Application server war: Sun plans new offensive

Sun Microsystems' alliance with America Online-Netscape Communications will deepen this month when the companies describe how their next-generation application server will bind Netscape's former server products with Sun's platforms to provide a comprehensive portfolio of tools for the enterprise.

But the broad product integration may come at the expense of existing tool and systems investments, forcing IT managers to choose between an Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) architecture base and a Windows NT/Component Object Model (COM) environment, users fear.

The so-called Sunscape alliance has prepared users of Sun's NetDynamics application server and tools and Netscape Application Server (NAS) and tools for some serious changes. But not all users are comforted to know that those products will be replaced early in 2000 with an amalgamated application server based on Java.

"We expect more announcements, and we're not optimistic about the details of those announcements," said an IT manager who uses NetDynamics at a large West Coast energy company. "Our thinking is that Sun's plans to merge NetDynamics with NAS will mean that the NetDynamics tool as we know it will no longer exist. The decision to build any new applications with NetDynamics during the interim will not be taken lightly, especially since we have attractive alternatives like [Microsoft] Visual Basic 6 and Visual InterDev 6."

In addition to pacifying its jittery installed base, Sunscape will also outline on May 24 how it will synchronise Sun and Netscape products, Java standards, and AOL and Netcenter Web portals to give large enterprises and service providers an integrated business platform.

"The focus is on large-site infrastructure and megaportal integration. ISPs, application service providers, large enterprises -- they want a single foundation for all apps, business-to-consumer and business-to-business," said Sharmila Shahani, vice president of business strategy for the alliance.

Industry analysts said the team has a lot of work to do.

"I'm in favour of their alliance and their direction, but between what they're promoting and the current products they are shipping, there's a bit of a gap. No one has the product that will fill that gap," said Tim Sloane, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group.

Now called the Alliance Application Server, the replacement application server, due in the first quarter of 2000, will hook into other Sun and Netscape products and sport several Java toolsets, Shahani said.

Sun pledges to support applications written to the current servers. But COM support will be provided via NetDynamics Platform Adapter Component -- which may not as robustly support COM+ and Windows 2000 as NetDynamics and Netscape seemed destined to do before AOL bought Netscape and allied with Sun.

"Current NetDynamics users should make plans to move to EJB. Current NAS users, those who use C++, should continue to do so and should also move to EJB when it becomes available," said Yefim Natis, an analyst at the Gartner Group.

(Emily Fitzloff contributed to this article.)

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