Rivals Play Nice

Microsoft, Sun partner to boost product interoperability.

Longtime rivals and mutual antagonists Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are making progress on their year-old cooperation, having moved from the courtroom to the lab and now entering the market.

Until now, there has been scant evidence of tangible deliverables from the partnership. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Sun CEO Scott McNealy changed that by announcing a series of measures for enhancing product interoperability, including the development of new specifications that enable Web single sign-on between systems that use Liberty and WS-* Web services architectures.

At a press and analyst conference in Palo Alto, Calif., recently, Ballmer and McNealy said the companies have jointly developed and published two draft specs: Web SSO (Single Sign-On) MEX (Metadata Exchange Protocol) and Web SSO Interoperability Profile.

The specs enable browser-based Web single sign-on between security domains that use Liberty ID-FF and WS-Federation. Products that support Web SSO MEX and Web SSO Interop Profile will let companies give users an improved Web single-sign-on experience from their browsers.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., and Sun, of Palo Alto, will continue to develop the draft specs through the Web services protocol workshop process and ultimately submit them to a standards organization for finalization and ratification as industry standards.

"We have been hard at work for the past 12 months, and these are the results, which I think are pretty impressive," Ballmer said.

Drafts of the specs can be found at Microsofts and Suns Web sites. The companies also announced plans to support the new specs in their product portfolios, including Microsofts Windows Server and Suns Java Enterprise System.

There are several areas where the two companies can now deliver products that customers can use, Ballmer said, but he stressed that the challenge Sun and Microsoft have undertaken is not to merge their products but rather to have them interoperate while the companies continue to innovate separately.

Specifically, relief is on the way for users who want their applications to run on Microsofts .Net and Suns Java platforms and for IT managers who want to be able to log in to one console, Ballmer said. For their part, developers want to run applications that live in both the Java and .Net worlds and to be able to stitch them together in various ways, he said.

The storage market is also booming, and Suns recent purchase of Tarantella Inc. will help further facilitate interoperability between the Sun and Microsoft components, Ballmer said. There is still a lot more to do, however, as the list of needs from customers is long, so "we will be hard at work for the next 12 months as well," Ballmer said.

Suns McNealy acknowledged that the work has been tough and that it has really come together only over the last three months or so. "What we have achieved and what we plan going forward is quite impressive," McNealy said.

Microsoft and Sun have established a joint advisory committee of 10 shared large customers that give the two companies a list of their needs in order of priority, and single sign-on topped that list. Other items on the list include thin-client access, certifying of storage environments and manageability, McNealy said.

Fred Killeen, director of systems development and chief technology officer for General Motors Information Systems and Services, in Detroit, was at the event and said he welcomed the moves toward cross-domain Web single sign-on. "We expect it to help reduce complexity and cost for us, and we are going to look at how to implement this going forward and take full advantage of it," Killeen said.

GM has more than 1 million users worldwide and a very large installed base, so it is critical to bring together the two technologies that Microsoft and Sun provided. "We are developing a proof of concept and a Microsoft desktop that will authenticate to Active Directory but then allow single sign-on to our Sun portal world, Killeen said.

Charlie Feld, executive vice president of portfolio management at Electronic Data Systems Corp., a partner of both Microsoft and Sun, spoke in support of the two companies efforts.

Feld said EDS, which has hundreds of servers and millions of devices connected all over the world, has been hampered by the complexity built into the Plano, Texas, companys 40-year-old IT environment. "Getting to work now in this open and interoperable world is very exciting," he said. "We are entering a new era now, where interoperability will reverse 40 years of IT and allow us to focus on the supply chain and customer."

Everything needs to be simplified and modified, Feld said, adding that multilateral agreements between companies such as Microsoft and Sun "takes us forward in a profound way."