What can Sun One offer business?

Sun Microsystems last month announced the Sun Open Net Environment (Sun One), its new software strategy and rival to Microsoft's...

Sun Microsystems last month announced the Sun Open Net Environment (Sun One), its new software strategy and rival to Microsoft's .net initiative

Danny Bradbury.

But, while .net has had its problems, Sun One may not be as innovative as the hype would suggest, writes .

Sun One is the company's Web services framework that it hopes developers will use to create business-oriented software components to be used online.

Sun will be working closely with iPlanet, the joint venture that it formed with Netscape, to deliver software solutions supporting the initiative. The two companies will offer a series of pre-configured hardware and software combinations, based on the iPlanet Web Server and Application Server. These will run on a bundled Solaris server.

There are four main layers to the Sun One architecture. The Solaris servers constitute the first, while the second is made up of three elements: services integration, the services container and services delivery. The services integration element handles integration with other products and platforms, while containers handle the integration of existing components into Sun One using Enterprise Java Beans. The other part of this layer, services delivery, houses the Application Server and Web Server products.

Above this sits the policy/process layer, which contains tools designed to map business processes onto the lower-level technology. It is here that the concept of context is important, according to John Spiers, software systems strategist at Sun, who explained that context governs the behaviour of Web services in different ways depending on external criteria.

"The contextual information that you see today could be simple user and role information, location and device information," he said. "The behaviour of a taxation module in an e-commerce system, for example, will need to vary according to the country of the person who is using it."

This layer will be supported heavily by directory-based information using the iPlanet Directory Server, which will be used to store information about devices and users. Other products that fit into this level include the company's Policy Server, a development tool that will allow non-technical users to create Web services.

At the highest level of the architecture is the applications/smart Web servers layer, which incorporates products such as the iPlanet commerce portfolio, which offers e-commerce programs, and the iPlanet communications portfolio, which offers collaborative working programs.

A new product for this layer is the Webtop Developer, although this appears to be simply a reworked version of the Star Portal project that the company began when it bought Star Office last year.

Star Portal was meant to be the ultimate in ASP-enabled office productivity software, although the company has spent a suspiciously long time testing the service with ISP partners. Webtop is the repackaged, re-marketed version of the older project, which never bore fruit, designed as a deliverable Sun One Web service for ISPs to offer to their customers.

This reworking of an existing initiative sums up much of the Sun One offering. There is little new here, being largely a collection of existing products that have been rolled together into a Web services framework. Admittedly, there have been some genuinely new product announcements, such as the Identrus-enabled Trustbase server, and the iPlanet Market Maker, for building online trading hubs - but these products are little more than spokes in a reinvented wheel.

The company has promised integration with other platforms via XML, and Spiers said companies will be able to discover Sun One-compatible Web services via the UDDI discovery mechanism [www.uddi.org].

However he downplayed Sun One's compatibility with the Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap), which Microsoft and IBM submitted to the W3C last year. "Soap has gotten a little blown out of proportion. It's an RPC mechanism for XML," he said, preferring to talk about the United Nation's EBXML messaging protocol, in which Sun has played an instrumental part.

Spiers admitted that the process layer within Sun One will not immediately support the business process and information model definition work currently under development by the EBXML committee.

Given that the Sun One process layer concerns the mapping of conventional business processes into interoperable Web services, you would think such work would be a no-brainer, especially since the EBXML's business process information is due to be ratified as early as May. Perhaps if Sun had waited for such standards to evolve rather than trying to trounce arch-rival Microsoft in a marketing war, it could have delivered something a little more innovative.

Testing times

Much Web services activity - which extends across a number of companies - is little more than a reinvention of existing concepts. Object-oriented development was initially seen as cumbersome, complex and prohibitively expensive, so suppliers opted instead for less granular software reuse that shielded more code from the user, labelling it component-based development.

Web services, such as those of .net and Sun One, are designed to be very business friendly, and are the logical conclusion to the simplification of modular software, but problems still remain. Before these things can be used effectively, the issue of service level agreements and adequate regression testing for Web services must be solved. So far, few companies appear to have taken any formal steps in this direction, which needs a very technical approach.

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