Sun to advance Web services plan

Sun Microsystems is set to further define its vision for Web services as it vies with rival Microsoft for control over the future of business computing on the Internet.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Sun Microsystems is set to further define its vision for Web services as it vies with rival Microsoft for control over the future of business computing on the Internet.

On Tuesday at a Sun conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander and other Sun executives will advance Sun's support for the standards behind the creation of Web services software. In addition, as reported by CNET News.com, Sun will begin selling a new instant messaging product aimed at corporate users, the iPlanet Instant Collaboration Pack.

Web services, a trend sweeping the computing industry, involves reworking actions that currently happen on a desktop computer or a server so they take place on a mesh of servers and desktops that can seek each other out on the Internet. Microsoft's strategy goes by the moniker .Net; Sun's is called Sun One.

The Web services battle between Sun, Microsoft and others has so far been a war of words. Analysts say no clear leader has emerged since much of the technology and some of the standards needed to build commercial-grade systems are just now becoming available.

For example, Microsoft, which is holding a developers conference this week in Los Angeles, is expected to announce the pending availability of new tools as part of its .Net strategy. The tools, called Visual Studio.Net, will enable developers to start building Web services applications on Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Microsoft has been the most vocal technology maker in the Web services area, largely defining the playing field for its competitors. Analysts have criticized Sun for being late to announce a Web services strategy, and company executives have admitted that Sun has been slow to stake its claim in the Web services area.

"Sun is finally announcing specific pieces of their puzzle. Without it, they are dead in the water," Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said. "Before now, Sun was quiet on what they were going to do and not do. With these new pieces, they are in the game and beginning to build toward some momentum."

Early Web services are simple tasks such as an online calendar that is accessible via PC, cell phone or other devices. But companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard envision a much grander future. For example, scheduling a plane flight could trigger a cascade of actions that assemble different options that tie in with hotels, frequent flyer programs, and other related services.

see special report: The Gatekeeper: Windows XP Sun argues that Web services aren't the radical overhaul Microsoft makes them out to be. Rather, they are a further step in the revamp of software triggered by the arrival of the Internet and are already well under way.

"It's not this rip-and-replace strategy that's implied by the whole .Net effort," said Marge Breya, vice president of Sun One. "It'll be a nonrevolutionary approach in the midst of an economy that demands that."

Sun One is emerging in two major software initiatives at Sun: the iPlanet application server software for tasks such as selling books online and disseminating information from internal corporate Web sites or e-commerce sites; and the Java software that lets a program--at least theoretically--run on different computers without having to be rewritten for each one. Some developers have reported mixed success with Java server program portability.

The iPlanet products already support one component of Web services, sending messages using the Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard. Tuesday, Sun will announce that the iPlanet application server and Web server products will include built-in support for another key standard, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), used to send instructions from one machine to another using XML, Breya said.

And to lure customers to the iPlanet application server, which trails in the market after competing products from IBM and BEA Systems, Sun will offer the product free for development use.

Sun will detail Tuesday the schedule for supporting other Web services standards in the server version of Java by the end of 2002, Breya said: the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) standard, a sort of online yellow pages for listing Web services, and Web Services Description Language (WSDL), a standard way of describing specific services.

Sun spokesman David Harrah notes that some companies, including Cape Clear, Borland and BEA Systems, include support for these Web services standards in their products.

By the end of 2002, though, when Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) version 1.4 arrives, it will be a standard part of that Java specification. J2EE is not a product; rather, it is a set of specifications defined by Sun and other Java backers and implemented in products available from Sun, IBM, Oracle and other companies.

Sun also will announce Tuesday a way to speed up Java 1.3 through tuning the software for Sun's new UltraSparc 3 chip. The coming 1.4 edition of this standard version of Java, expected February, will be revamped so it takes advantage of 64-bit chips, Harrah said.

While both Sun and Microsoft support XML-based Web services standards such as SOAP, WSDL and UDDI, there are some key differences in their approaches. Sun's Web services strategy, for example, centers on its Java software for writing business programs, as well as on Electronic Business XML, or ebXML, which is a set of detailed blueprints on how businesses can conduct trades online.

Microsoft, on the other hand, supports its own languages, such as Visual Basic and a new language called C#, along with a set of XML specifications called BizTalk for building business e-commerce sites. Microsoft will also support ebXML if its customers demand it, according to the company.

Java support has also emerged as a key differentiation between the Microsoft and Sun plans. While Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net toolset will include a new tool, called Visual J#.Net, that lets developers use the Java langauge syntax to build .Net programs, Microsoft plans to stop sellling tools for stand-alone Java program creation.

Sun's criticism of Microsoft--outside of the Java battle--is that companies wishing to offer Web services commercially must worry about competing with Microsoft. Microsoft sells tools for building software to take advantage of Web services and plans to offer a set of hosted services to businesses and consumers called .Net My Services, which could lead it into a clash with AOL Time Warner in the consumer Internet business. Sun, in comparison, sells the underpinnings without offering the services themselves, Breya said.

"You're going to see Microsoft becoming much more of a services company and start turning into a network more and more," Breya said.

Microsoft's Adam Sohn, product manager for .Net platform strategy, countered that the company indeed plans services--the first .Net My Services formerly known by the code name Hailstorm will debut in 2002--but that there will be plenty of room for other companies. It's like the current situation in which Microsoft offers the Windows operating system along with the Office business software package, but numerous other companies also sell Windows business software.

"There's no way that any one person is going to be able to meet everyone's needs," Sohn said.