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Sun plans standalone IM server

Sun Microsystems plans to release a standalone instant messaging server product within the next few months, the latest sign of booming demand for corporate IM services.

Sun Microsystems plans to release a standalone instant messaging server product within the next few months, the company confirmed this week, in the latest sign of booming demand for corporate IM services.

Sun has long offered IM with its Sun ONE (One Network Environment) Portal Server suite, formerly marketed under the iPlanet brand. A new standalone Sun ONE Instant Messaging server product is expected to arrive sometime this spring, a company representative said Tuesday, although a formal release date has not yet been announced.

The new IM server will add support for the Linux operating system. Currently Sun ONE Portal Server runs on Sun's Solaris OS and Windows.

The new standalone server product comes as demand for enterprise IM is heating up amid a growing recognition of unauthorized IM usage in the workplace. "There's a battle under way for the hearts and minds of business IT managers for IM in the workplace," said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research.

IBM's Lotus Sametime product dominates the official business IM market, according to analysts. But it has been illicit office use of consumer IM services such as AOL's ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) that has recently thrust the technology into the spotlight for corporate information technology managers.

Companies, including top Wall Street brokerages, have banned popular consumer IM products in the workplace and have begun testing services from IM providers that offer security and other features, such as message archiving. These features are designed to bring the technology into compliance with regulations governing brokerage customer communications.

That could create a big opportunity for companies such as Sun to steal the march from the three giants of the consumer IM marketplace: AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Sun's decision to break out a standalone corporate IM server dovetails with plans initiated last summer to open its portal product for use with rival operating systems, and to compete on a product-by-product basis in addition to positioning the products as part of an integrated suite.

Patrick Dorsey, group manager for Sun ONE communications products, said the standalone IM server will continue to offer a high level of integration with the portal platform, although he said it could help open doors to customers seeking to add IM to an existing system built on products from Sun rivals such as BEA Systems and IBM. He said Sun has about 1,000 customers of its collaboration platform, which include IM, calendaring, e-mail, scheduling and task management. He added that customers looking to use IM have increased significantly over the past six months.

"The trend in the market is for customers to look for well-integrated products that can also leverage third-party products," he said. "To the extent that customers need a targeted solution, we'll serve that."

Jupiter's Gartenberg said Sun could still have its work cut out for it competing for business IM customers with the three consumer IM giants. Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo have all announced plans in the past six months to develop corporate IM products, adding features sought by businesses such as security, archiving and authentication.

"This represents the fact that IM is a growing business application that enterprises want to employ throughout their businesses," he said. "But it will be a challenge for Sun to convince business customers that they understand the IM market as well as players that have established themselves in the consumer market."

Sun and AOL began interoperability tests between their IM products in late 2001, although no compatible products have yet been announced. Sun and AOL Time Warner's Netscape Communications division had previously partnered to create Web applications for businesses under the iPlanet umbrella. Sun took sole control of the project at the end of the initial three-year partnership deal, renaming the products using the Sun ONE brand.

Sun's IM server plans were disclosed at the Instant Messaging Planet conference in Boston this week, and first reported in Computer Reseller News.