Truce called in Java standards battle

A closely watched feud over Java standards moves closer to resolution, but questions over the value of that standard still linger.

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
5 min read
A closely watched feud over Java standards compliance moved closer to resolution this week, but questions over the value of that standard still linger.

Open-source Java software distributor JBoss Group said Monday that it will work to certify its software with the Sun-controlled Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) standard. That decision reverses the company's previous stand and could resolve a long-standing dispute with Sun over Java certification.

J2EE isn't a product. It's a set of specifications used by commercial software makers to build products using Java in a standardized way. A software application written to the J2EE specification should run without change on any J2EE-compatible application server, for instance.

For vendors to legally claim that their software is J2EE compatible their products must undergo a series of tests. Sun makes money on J2EE by administering those compatibility tests and licensing the logo to vendors.

Sun has claimed that JBoss misled customers by using the J2EE brand in its marketing materials without having performed the tests. JBoss, which sells consulting services based on the freely available JBoss application server software, had complained that Sun's licensing price for the testing suites was too high. It also argued that the value of J2EE certification was on the wane.

"Essentially JBoss in the past has said that (we) don?t need or want to be J2EE-certified and Sun has made implications that we could not become J2EE-certified," said Bob Bickel, JBoss's vice president of corporate development and strategy.

In March, Sun offered JBoss a chance to license the software tests that certify J2EE compliance, but the negotiations promptly broke down.

This week, however, JBoss executives said they will seek J2EE certification in order to broaden the software's appeal to large businesses. Sun representatives confirmed that the companies are in discussions.

JBoss executives stressed that the certification is largely a symbolic move and doesn't change the company's technology.

"Our core base of developers, a lot of them say they don't give a damn" about J2EE certification, Bickel said. "But the reality is that a lot of big companies who are using this are moving into production."

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Bickel said JBoss Group has made a number of proposals to address problems in previous negotiations with Sun, including a mechanism for allowing volunteer open-source developers to perform the certification tests. Although JBoss has requested a price break on licensing the testing suites, Bickel said JBoss software partners have committed to picking up part of the tab.

If the negotiations are successful, Bickel said JBoss could do the development and testing needed to gain J2EE compatibility within about six months. Bickel oversaw a similar J2EE compatibility testing process when he was executive technology officer at Bluestone Software, which was later acquired by Hewlett-Packard.

Despite the lack of J2EE certification, JBoss's software has gained a large following among Java developers and is making strides with corporations and software partners looking for alternatives to more expensive commercial Java application servers.

JBoss's latest release, while is already largely compliant with J2EE, includes proprietary extensions not based on J2EE that could make it difficult for companies to move to another Java application server. Standards such as J2EE are designed to avoid such proprietary "lock-in" strategies, Sun has argued.

By sidestepping certification, JBoss was attempting to increase the number of customers wedded to its software, according to Sun.

"They're buying time. The longer (JBoss) can get away with this, the more developers move to JBoss," Rick Saletta, Sun's group marketing manager for J2EE licensing, told CNET News.com in May.

Now, JBoss's endorsement means that the company sees J2EE certification as an important step in winning enterprise customers, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at market research firm RedMonk.

"Clearly, J2EE certification is something that is a product differentiator and it does establish product viability somewhat," O'Grady said. "It gives you a certain measure of credibility right out of the gate."

JBoss software is based on the J2EE version 1.3 specification but the company has never invested in performing software tests that ensure its Java server software is officially compatible with the standard. If companies take full advantage of JBoss, it will be more difficult to substitute JBoss software with another provider's product.

Many software makers sell J2EE-compatible software, including BEA Systems, IBM and Oracle. The main rival to J2EE is Microsoft, which sells software based on its own .Net architecture.

What's the real value?
JBoss's dispute with Sun calls into question the value of J2EE certification. Some software makers and customers point out that certification does not guarantee application portability, as Sun claims.

Differences in how Java software makers implement standards can cause incompatibilities, they warn, because they may add proprietary extensions to the base J2EE standard. That means that applications developed for one system may not be portable to another.

And some Java software makers said they don't think that the cost of J2EE testing is worth the payback. Integration software maker Cape Clear, for example, decided against gaining the full J2EE certification. The company built its software using Java and Extensible Markup Language (XML), but decided that implementing all the features in the full J2EE standard was overkill for its needs.

"We had this thing inside our product, but rather than paying Sun $100,000 a year, we ripped it out," said Annrai O'Toole, CEO of Cape Clear. "You can get everything you want done with a very small subset of the whole J2EE kit and caboodle."

JBoss's decision to gain certification is more important from a marketing, rather than a technical perspective, said Andy Miller, vice president of technical architecture at Corporate Express, a Denver-based provider of office and computer products. The company is a JBoss Group customer, and Miller is a member of the JBoss Group advisory board.

"There will be corporate customers that will very deeply care about J2EE compliance," Miller said. "They'll say it will be a checklist item for their J2EE application servers, period. Without certification, JBoss will get locked out of that segment of the marketplace."

Corporate Express has made a substantial bet on JBoss and is using it in at least six applications in production. But Miller said the company is not overly concerned about the software's standards compliance. The company's strategy is to use standards-compliant features with the JBoss software as much as possible and only break from the standard when necessary.

"Open source projects do die so if that were to happen, we want to be able to move our applications to another application server," Miller said.