Flash: Orion to collide with earth

I recently celebrated my own weirdness by burning six hours on the road for a 45-minute discussion with Sun Microsystems’ CTO of software, John Fowler, who was visiting nearby to stump for Sun’s much-anticipated Project Orion.

Fowler and his boss, executive vice president Jonathan Schwartz, are charged with transforming Sun from The Unix Box Factory into The Java Company. Solaris and N1 are also key projects in Sun’s software division, as Fowler and executive vice president and CTO Greg Papadopoulos — among others — are quick to point out. But if Sun can’t align and brand all of its Javas, great and small, its other software projects won’t matter.

Sun knows that everyone is watching Project Orion, the all-in-one server stack that rolls Web, app, directory, identity, collaboration, clustering, and security services into one package. Sun has been hyping Orion for at least a year.

To counter that hype, Microsoft and the IT press are doing some bundling of their own, linking Orion’s lengthy delay with Sun’s lousy track record as a first-tier player in enterprise software and tools. That adds up, they say, to a no-starter.

For Fowler, those are fighting words. Not only is Orion on schedule, he says, but it’s going gangbusters in large-scale corporate testing, heading for a late 2003 delivery. The SunNetwork conference in mid-September, Fowler promises, will be “eventful”. OK, I’m game. Impress me.

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how Sun will differentiate Orion from the market-leading J2EE server suites produced by BEA Systems and IBM. Fowler concisely repeated Sun’s oft-claimed advantages: price and performance. He said that published estimates of Orion’s selling price, up to $US5000, are high. Take a blank hard drive, install Solaris, add Orion, and you’ll have all the functionality you could possibly want from a server. As a bonus, Fowler claims that customers using Sun’s Java Virtual Machine will get the market’s best performance.

After he rode the Orion horse into the ground, Fowler touched on another subject I found more interesting. It seems I’ve found a kindred spirit who sees computer games as a metaphor for — and often a predictor of — major advancements in IT. Fowler’s research team is working on projects that use OpenGL and Java to render 3-D graphics on handheld devices. That work will improve user interfaces on small displays and open J2ME development to more demanding applications.

Showing laudable foresight, Sun is using the uniquely onerous back-end requirements of multiplayer games to develop predictive resource management solutions. A gaming server network requires zero downtime, instant session recovery, transparent retrieval of lost data, infallible identity management, rapid automatic scaling, low latency, and fine-grained bandwidth management. Get all of that right and financial services are easy.

Sun’s software CTO is one of the thought and vision leaders Sun has put on the front lines to create trust. If Sun hits a home run with its comeback strategies, I’ll call Fowler, Schwartz, and Papadopoulos to tell them, “Well done.” But if Sun back-pedals or only half-delivers on its promises, those beguiled by Sun’s technical leaders will feel personally betrayed. Second chances are hard to come by after that. w

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