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Alliance gives Netscape's servers the nod

The Sun-Netscape pact will kill off Sun's two Web servers in favor of Netscape's technology as part of a software-paring effort.

The Sun-Netscape Alliance will kill off Sun's two Web servers in favor of Netscape's technology as part of an effort to pare down duplicate software.

The Alliance, created in March when America Online bought Netscape, plans to incorporate some technology from Sun's Web servers into Netscape's two Web servers--the high-end Enterprise and entry-level FastTrack servers, said Tom Lee, a senior product manager for the Alliance.

The move is another step in the Alliance's attempt to merge software from the two companies--and an indication that Sun, a controlling partner in the Alliance, is willing to give up on its technology. The Alliance laid out its plans yesterday to blend Sun's and Netscape's application servers into one unified product.

"We can't have four Web servers," Lee said. "What is going away is the Sun Web servers, because the Netscape Enterprise Server and FastTrack have bigger market share and a bigger installed base. The Sun Web Server and Java Web Server--both great Web servers--didn't have the market presence."

For current users of Sun's Web servers, the Alliance will help them migrate to Netscape's products and make sure their needs are met, Lee said. "We won't leave them out in the cold."

Analysts say the decision makes sense because of Netscape's leading market share in the software that handles Web page requests that come in from Web surfers. Some businesses also use Web servers as lightweight application servers by connecting to back-end databases to retrieve the data.

The three market leaders are Netscape, Microsoft's Internet Information Service--bundled free with the NT operating system, and the free, open-source Apache HTTP server.

In 1998, Web server revenues were $310.9 million with Netscape accounting for $276 million, or 89 percent of the revenue, said analyst Dan Kusnetzky, of International Data Corporation. The market should grow 10 to 15 percent this year, he said.

Lee said the Sun Web Server engineering team is joining the Netscape team to improve the Enterprise and FastTrack servers.

The goal is to release a new Enterprise Server--version 4.5--in the first quarter of 2000, which incorporates "the best" features from Sun, he said.

In the meantime, the Alliance will go ahead with a planned 4.0 release of Enterprise Server this August with more Java support, including Java Servlets, small Java programs that run on the server-side, like Java applets that run on browsers. In addition, the Alliance will support Java Server Pages, which allows developers to add graphics and other dynamic content to Web pages.

Having the Sun development team--and its knowledge of Java--will help improve Netscape's Java support, Lee said.

"For Sun customers, they get to migrate to an even better Web server. In our experience, most of our Web servers reside on Solaris, so the Sun expertise will only make things better. There's no downside. Our Web server story is going to be more powerful going forward."

Ted Schadler of Forrester Research said the Alliance's decision made sense, although it surprised him that the group would get rid of Sun's Java Web Server.

"The Java had attractiveness. It was a niche market for people who wanted to run a lightweight operating system environment like the Java OS," he said. "But it's kind of a no-big-deal kind of thing."

Kusnetzky said Sun's involvement with Netscape Enterprise Server could actually hurt it sales. Many server companies, such as Compaq, bundle the Enterprise Server, but Sun also competes in the server space.

"If Sun is the major vendor behind [Enterprise Server], can it be considered neutral anymore?," asked Kusnetzky. "Will Compaq embrace it as much as it did in the past?"