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Sun's i-Planet revives NC concept

Sun Microsystems brings back the idea of the network computer--but this time, you don't need to buy any new boxes or rewrite any software.

Sun Microsystems has revived the idea of the network computer--but this time, you don't need to buy any new boxes or rewrite any software.

Sun's i-Planet software, which runs on a server back at company headquarters, lets people use any unmodified Web browser to connect to programs and computers connected to company networks, such as proprietary databases or even a person's own desktop system.

The i-Planet system bears a strong resemblance to the network computer strategy, a Sun-backed concept that advocated using centralized computers to handle the workload. Under this strategy, inexpensive clients mostly acted as devices to view data on the network, but made up for it in ubiquity. Because programs and data were stored on servers, a user could retrieve materials via any client connected in the network.

Although it had some merit, the network computer concept failed, said Anne Thomas, an analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group. The problem was simply that there was no software to back it up.

Sun, however, has sidestepped the software issue with i-Planet, because the program can work with a company's existing software and doesn't require that companies retool their computer infrastructure.

"Our objective is to put this into a customer site and get it to run right now," said Steve Borcich, a senior director of product development of the Sun-Netscape Alliance. "The applications have not been rewritten to be Web-enabled. We have not damaged our security infrastructure to allow this access. And there is no client software to be deployed."

The product will have some appeal for companies with employees on the road, Thomas said, though it's somewhat hobbled by the lack of ubiquitous Internet connections. For example, a traveling employee working on the plane will still need a laptop to get any work done.

The system is pretty fast under the circumstances, but the user has to adapt to response delays of up to a half second when using the remote control feature, she said.

Perhaps its strongest benefit is for people who need to keep their laptops tied into their main desktop machines, she said. One could get by with a lighter, cheaper portable in that situation, she said.

Ultimately, through the computer's Java technology, the system could even work on Java-enabled Web phones or even cell phones, she added.

Meanwhile, the Internet has made the world more comfortable with computer networks, but is the world ready for it?

IBM, one of network computing's strongest advocates, "basically abandoned the network computing model" about six months ago, repackaging its eSuite products as Java technology, Thomas said. But some companies, including Seven Mountains and Digital Harbor, still believe the concept is alive.

A half million network computers were shipped in 1998, according to International Data Corporation, but that number pales in comparison to the 24.5 million PCs shipped in the first quarter of 1999.

"Network computers were ahead of their time. Now that software is beginning to catch up, they may experience a resurgence," Thomas said. How it works
I-Planet runs on its own server--at present the only option is a computer running Sun's Solaris operating system--which connects to the "back end" corporate systems. The i-Planet server has two components: one to handle authenticating the user and keeping the transmissions encrypted, and another that keeps track of the services are available for a client and that relays information between the back-end server and the client.

When the user logs on, using a Sun-supplied mechanisms or whatever security system a company already has in place, he sees a new browser window with links to the programs the user is allowed to run, Borcich said.

To use the system, the client needs relatively modern versions of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, Borcich said.

Sun entered into partnerships with Citrix and Symantec to beef up the software, Borcich said. The Citrix software allows the system to use Citrix thin client technology, and the Symantec software lets people use the PC-Anywhere remote control software, he said.

The software grew out of Sun.Net, software Sun developed for its own use and enhanced with the October 1998 acquisition of i-Planet, Borcich said.

The software can tie into programs running any version of Unix, Windows NT, or some IBM mainframe systems, Borcich said.

The software, a product of the Sun-Netscape Alliance, will be available May 17 for Solaris machines, and a Windows NT version is planned for release in 90 to 120 days, he said.

The software costs $10,000 for a 100-client version; $40,000 for a 1,000-client version; or $16 per client at higher volumes, Sun said.