Sun-Microsoft deal good for IT managers

FRAMINGHAM (04/02/2004) - Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s icebreaking partnership finalized in the wee hours of Friday morning could provide years of relief from agonizing integration projects for corporate IT if the marriage turns out as solid in real life as it looks on paper.

The 10-year partnership between the two bitter rivals promises to improve interoperability between Sun and Microsoft servers and between Microsoft clients and Sun servers through what the pair call a Technical Collaboration Agreement to share proprietary technology. The two also plan to collaborate closely on Java and .Net.

The biggest benefits for IT would be the ability to mix and match network infrastructure and the opportunity to potentially mix run-time environments for applications written in either Java or .Net.

Those benefits will only come if the relationship goes as smoothly as the joking and bantering at a press conference early Friday between CEO's Scott McNealy of Sun and his counterpart at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. The two Michigan natives exchanged autographed Detroit Red Wings hockey jerseys as peace offering after years of acrimony between the two companies.

The greatest short-term IT benefit likely will be for Microsoft customers facing a September 2004 deadline for end-of-support on the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine.

The development is a limited lifeline for companies with legacy applications that require the Microsoft JVM and its Microsoft specific extensions that fostered legal trouble with Sun.

Sun sued Microsoft in 1997 for improper use of Sun's Java technology, and the pair settled in 2001, with Microsoft paying US$20 million and agreeing to phase out its JVM product at the heart of the suit.

"Today's agreement gives us a guarantee for a three-year period (to support the Microsoft JVM) with the ability to extend beyond that," says Mary Snapp, vice president and deputy general counsel for Microsoft. She says the extended support will cover bug fixes, security vulnerabilities and other issues, but will not include any further development or inclusion in future products.

"At some point that Microsoft JVM has to go away, but we did not want to create a huge problem for our customers," says John Fowler, CTO for software at Sun.

Another problem area for which IT should see some relief is with identity management and messaging/collaboration software.

"The intent is that Sun's products will integrate more seamlessly with Microsoft, although I'm not prepared to talk about specific details," says Fowler. But as an example he said Sun would look at issues such as supporting the extensions to Kerberos that Microsoft added within its Active Directory. Sun develops a competing directory under its Sun Java System product line.

"I am not committing to that, but there is an element of interoperability there that is difficult," says Fowler, who added that similar opportunities exist in e-mail, messaging and instant messaging products.

Other benefits may turn up in the realm of Web services, an area where Microsoft and Sun have clashed on standards, especially around federated identity management.

Neither side would commit to Microsoft joining the Liberty Alliance, a group started by Sun that is creating an identity management framework, but Fowler said Web services was a key area in that it could help companies develop applications that interoperate.

"As the software CTO, I am interested in exploring that," he said.

Microsoft's Snapp said the agreement between the pair would "make it easier for us to work together on a broad number of things."

As far as other Web services standards, the two have been at odds on a number of competing protocols, including business workflow and reliable messaging standards still under development.

The agreement the two signed Friday not to litigate against each other would seem to open the door for them to share more of their proprietary work toward developing Web services standards, experts say.

"I don't question at all the IT spin that is being put on this," says Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc. "I think McNealy was being brutally honest when he said that customers drove Sun to this (partnership). I doubt Scott would have backed down on his own."

Analysts and customers for the past few years have been asking McNealy, who never misses a turn to make disparaging remarks about Microsoft, to tone down the rhetoric.

In the joint press conference Friday in which he appeared alongside Ballmer, McNealy referred to the rocky moments with Microsoft and jokingly asked Ballmer, "was it something I said?" McNealy said Microsoft was not without fault in the war of words but added that his remarks were "more clever."

Davis said the partnership probably has the biggest benefit for Sun, which reported on Friday that it will lay off 3,300 of its 35,000 employees and that it will report a loss in the third quarter of between US$750 million and $810 million.

"Sun is in a position to get a major problem off its back in that it's almost become a caricature for the anti-Microsoft stance," says Davis. "IBM can cooperate and compete with Microsoft and Sun has been hurt by that in the market."

Davis says IT has always been the big loser in Microsoft/Sun battle in being left to figure out how to get disparate products from the two vendors to work together.

"Sun now can get a piece of the Windows pie," says Davis. As part of Friday's announcement, Sun said it had received Windows certification for its Intel Corp. Xeon servers and was working to get the same designation for its AMD Opteron-based servers. "When you want to be a volume player it sure does help to have Windows as part of your portfolio," says Davis.

As far as Microsoft's gain, the company may help its reputation by showing a willingness to work with a company that has been its harshest critic, says Davis. "Microsoft needs this kind of surprising event to shake up the perceptions of the company."

Those perceptions have been established through the years and most recently reinforced during two antitrust trials that have tagged the company as a monopoly, including the latest case with the European Commission that concluded with a record $613 million fine.

The new relationship with Sun could bolster Microsoft's appeal to the EU, which based its case on a number of complaints made by Sun. On Friday, Sun said it was satisfied that the objectives it was pursuing in the EU case had been met after Microsoft agreed to pay Sun $700 million to resolve pending antitrust issues. Sun original complaints included access to server protocols, which is now part of its new partnership with Microsoft.

Snapp, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, would only say, "We are quite happy to enter into this partnership with Sun."

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