Sun's Jxta hopes: DéJàva vu all over again?

The company hopes its new software will alter the face of the Net, but with Microsoft's HailStorm providing a challenge--and other factors--it won't be easy.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
The brains at Sun Microsystems have done it again, unleashing upon the world new software they hope will reshape how networks of computers communicate. But will the company succeed this time?

On Wednesday, the company that created Java and Jini released Jxta, software Sun hopes will put it at the center of the peer-to-peer programming movement vaulted into prominence by projects such as Napster and Seti@home.

If Sun succeeds with Jxta (pronounced "juxta"), the software will become the foundation of an Internet that looks somewhat like a human brain, with messages skipping among billions of cells, triggering actions that spawn new torrents of messages among rapidly changing groups of cells.

While Sun has high hopes for Jxta, analysts see it as more of a curiosity for now.

"It's an interesting lab project," said Gartner analyst David Smith. "I haven't been able to get anyone to explain to me what problem it solves. It's not clear where it fits within Sun's product strategy."

And as usual, Sun faces a challenge from its nemesis, Microsoft. Microsoft's HailStorm software, while handling higher-level functions than Jxta, covers some of the same territory. Like Jxta, HailStorm also defines ways that Internet "peers," such as PCs or cell phones, communicate using XML (Extensible Markup Language), a popular standard for exchanging data over the Internet.

At stake is whose technology will be the underpinnings for joining devices and creating services that run atop networks of these devices. While HailStorm focuses on joining gadgets and PCs to services running on central servers, Jxta targets networks that may not have that central server.

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Sun's Jxta to expand Net boundaries
Mike Clary, VP, Jxta Project, Sun Microsystems
Sun hopes Jxta will become as basic to the world of computing as the standards that made possible the Web and the Internet itself, the company said in a Webcast on Wednesday. Sun released an early version of the Jxta software as a free download, calling on developers to help expand and improve the software and help make it a standard part of the Internet.

"This is something we expect to be widely available, like TCP/IP being widely available makes the Internet possible and HTTP makes the Web possible," said Bill Joy, a Sun co-founder who developed key parts of the Unix operating system and helped to invent Sun's Java software.

As mentioned, Jxta is intended to govern how computing devices on the Internet--such as PCs or cell phones--connect, communicate and share jobs. It's got features for shuttling information from one device to another through "pipes;" security components to protect against attacks; mechanisms to build, find and join groups of peers; and services to monitor how much the software is being used.

"Jxta (allows) groups of devices and services to easily get together and share information," Joy said.

Sun first began talking about Jxta in February at a conference dedicated to the peer-to-peer phenomenon.

You say you want a revolution...
But Sun has tried before to reshape computing, with varying success. It released its Java software in 1995, saying the software would bypass Windows' dominance by letting programs run on any sort of Java-enabled computer. While Java caught on as a programming language and for use in servers, it hasn't subordinated Windows.

Next came Jini, software released in 1999 that Sun promised would let gadgets such as printers and digital cameras share data without needing a PC as a go-between. More than two years later, it has yet to achieve widespread use.

"Jini seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth," Gartner's Smith said.

Jxta and Jini

Meta Group says Jxta is easier to understand as a personal project of Sun co-founder Bill Joy than as something related to current Sun business initiatives.

see commentary

have some similarities--for example, early versions of both run only on top of a foundation of Java, and both software packages provide a mechanism for computing devices to discover each other on networks. But Burton Group analyst James Kobelius sees Jxta as aimed more at allowing people--rather than devices--to work together.

Sun has had more success spreading Network File System (NFS), a standard for making files available on a network. NFS has won broad support--except that Microsoft prefers a competing standard, Common Internet File System (CIFS).

To encourage the spread of Jini and Java, Sun let programmers look at the innards of the software, something Microsoft almost never does. But Sun reserved to itself the privilege of actually deciding if suggested changes would be incorporated.

With Jxta, in contrast, Sun has jumped fully into the open-source method, under which programmers have cooperated to create respected projects such as Linux. While permission from senior Linux community members is required to have changes incorporated into the main version of Linux, there's nothing stopping people from making those changes and redistributing the software themselves.

Enlisting the open-source community's help isn't a guarantee of success, said Gartner's Smith. For a standard to catch on as a foundation of the Internet, "there has to be some groundswell behind it or a dominant killer app" that uses it, he said.

That support doesn't yet exist, Smith said.

Jini's bottleneck Sun tapped CollabNet to help try to build a Jxta open-source community, securing the endorsement of Brian Behlendorf, a founder of CollabNet and the open-source Apache Web server software. Indeed, the license that governs use of Jxta is based on Apache's.

One change compared with the normal Apache license, though, is that products using the Jxta software can't use the Jxta name unless Sun grants written permission, according to the license agreement that accompanies the software.