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Sun renews Web-services effort

Now that the software world is moving to technology that lives on the network, Sun finds itself trailing arch rival Microsoft in the new battleground of Web services.

6 min read
Sun Microsystems Chief Executive Scott McNealy for years has proclaimed, "the network is the computer." Yet now that the software world is moving to technology that lives on the network, Sun finds itself trailing archrival Microsoft in the new battleground of Web services.

On Monday, iPlanet--Sun's joint venture with AOL Time Warner--will introduce key Web-services integration software, more than six months after Sun first announced its entry into that market. Sun executives told CNET News.com that in coming weeks the company will lay out additional details of its plan, including a competitor to Microsoft's HailStorm Web-services initiative.

Sun's renewed push will be its first announcement since unveiling its Sun One Web-services initiative in February, an event the company has backed with little substance.

"All Sun keeps saying is, 'We've been doing this for a long time,' and that doesn't cut it," said Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer.

Sun executives admit the company is late in staking its claim in the Web-services area and has done a poor job explaining its technology and strategy.

"We haven't been doing the best of jobs packaging the story, telling businesses how to take the different bits of Sun software and build them into Web services," said Gina Centoni, senior director of marketing for Sun One. "We hope to remedy that situation pretty quick."

Sun, Microsoft and other technology companies, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and a host of start-ups, are developing software to deliver Internet-based services. Some services are as simple as accessing e-mail and documents from cell phones, and others are as complex as sharing rentable business services to power e-commerce Web sites.

With a wealth of Net-ready technology including the Java programming language and the Solaris operating system, Sun should have been a clear leader in defining and developing Web services, analysts said.

"Sun has to get some products out on the street and articulate a vision for Web services, and they have done nothing like that up to this point," Plummer said.

Instead, the company has played catch-up. A Web-services announcement from Sun in February, intended to rally developer support, raised more questions about Sun's strategy than it answered, analysts said.

Microsoft, the most vocal proponent of Web services, has in large part defined the playing field that its competitors must now occupy. The company

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Marge Breya, VP of Sun's Web Services' division, SunOne, talks about where Sun is heading in the area of web services. (4:02)  
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has announced HailStorm, its initiative for delivering content and services to virtually any type of device, and Microsoft.Net, an overarching plan for moving business computing onto the Web, along with plans to deliver by year's end its Visual Studio.Net development tools for creating Web services.

"Microsoft has done a good job creating attention in this space," Centoni said. "But I will argue that Microsoft.Net is still in its description phase, and they're still figuring out their strategy."

Since nearly every software company is still building its Web-services products, analysts don't expect mainstream businesses to adopt Web services until late 2002. But Microsoft and IBM are the early leaders in capturing the hearts of developers.

"We are just at the beginning of the game. Until corporations buy into Web services, there will be no winners," said Hurwitz Group analyst Evan Quinn. "Microsoft, IBM, Sun and Oracle, and others can churn technology and new business models until they are blue in the face, but until the CFOs of the world are convinced that Web-services investments can offer real return, Web services will be mainly hype."

Developer support needed
Even though the concept is still in its infancy and most products are still in development, analysts say it's vital for Sun to bolster its Web-services strategy to attract Java software developers and present a strong alternative to Microsoft's Net plans.

A recent poll underscores the need for Sun to act fast. A Giga Information Group study found that of IS managers polled, 24 percent would choose Microsoft as their Web-services vendor, while only 7 percent would go with Sun.

Complicating Sun's task is stiff competition from other software companies. IBM, for instance, has been a big Web-services proponent and will ship new tools for Web services later this month.

Meta Group says iPlanet must take market share away from either BEA or IBM--Sun's ostensible partners in the Java movement.

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Monday's announcement from iPlanet fills out Sun's integration software for linking applications. The company will announce two products: the iPlanet Integration Server, B2B Edition, and the iPlanet Integration Server, EAI Edition. The products, along with the company's existing Message Queue for Java software, let companies build systems that collect and distribute data to Web sites, suppliers and customers. The products are expected to ship next month.

The new software is expected to add vital support for Web-services standards, such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which serves as a common communications format that links different programming models from Microsoft and the Java camp. SOAP allows businesses with different computing systems to connect and conduct transactions, regardless of the model used.

Sun executives in the fall will begin releasing detailed blueprints on how their company's smorgasbord of software fits in its strategy for building Web-based software and services, and how developers can use Sun's technology to deliver them.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company also expects to announce later this year new products from iPlanet and new partnerships that will give it a competing offering to HailStorm, a key piece of the Microsoft.Net software-as-a-service strategy that delivers Web content, shopping, banking and other services, such as e-mail, over a variety of devices, including cell phones, PCs and handhelds.

iPlanet was formed in March 1999 as part of AOL's purchase of Netscape Communications. Last week, AOL announced that it will cut 500 of iPlanet's roughly 3,000 employees as part of a restructuring effort.

Sun's efforts will allow businesses to create their own HailStorm-like services, Centoni said. She hinted that Sun may offer services beyond HailStorm but declined to elaborate. "Sun is adding to the existing set of similar components" defined by HailStorm, she said.

Analyst Mike Gilpin, of Giga Information Group, said Sun's iPlanet strategy for HailStorm-like services will hinge on its directory-server software, technology that serves as a central information database--or "yellow pages"--for users, systems and software.

Looking for momentum
Sun's partners in the Java world are hoping Sun will improve its marketing to create the perception that Java is a good alternative technology to Microsoft's .Net for building Web services.

Sun "has made a lot of announcements, but what's behind them?" said BEA Systems Chief Executive Bill Coleman. "We haven't seen much momentum beyond the (February) announcement." BEA offers Java-based application server software for building large commercial Web sites.

Sun executives say they will soon detail how all of the company's software fits together, such as its Solaris operating system, Forte software development tools, iPlanet e-business software, and Java initiatives. The Java initiatives include Jini, a networking technology that connects gadgets together, and Jxta, a standard technology for file-swapping services of the type pioneered by Napster.

Centoni said Sun will release a free developer's kit this fall that will teach and guide software developers on building Web services using Sun's technology. The developers' kit will include tutorials, sample software code and templates, she said.

In the first quarter of next year, Centoni said, Sun will release more developer's kits aimed at various industries--such as health care and banking--for building Web services that are specific to their needs. For example, financial institutions will need extra security, and medical facilities will need technology to support color images for patient information, she said.

"Businesses are grappling with what a Web service is and how to integrate it into their systems, taking into consideration devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants. They're asking, 'How do I deliver wireless services to them?'" Centoni said. "Our goal is to put the complexity away."

Gilpin said of utmost importance to Sun is creating development tools that make it easy for programmers to build Web services.

"Microsoft has made a major investment with Visual Studio.Net tools to make it easy to create Web services, and Sun needs to continue to enhance their tools," Gilpin said. "What they have delivered so far is superficial."

Sun executives in the coming weeks will brief industry analysts on the company's refined vision for Web services, a sign that the company is taking the Web-services market seriously, Gilpin said.

As for Sun's prospects against Microsoft, IBM and others, analysts are waiting for more details on Sun's plans.

"The question is, what will they wind up with--a lion or a mouse that roared?" said Gartner's Plummer. "We'll find out in the coming months."