08:08 PM

Other Side Of Sun

With a more complete software environment, computer maker thinks outside the box

Talk about a week of ups and downs. Last Wednesday, Sun Microsystems executives proudly unveiled the latest version of the company's flagship Unix operating system, Solaris 9, a more fully featured software stack intended to make it easier for companies to deploy new types of applications, including Web services. The next day, they held a midquarter conference call with analysts to say earnings goals were on target, but that sales remain sluggish. On Friday, the bad news outweighed the good, leading Sun's stock-and the entire Nasdaq-lower.

Jonathan Schwartz

"There isn't a part of Sun's business that isn't touched by software," says Schwartz, new exec VP of software, about Sun's integration plans.
Such has been the luck of Sun for the last year or so: well-regarded products swimming against tough business currents and dot-com washout. The company hopes that a series of recent and upcoming software products, tied together under its Sun Open Network Environment architecture, will get it back on track. "Everyone wants to figure out where Sun's business is going," says Jonathan Schwartz, the company's recently appointed executive VP of software, who takes over his new duties on July 1. "Software will play an important role. There isn't a part of Sun's business that isn't touched by software." Schwartz has been Sun's chief strategy officer for the past two years.

At the center of it all is Solaris 9, an operating system that, in addition to some 300 improvements, comes integrated with two important additions: Sun's latest Java-based application server and a directory server for managing user identities. Taken together, the package amounts to what Sun officials call an "operating environment"-top-to-bottom software that will make it cheaper and easier for customers to develop, deploy, and manage networked applications. The operating-environment concept is an important distinction for a company that's been fighting a long-and some would say losing-battle at the operating-system level against the likes of Windows and Linux.

The new approach should lessen the hassle of integrating application and directory servers with the operating system while trying to achieve the highest possible performance, says Matthew Stock, IT director at the University of Buffalo, which uses Sun workstations and servers. "It's the right direction," he says. "One of the classic problems that lots of organizations have is coming up with an architecture that works at an enterprise level and having it scale and work well."

Solaris 9 also comes with security improvements, including hacker-resistant buffer overflow protection and an improved firewall. "Fundamentally, the Sun software stack is harder against intrusion than Windows," says Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "Sun is more mindful of security in its development. They win over Microsoft."

Something needed to change. Sun failed to win the application-server business of some of its biggest customers, such as eBay Inc., which last year chose IBM's WebSphere over Sun's iPlanet app server. Another customer, Galileo International, a subsidiary of travel-services company Cendant Corp., is using IBM's TravelFrame E-business app development tools as a key component in building out its Web-services architecture. In a good sign for Sun, however, Galileo last week said it will replace part of its IBM mainframe infrastructure with eight of Sun's SunFire 6800 servers for its GlobalFares airfare-pricing system.

Sun's message could also appeal to Nielsen Media Research, a subsidiary of $4 billion Dutch business-information and market-research company VNU N.V. Nielsen wants to create a gateway that lets customers access the company's Internet-enabled services using a single sign-on, and Solaris 9 may provide a more harmonious, cost-efficient environment than its current mix of the iPlanet directory server, BEA Systems' application server, and Epicentric's portal software.

"Having an application server bundled and licensed makes it easier to use," Nielsen CIO Kim Ross says. "We view Sun One as a collection of components to build out the front end for Web-oriented apps. There are many components we need to use and [reuse], like the app server, portal, and security."

While Sun's goal is to offer the highest level of integration between software and hardware in the Unix world, it can't do so all on its own. Sun will have to continue to partner with database developers such as Oracle and IBM for data-management features. And some key pieces of the puzzle are missing, including full support for Web-services standards. Although Solaris 9 supports XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol, two core Web-services standards are still lacking: UDDI, for the description and discovery of business application services over the Web, and WSDL, which lets programs describe their capabilities.

The UDDI registry won't become important until companies start deploying large numbers of Web services-probably a couple of years down the road-but vendors still need to demonstrate their support for the spec. Standards compliance is key for customers such as General Motors Corp., which is evaluating Web-services software from IBM, Microsoft, and Sun. Because GM uses hardware and software from almost every major vendor, the automaker needs to be sure that each company's implementation will be truly standards-based, says Tony Scott, the automaker's chief technology officer for information systems and services.

Scott is a fan of Sun's long-running strategy of developing software and hardware designed to work together. GM runs Web, database, and application servers on Sun's Unix platform. "Sun went through the whole 64-bit process early on and worked it out well," he says. "Stability over time translated into higher availability and reduced costs."

Sun is competing with IBM and Microsoft to be the infrastructure provider of choice to companies deploying Web services (See "A New Wave Nears," Feb. 11, p. 22; It plans to flesh out its Web-services strategy next month.

Sun will have even more software advances to discuss before then. Next week, it will detail how its Portal 6.0 software will leverage the Sun-led Liberty Alliance's network-identity specification. That technology is designed to let companies offer users a single sign-on into multiple networked systems, applications, and Internet services.

"Innovation is still coming out of Sun," says David Hallet, group IT director at Littlewoods plc, a Web-based retailer in Liverpool, England. "It's as much about software as it is the hardware." That's the message Schwartz will be pushing. "The No. 1 thing CIOs talk to me about is how do they get optimum uptime for the services they deliver to their users," Schwartz says. "It takes the whole nine yards-servers, software, and storage-to do that."

It's been a tough time lately for Sun, which has seen its revenue and stock price shrink in the last year and several of its top executives resign, including the pending departure of president and chief operating officer Ed Zander. Sun's stock lost another 7% on Friday, closing at less than $7.

The progress of Sun's software strategy may be difficult to measure in the months ahead, says Andy Neff, Bear Stearns' senior managing director. "But with $6 billion in cash, you're economically viable. It's a question of Sun finding its groove."

-with Martin J. Garvey, Antone Gonsalves, and Paul McDougall

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