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Sun-Microsoft pact whets users' appetites

The agreement between Sun Microsystems and Microsoft to improve interoperability was an essential step toward enabling broad adoption of technologies such as web services and grid computing, users said at last week's AFCOM datacentre user-group conference in Las Vegas.

"[Suppliers] have to get along together because our systems are requiring that they get along together. They have no choice," said Roger Squire, director of production operations at a multibillion-dollar food distributor.

Sun and Microsoft made it clear that their recently announced accord was prompted by user demand for better interoperability between the two suppliers' technologies.

Suppliers still "steer the users to their vision", said James Rodgers, a datacentre manager for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. He added that he has seen little change in how suppliers operate.

But the downturn in IT spending over the past several years has given users a little more power, others argued.

"I think suppliers are listening more, and they have to listen more, simply to survive," said Don Tissell, server facilities manager at Frito-Lay.

Kent Howell, manager of computer operations at Illinois Power, said he believed that economic conditions and expanding technology choices are empowering users.

For instance, Howell said he recently dropped some mainframe tool suppliers that had "predatory pricing" practices.

"There are competitors out there willing to cut deals to get their foot in the door. And we're not opposed to taking advantage of those opportunities", even if it means giving up functionality, he added.

Sun is in the eye of that particular storm, with its Unix servers facing growing competition from low-cost, Intel-based servers running Linux.

Sun officials said the specifics of how users will benefit from promised interoperability improvements have not yet been formulated.

"We have yet to even put the liaison teams together to go meet and talk about the next steps," said John Loiacono, who replaced Jonathan Schwartz as head of Sun's software division. Schwartz's promotion to president and chief operating officer was made public when Sun announced the Microsoft accord.

But Pat Ridder, manager of computer operations at Maricopa Integrated Health System, a regional health care provider, said he believed users will see some clear benefits in the form of lower maintenance costs.

"Sun is to midrange hardware what Microsoft is to software: Sun makes some of the best hardware around," said Ridder. But, he added, server software maintenance is costly.

If the two companies "are really looking at more interoperability between their hardware", Ridder said, the result will be a larger pool of people with skills to address issues on both platforms, potentially lowering maintenance costs.

Users remain divided on the likelihood that the Sun-Microsoft accord will prompt other suppliers to form interoperability agreements.

"Unfortunately, a lot of suppliers haven't gotten into the interoperability trend," said Dennis Reid, operations manager at Time Customer Service,  an order fulfillment centre for publisher Time.

But the demand of interoperability is growing as enterprises improve integration across business units and supply chains, develop web services and consider technologies such as grid computing.

"Customers are not going to tolerate this non-communication between suppliers," said Barbara McMullen, director of the Institute for Data Center Professionals at Marist College.

Patrick Thibodeau writes for Computerworld


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