Made in the Shade?

Sun cranks up the Web services heat; iPlanet veteran steps into the spotlight.

Sun Microsystems is recruiting iPlanet head Mark Tolliver to be its Web-services "czar," as part of a plan to catch up with its rivals on the path to the future of computing. Tolliver, the president of iPlanet, a Sun-America Online joint venture, will oversee Suns efforts to deliver a Web-services platform that can compete with products from IBM, Microsoft and others. He took on the role over the last few weeks and is now managing a team of technical and marketing executives within Sun, according to VP Doug Kaewert.

Kaewert declined to name any other committee members. He did, however, say Sun will push its Sun ONE architecture for Web services to developers and partners, and offer training and certification programs in Web services. The company hopes to evangelize Web services the way it did Java, naming qualified systems integrators as Authorized Web Services Centers.

Big Opportunity Along with the Forte application-development tools, Java and Solaris, iPlanet is Suns implementation of Sun ONE, although the architecture is tech-nically neutral and can work with any product that complies with certain Internet standards.

"Weve been quiet since we announced Sun ONE in January, but going quiet doesnt mean weve been doing nothing," Kaewert says. "This is a big opportunity for the value-added service community because most organizations dont know how to create Web services. I need to drive growth in our developer community."

Despite its dominant position in the Web server space, Sun is considered by many to be woefully behind its competition, particularly IBM and Microsoft, on the Web services front. Suns rivals made early grabs for the Web-services mantle—Microsoft with its .Net strategy and IBM with its middleware product line led by its increasingly popular WebSphere application server. Both IBM and Microsoft have marketed an appealing Web-services vision.

Mums the Word Meanwhile, Sun has seemed almost reluctant to outline its Web-services strategy and has focused on so-called smart services, a more complicated concept to sell.

Its unclear what Tollivers appointment means for the future of iPlanet. The contract that established the two-year-old joint venture expires in March 2002, and the partners are currently renegotiating it, according to Linda Popkey, iPlanets senior director of product marketing.

Youve Got Web Many expect iPlanet and most, if not all, of its products to be subsumed by Sun. "IPlanet products will survive," says Popkey, but it is uncertain if the partnership between Sun and AOL will last, she adds.

The partnership has always been in name only anyway. IPlanet was established as a way for AOL, which had just bought Netscape and its myriad products, to spin off those products.

"AOL bought Netscape just for Web presence," says Randy Hefferman, director at market research firm Giga Information Group. "We always speculated that there must have been some restrictions, pooling of interest, or something, that prevented AOL from selling [those products] off within two years." As a result, he says, "AOL has not been part of the [iPlanet] picture. The whole connection has been to the Sun side of the house."

IPlanet has struggled from the start as the venture tried to meld two technologies: the NetDynamics application server acquired by Sun and the Kiva platform inherited from Netscape. That led to installation problems and complaints from customers like Home Depot and Johnson & Johnson.

Fine Lines In the meantime, BEA Systems and IBM have established resounding leads in the app-server business, grabbing two-thirds of the market between them. It will be tough for iPlanet—whether as a standalone company or as an entity within Sun—to topple BEA or IBM. Additionally, iPlanet may have its work cut out just keeping pace with Oracle, which also trails BEA and IBM but contends that the latest version of its Oracle9i beats the competition.

Sun also walks a fine line because it works with all Java app-server vendors. "Sun works horizontally with Java," says Sun executive VP of software Pat Sueltz. "You name it, we work with it. I am very proud of iPlanet, but Sun plays fair on standards."

If Sun takes over iPlanet, it will certainly affect its partnership with market leader BEA because BEAs WebLogic is often sold to run on Solaris servers.

Anne Thomas Manes, Suns director of market innovation, says Sun will not harm its relationship with BEA. "Our primary revenue comes from boxes," she says. "BEA drives more box sales for Sun. Were not going to do anything to jeopardize that relationship."

Still, BEA clearly is dependent upon Suns doings. In April, BEAs stock price took a dive when a Sun exec was quoted saying that Sun eventually would bundle iPlanet products within Solaris. Sun later denied it had plans to do so.

If it does, Sun will be taking a page from Microsoft, which ships its app server with its own OS. And Microsoft and its .Net strategy is the biggest hurdle to all of the Java-compliant app-server vendors, according to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. "The biggest threat to Java is performance," said Ellison at JavaOne last week. "Can we run as fast as .Net? Thats the challenge."