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Sun's Forte buy gives server software a boost

Sun's $540 million acquisition of the toolmaker could give the company an advantage in the corporate software market with a set of easier to use, more capable development tools.

Sun today put an end to months of speculation by acquiring a development tool company to help broaden the appeal of its application server software.

Sun's $540 million acquisition of toolmaker Forte Software could give the company an advantage in the corporate software market with a set of easier to use, more capable development tools, said analysts.

"This gives [Sun] a more palatable way to sell application server software," said Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information Group.

Sun sells two application servers: NetDynamics, which it acquired last year, and the Netscape Application Server, obtained through its alliance with Netscape.

Application server software helps companies create e-commerce Web sites by processing transactions and running the business logic--or rules--of applications, and linking browser-based clients to databases and other software.

While application server software has grown in popularity, building applications using the software remains a relatively complex process, requiring a knowledge of Java or C++ computer programming languages.

Forte sells a development tool for building Java-based distributed applications called SynerJ, along with application integration software, that Sun can use to simplify development of software that runs on multiple servers connected via the Internet. "There are perceptual complexities associated with thinking about your application as lots of tiny bits floating all over the place. SynerJ gives [developers] a built-in application framework so that they can focus on business logic, not the low-level complexities," said Gilpin.

Gilpin said Sun could have retrofitted tools currently part of NetDynamics to accomplish the same task as SynerJ. But "would that be better than what Forte offers? Probably not, and Forte has a number of" cross-platform advantages that allow it to work with a range of application servers, he said.

Forte fairly new to Java
Forte got into the Java business relatively recently in its history. Development for the company's first product that uses Java, SynerJ, began two-and-a-half years ago, and the product is now in its final beta testing stages, he said.

In addition to SynerJ, Forte sells an earlier application development system as well as an application to tie together the e-commerce software companies already have written.

"Forte will be run independently but as a wholly owned subsidiary of Sun," said Forte chief executive Marty Sprinzen in an interview with CNET "The strategies and people will stay in place," but Forte will be able to get mileage out of Sun's image and financial clout, he said. Forte has 400 employees and 500 customers, he said.

With acquisition by Sun and tapping into Sun's 8,000-person sales force, "obviously our ability to grow the business is going to be dramatically improved," Sprinzen said. However, Sprinzen declined to discuss whether the sales would happen with Sun itself or through the Sun-Netscape Alliance. "We can't talk about product strategies," he said.

The acquisition fills a need for Sun to be able to provide the programming tools to let people use Sun hardware and software everywhere from big servers to little Web browsers, said Jonathan Schwartz, vice president of Internet development tools at Sun. Forte's software works both with companies starting afresh with e-commerce systems or with those expanding existing ones.

Schwartz declined to comment on whether Sun was interested in purchasing Inprise, another company that provides programming software. Sun has been rumored to be interested in several development toolmakers.

Forte was founded in 1991, began selling its first product in 1994, and went public in 1996, Sprinzen said. "We're basically known for our ability to build and integrate enterprise-class systems," he said.

The company had $80 million in revenue in its most recent fiscal year, which ended in March, 45 percent of it from international business, he said. However, the company posted a net loss of 2 cents a share in the company's most recent quarter, which ended in June.