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Sun tries again with Jini

The company seeks new life in business systems for its Jini software, once seen as the magic for cutting-edge consumer electronic devices.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read
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Sun Microsystems says its much-hyped Jini software is finding a new use in nuts-and-bolts business applications, rather than in networks of futuristic consumer gadgets as the company originally intended.

Last week, the Jini Community--a group of companies working to further the technology--released its first standard for building Jini-based systems, which could make the software far easier to work with.

In addition, Sun announced that a number of business software companies are using Jini within their applications. That's a key step for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based tech giant in its attempts to reposition Jini for business use.

These adopters are using Jini to help connect complex business systems that are delivered over the Internet and that change frequently--a stark contrast to Sun's earlier ambitions for Jini to be a force in consumer electronics. Sun also is targeting the software for applications in flexible computing systems.

"The trend toward on-demand, or utility computing--where you shift resources from one machine to another--that flexibility is driving an increasing need to manage change, and that's what's driving people to use this technology," said Jennifer Kotzen, a Jini marketing manager at Sun.

Such "distributed systems" can be difficult to manage, said Kotzen. The ability of Jini to allow pieces of an application to communicate with each other across a network--even if those pieces are frequently changed or moved--is one of the technology's strongest attributes and can simplify the building of complex systems, according to backers.

The software's transformation to a business tool took a step forward last Wednesday when the Jini Community introduced a specification for putting a standard user interface on Jini applications--regardless of the hardware on which they run. That could make the Sun tool more appealing to developers looking for a one-size-fits-all distributed technology.

Sun's dreams for Jini
Sun's new plan for Jini is the latest chapter in a long saga. The technology, unveiled with great fanfare in 1999, allows software and hardware components to discover each other over networks and to use each other's services. Unlike current computing devices, a Jini device broadcasts an electronic instruction manual--or its own "driver"--describing how to use it.

As initially conceived, a Jini device would automatically broadcast what the device it was embedded in could do and how it worked--a fundamental difference from the way networks operate today. Devices can then link themselves and take advantage of each other's abilities, bypassing the need for a person to inform all the affected components.
In early demonstrations, Sun executives showed how the software could be used to let a consumer device detect other compatible devices on a network. In this way, a digital camera, for example, could wirelessly send a photo directly to a printer.

But Sun's vision for Jini has greatly outpaced reality. The wireless technology needed to make it work wasn't initially available, and few companies sold consumer devices with enough computing horsepower to support the Jini software. Consequently, while many manufacturers initially showed interest in the Sun technology, few ended up shipping products.

In 2000, Sun recognized that its original plan for Jini was overambitious and said it would simplify the Java-based programming model to promote its popularity with developers.

Now, Sun says the initiative finally is catching on, thanks to improvements in connectivity and in processing power, and to a need for software that can be easily modified to fit new system architectures.

There are about 150,000 developers and about 100 commercial licensees that are using Jini, according to Sun. Kotzen noted that it is being used in both Java business applications and embedded in devices such as smart cards, mobile phones that run the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) software, and in far-flung systems such as those used in the space shuttle.

Sun's new emphasis on business applications makes sense because Jini's greatest--albeit limited--success so far has been in connecting distributed computing systems, said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk. In addition, Jini-based software has the potential to manage workloads across different servers and storage devices, he said, which could be a boon for companies looking for more flexible systems that adapt easily to change.

Sun does not sell a commercial product based on Jini; instead, it promotes its use as a way to further sales of its servers and its own software products.

Piggybacking on Web services?
Acceptance of Jini may be fueled by the popularity of Web services technology, which seeks to solve many of the problems that the Sun software is well-suited to handling, according to analysts.

"In terms of this notion of distributed systems management and how applications talk to each other, (a decentralized architecture) is an important part of the puzzle, and Sun can potentially play in that area," Governor said.

Alexandria, Va.-based Templar is using Jini software to pull together data from far-flung law enforcement databases. The software polls agencies in different municipalities, collects data and then converts it to a common format. Jini resides within Templar's own application and acts as a network "agent" that can advertise, or register, where a piece of data is to the central data-collection system.

The Jini-based registration service was "key" to making Templar's system work, said Ross Ashley, one of the company's founders. Even in a Microsoft .Net environment--from a technical standpoint--it's easy to do a distributed solution, Ashley said. But it's harder to do discovery and find out where data is, Ashley added.

The Sun and Microsoft approaches have limitations, according to analysts. Microsoft .Net ultimately requires that systems run on its Windows operating system. Jini relies on Sun's technological workhorse, Java--which could be one of its greatest weaknesses.

Even though Jini does offer advantages in certain computing situations, Sun's approach places too much stress on the software as a Java-based technology, said Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at ZapThink. The company is readying a non-Java version of Jini for devices that can't download software. That project, called Jini Surrogate, is still in preliminary stages, however.

A better approach would be to emphasize Jini's adaptability as a business solution that just happens to use Java, according to Schmelzer. "In the short term, Sun is trying to find a market for its product," Schmelzer said. "But they can't start with Java; they should start with the business."

One Java-related trend could help Jini's acceptance, though. Many businesses have already installed on their servers the Java Virtual Machine software that's needed to run Jini and other Java-based applications.

The security challenge
Security is another long-standing problem. The Jini Community is pushing to make Jini better-suited to sensitive applications such as those used by financial institutions. The next Jini specification is expected to introduce new security mechanisms and other improvements. The additions are slated for release in the Jini Starter Kit 2.0, a test version of which is available now.

Beyond the Java and security challenges, Sun has to convince developers that Jini is alive and well--and that the company is behind it. Although the software hasn't garnered as much attention or as many financial and development resources as other Java initiatives within Sun, Kotzen said that the company is committed to its development.

Jini performs similar tasks to other distributing computing software, such as XML-based Web services or object middleware that adheres to the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). But Kotzen said Jini is more suitable for highly distributed computing installations that see a high rate of change. Web services, where connections between applications are not hard-coded, addresses a different "style" of computing, she said.

Templar is considering incorporating Web services standard software, notably XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) into its applications. But another Jini licensee said that Web services are not robust enough for its complex requirements.

Software maker Valaran has used Jini to construct business process integration middleware that draws data from the dozens of applications used by the telecommunications industry.

"Jini is sort of the chameleon of middleware, because it doesn't mandate the (application) interfaces or the transport (protocols)" as other distributed computing architectures do, said Aleta Ricciardi, executive vice president of product strategy at Valaran. "For an end-to-end picture of a business process, we need something that is flexible."