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Sun, Microsoft tout fruits of cooperation

The companies bridge a networking-system rift, while customers hope more such collaborations are on the way. Photos: Ballmer, McNealy find common ground

PALO ALTO, Calif.--A networking technology that once divided Sun Microsystems and Microsoft has now become the companies' first point of cooperation.

The technology, which Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer discussed here Friday, helps bridge a rift many computer users and administrators must wrestle with during the login process. Sun and Microsoft demonstrated "single sign-on" software that, when it's widely available, will let a person log in once to use network services that previously required separate authentications.

Ballmer and McNealy

"We're poised to leave the computer lab now and really enter the marketplace together," Ballmer said.

The software will be incorporated into future versions of the companies' products--likely in 2006, Ballmer said. For now, it's the most concrete example of cooperation between the companies whose fierce competition was blunted somewhat by a 2004 agreement to settle legal issues, share patents and make their software interoperable.

"This was one of the main areas of contention," said Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis.

While there is cooperation on this subject, however, there remain other Microsoft and Sun software products that are firmly separated by technical, if not political, differences: Microsoft's Windows and Sun's Solaris operating system, for example; and Sun's Java software and Microsoft's analog, .Net.

Still, the cooperation is significant for companies whose cultures and engineering styles were so far apart that it took about half a year just to get collaborating employees talking to each other.

"At times it looked like centrifugal force or antibodies were going to make this thing not happen," McNealy said. And Ballmer added that executives were impatient: "We were saying stop with the getting-to-know-you stuff and start with the progress stuff."

Next up will be cooperation in a number of other domains: storage software and hardware; unified systems management; Web services standards for messaging and event-tracking; and Windows terminal services that let PCs act like thin clients by leaving the heavy lifting of computing to central servers.

Where's Linux?

McNealy and Ballmer repeatedly emphasized how their customers pushed them into the alliance and are delighted with its progress. But some see merit in cooperation with other rivals as well.

"One thing that was not mentioned or asked: What about Linux?" said William Hurley, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. "The brushing-over on this topic was disappointing since the vast majority of customers who operate either Windows or Solaris also use Linux."

Actually, Linux wasn't completely ignored. McNealy conspicuously omitted it from a list of operating systems he predicts will have long-term viability.

"There are two clear survivors in the operating system marketplace. Those are Solaris and Windows," McNealy said. "I'm not sure who third place is in the long term."

When the companies' cooperation initially was announced, Microsoft paid Sun $1.95 billion to settle Sun's antitrust suit and to license patents and share technology. Microsoft paid Sun a further $54 million this year to extend the patent agreement.

But the payments now are traveling the other direction, McNealy said at Friday's news conference. "It is a two-way street," he said, though he and Ballmer refused to disclose how much Sun has paid.

Sun has licensed Microsoft's Remote Display Protocol, McNealy said. The move, combined with Sun's planned acquisition of Tarantella software, lets customers use Sun Ray thin clients, remote PCs or even Java-enabled automobile computers to control centrally run Windows software.

Sun also has paid Microsoft to improve its software for sharing files over Windows networks. Sun ships the open-source Samba software for that task today, but it also is getting a new implementation through its planned acquisition of Procom storage technology assets, Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos said in an interview.

Single sign-on specs
The authentication process is a basic, but flawed, part of network use. One person who'd like to see that change is Fred Killeen, chief technology officer of General Motors. His servers run directory software from both Sun and Microsoft to store usernames and passwords for more than a million people--employees, retirees, suppliers, auto dealers and others--in 190 countries.

Killeen has begun a pilot project with Sun and Microsoft to let the directories work together, unifying the sign-on process for GM's Windows-based desktop authentication and a Sun-based portal site called Socrates.

"It will take out a significant amount of complexity from our IT environment. It will mean fewer passwords and fewer calls to our help desk," Killeen said.

Sun and Microsoft previously advocated separate, incompatible technology for the process--Sun's choice of the name Liberty for its specification was a jab at Microsoft's rival Passport service. Microsoft largely scrapped Passport as a centralized authentication site for a different--but still incompatible--approach called Web Services Federation.

The companies were not polite about their competition in 2001. McNealy derided Passport as a way for Microsoft to collect information about computer users and then charge them for the privilege of being a gatekeeper. Ballmer said Liberty has "zero probability of mattering to the world."

Now the companies are moving on. They proposed two specifications, the Single Sign-on Metadata Exchange Protocol and the Web Single Sign-On Interoperability Profile, that make single sign-on possible with Web browsers tapping into either Liberty or WS-Federation systems.

The partnership brings Sun into closer agreement with several other companies developing so-called Web services standards that govern sophisticated business transactions on the Internet. "This is not just Sun-Microsoft," Willett said. "This is Sun-Microsoft-IBM-BEA Systems."

The companies haven't yet chosen what standards body they'll use to try to standardize the technology, McNealy said.