By Wylie Wong

Sun Microsystems is attempting to gain popularity among developers in the emerging Web services market by giving away a crucial piece of e-business software.

Sun plans to give away an updated basic version of its application server software, a key piece of infrastructure software for building business applications. Application server software is technology that runs e-business and other Web site transactions.

The giveaway targets computers that run Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Unix operating systems, Sun said. Sun last month said that it would bundle its Sun One Java application server software with its Solaris 9 operating system.

The company will charge for two higher-end versions of the application server that are faster, more reliable, and easier to manage, Sun executives said.

“Everyone can have this…(product) running on non-Sun platforms,” Sun CEO Scott McNealy said in a press conference. “It’s there free and it works. It seems like pretty good ROI (return on investment) to me.”

Analysts said Sun’s giveaway strategy is a smart one, and should help increase market share in the short run. But they don’t expect Sun to be a serious challenger to BEA Systems and IBM, which lead the $2 billion-a-year application server market.

“It’s the right strategy, but a year too late,” Forrester Research analyst Chris Dial said. “Last year, the application server market was still in flux, BEA was not locked in (as No. 1), and IBM’s (WebSphere application server) wasn’t such a great product.”

In 2001, Sun slipped to fourth place in application software sales with a 7.9 percent share, behind BEA, IBM, and Oracle, researcher IDC reported.

Overall, Sun is hoping a free application server will help drive sales of its more expensive products, including servers and other e-business software, such as upgrades to its higher-end application servers and portal software that allow businesses to create portal Web sites for their employees and partners.

The company hopes to woo developers who are choosing between its Java-based software—sold under the umbrella name of the Sun Open Network Environment (Sun ONE)—and Microsoft’s overarching Web services strategy, called .NET.

Sun has been battling Microsoft and IBM for popularity in the market but has been playing catch-up with its rivals during the past year. Sun’s e-business software, including its application server, lies at the heart of its Web services strategy.

Sun has been working to seize more of the initiative, however. It quietly began working on its own royalty-free standard for Web services security and has signed major partners to back its Liberty Alliance Project, which is working on software standards to let a person use different computer systems while only having to log in once.

The Liberty standard, which will govern how to “federate” different organizations’ authentication and authorization systems, is scheduled for release in early July, said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of Sun’s software group.

Sun is building Liberty support into its Sun ONE software. The first Liberty-enabled products—likely Sun’s directory server software widely used to store username-password combinations—are expected within 45 days. However, that product could be an “early access,” not a fully supported version, Schwartz said.

Sun would like Liberty to grow from a multi-company collaboration to a formal standard endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium, Schwartz said. “I’d be thrilled to see it in the W3C,” but that move will be up to the Liberty Alliance partners, not just Sun, to decide.

One name, many versions
As part of the announcement, Sun said it will ship an updated version of its Sun One application server later this year. Besides the free Platform edition, the company will sell a Standard edition, which contains new features that make it easier to manage. The Enterprise Edition, which will include technology from Sun’s recent acquisition from Clustra Systems, will feature better reliability and better “clustering” capabilities, allowing transactions to continue if one server crashes.

Analyst Mike Gilpin of Giga Information Group said Sun has lowered the price of its standard and enterprise editions, which may help sales. The Standard edition costs $2,000 per processor, while the Enterprise edition costs $10,000 per processor. The price drop makes Sun more competitive with other application server makers, he said.

“This announcement heats up the competition a little, but the impact won’t be as great as one might imagine, ” Gilpin said. “$2,000 vs. $3,000 and $4,000 to a (large business) is not that big a deal.”

Gilpin said the free version can be used by departments within a company, but it probably isn’t beefy enough for Web sites that need to service large numbers of customers.

Sun’s new application server strategy will do little damage to BEA, Gilpin predicts. “Most companies buying application servers are using them for mission-critical projects, and the difference between free and $3,000 a processor is insignificant relative to the risk of failure,” he said. “Companies have developed a perception that IBM and BEA are proven solutions with lots of customers and a significant portfolio of independent software vendors. This contributes to BEA and IBM winning customers, and it’s almost independent of price.”

Sun will ship the Platform and Standard editions of Sun ONE application server version 7 for Solaris and Windows in September. The Platform and Standard editions for the different flavors of Unix—Linux, HP-UX, and AIX operating systems—will be available by end of the year. The Enterprise edition will ship in early 2003.

As part of its Web services strategy, Sun has announced that it is bundling its e-business software into a package called the Sun ONE Developer Platform. The package includes its application server, portal server, identity server for user authentication, integration server for connecting dissimilar software together, and Sun’s new Java development tool called Sun ONE Studio 4.

Sun is attempting to spruce up its software line on a number of fronts. Sun recently released a new Java software development tool with support for Web services. The tool supports the latest version of Java and allows programmers to convert existing software into Web services.

Sun has also released a final version of its Web services tool kit, called the Java Web Services Developer Pack, which includes four Java application programming interfaces, or sets of instructions, that connect Java software with XML, a Web standard that enables Web services.

Last month, Sun said it would be revamping its portal software.

ZDNet’s Tech Update originally published this article on June 19, 2002.