Sun said last month that it would bundle the Platform Edition of its Sun ONE Application Server, version 7, with its newly released Solaris 9.
This week's announcement means that, by the end of the year, the product will also be available at no cost to customers running Microsoft's Windows NT, Red Hat Linux, and Unix operating systems from IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
Application servers provide a platform for deploying enterprise applications, such as e-commerce software. They allow the distribution of data to a variety of client devices or the building Web portal sites. Sun is one of the smaller vendors in the market, which is led by BEA Systems and IBM.
Sun said the move should allow customers to extend Web-based applications to areas of their business where costs had otherwise been prohibitively high. For example, a large retailer could deploy the free application server at dozens of satellite stores, allowing them to run a Web-based procurement application tied into the retail company's central inventory management system.
Using IBM's published list prices, which do not take into account any discounts, Sun claimed that customers could cut the cost of deploying such a Web-based infrastructure by as much as two thirds. However, such cost comparisons are hard to judge, because "each vendor is going to twist it their own way," noted Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis.
The Platform Edition of Sun's application server does not offer the kind of administrative or high-availability features required for important enterprise applications, he said.
Customers who need management software for monitoring and administering applications remotely will have to buy the Standard Edition, which will be priced at $2,000 (£1,340) per CPU, Sun said. Those who need higher levels of reliability will need Sun's top-end Enterprise Edition, priced at $10,000 (£6,700) per CPU, which adds clustering technology.
The Platform and Standard editions of Sun ONE Application Server 7 for Solaris and Windows NT should be available in September, with the Linux, HP-UX and AIX editions to follow by the end of the year, Patrick Dorsey, group manager of Sun's Web and application server products, said. General availability of the Enterprise version is expected in the first quarter of 2003, he said.
The free Platform Edition includes a J2EE 1.3 server engine, messaging software, support for Web services standards such as Soap (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language), and an HTTP engine for basic Web server functions. It does not include a full Web server, which must be acquired separately, Dorsey said.
While licences for the Platform Edition are available at no cost, support for the software is priced at $795 annually per CPU.
Besides helping to broaden the customer base for Sun's Java technology, which is locked in battle with Microsoft's .net software, Sun hopes to make money by selling more hardware and services, and by persuading customers to upgrade to fee-based versions of its products over time.
Customers who want to upgrade from the free product to the Standard Edition will do so by activating a software "key" that turns on additional functions in the product, Dorsey said. Upgrading to the Enterprise Edition will require installing new software from a CD or from the Web, he said.
Sun is also developing add-on "modules" for its application server that will provide, for example, more sophisticated Web services management capabilities, or additional security features for "trusted transaction" environments, Dorsey said. Those modules are expected to begin appearing in 2003.
Sun has also fleshed out its tools strategy, announcing plans to release its Sun ONE Developer Platform in the fourth quarter, priced at $5,000 per seat. It includes tools from Sun ONE Studio 4.0 and developer licences for a variety of Sun server software, and aims to provide a more integrated environment that lets teams of application developers collaborate on projects.
"I think they have a pretty good story there," said Current Analysis' Willett. "They take different elements of the platform and give you common tools and administrative capabilities that allow you to leverage their directory, portal and other products more easily."
Sun is not the first vendor to give away a version of its application server; HP late last year announced a similar plan. HP, however, failed to attract a large customer base for its product, according to analysts, and the company revealed earlier this month that it will "retire" its middleware products and look to partnerships with vendors such as BEA instead.
Sun's move to offer a free application server does not spell doom and gloom for BEA, Willett of Current Analysis said. BEA has a large customer base and its WebLogic product has a sound reputation for being reliable and scalable, he said.
Sun's application server today can be clustered across only six or eight nodes, he said, while BEA's product can scale to hundreds of nodes. Sun officials asserted that the Clustra technology will allow it to match and even beat BEA's clustering capabilities.