updated versions of the app servers--Netscape 4.0 and NetDynamics 5.01--in July, then merge the two products into a single product called the Alliance Application Server next year.

The new app server will serve as the centerpiece of the Alliance's e-commerce software, which includes Web, directory, messaging, and security servers, said Sharmila Shahani, the Alliance's vice president of strategy.

Analysts are skeptical whether the Alliance can succeed in merging the technologies together, but they say the plan is feasible.

"They have 200 developers--it's the project from hell. The smartest minds have tried for years to successfully do big projects. But it's been done before, so it's possible they can pull it off," said analyst Mike Gilpin, of Giga Information Group.

"It helps that the multiple groups are entrepreneurial-oriented and motivated. But hard work isn't enough. It requires iron-clad coordination and management," he added.

An application server is software that sits between a browser and back-end databases and performs the business logic--or rules and regulations--of an application. For example, application servers might contain the logic that determines discounts to online buyers who purchase a minimum amount of goods.

Instead of a general application server, the Alliance will create three different versions with specific features targeting three markets: large corporations, portal sites, and Internet Service Providers, Shahani said. For example, enterprises will need the ability to generate reports and more integration with back-end systems, while ISPs who want to help smaller businesses create e-commerce sites will need billing software, she said.

The new Alliance Application Server will use a mix of technologies from the existing NetDynamics and Netscape app servers and support existing users, Shahani said.

Analyst Anne Thomas, of the Patricia Seybold Group said the biggest challenge the Alliance faces is supporting the existing code written by users of the NetDynamics and Netscape app servers.

Historically, both app servers have had proprietary programming models, but it helps that both have recently moved toward the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) standard, Thomas said. "It's ugly if you have to support the old programming models, but it's not impossible."

Gilpin said BEA Systems has recently dealt with the issue with its forthcoming high-end WebLogic application server, which is supporting Tuxedo as well as the CORBA programming models.

The Alliance today said its application server roadmap is two-pronged: The new releases of both Netscape and NetDynamics app servers this July will be faster and more reliable, Shahani said.

The app servers will support Java 2 Enterprise Edition, which includes the Enterprise JavaBeans programming model; Java Server Pages, which allow developers to add dynamic content to Web pages, such as graphics; and Java Servlets, small Java programs that run on the server-side, like the Java applets that run on browsers.

The Alliance plans to ship the new combined app server in the second half of 2000. The joint effort will take Netscape's transaction engine and load balancing features, which are considered faster and more reliable than NetDynamics. The Alliance will take NetDynamics' easy-to-use development tools and software connectors to Enterprise Resource Planning and so-called legacy systems.

The Alliance will build new security and messaging features and support XML, a Web standard for exchanging business data; and Java Message Services, a Java standard for messaging.

Before the unified app server is released, the Alliance will take the intermediate step of shipping an app server suite that includes both Netscape and NetDynamics' runtime engines, transaction, and load-balancing features--and let developers choose which one they want to use. That's due in early 2000.