RealTime IT News

Will Web Services Players Get Along Now?

When Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems chairman and CEO wasn't busy trying to convince the tech world he and once-nemesis Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, were really the best of friends from way back, he was busy convincing Sun devotees his $1.95 billion settlement agreement with Microsoft would benefit their customers.

"Our companies will continue to compete hard, but this agreement creates a new basis for cooperation that will benefit the customers of both companies," McNealy said at the press conference, under the glow of TV lights and before a skeptical crowd of reporters and industry analysts.

With $1.95 billion headed for Sun's coffers, and a legal 500-pound gorilla off Microsoft's back, optimisim is in the air about the deal. But now the work of technical collaboration, particularly in the world of Web services and interoperability between Java and .NET, awaits both sides before customers can see the benefit.

Web services let disparate applications and frameworks interact by using a common set of XML tags and communications protocols, backed up by a directory that lists services available and in use. Because the information is tagged in XML, it can be run on any operating system or framework such as Sun's J2EE and Microsoft's .NET platforms.

Sun planted the seeds of competing Web services standards with Microsoft by launching Sun Open Net Environment (ONE) to the masses in October 2001. Microsoft itself had released .NET code to developers earlier in the year. Then, in July 2002, Sun formed the Liberty Alliance to counter Microsoft Passport's single sign-on authentication scheme.

The Web services standards snit came to a head in 2003: In January Sun, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, Oracle and Sonic Software published Web Services-Reliability, a would-be standard for queuing incoming messages for Web services; in March Microsoft, IBM , BEA Systems and TIBCO published a spec of their own -- WS-ReliableMessaging. The standard-come-lately initiative drew a withering response from Sun, which said the duplication of efforts was a "disruptive force" against furthering Web services standards work. The disagreement continued into July, when Sun and Oracle published the WS-Composite Applications Framework without bothering to bring in Microsoft or IBM.

The result is a fragmented Web services arena that's widened the gap between Java- and Microsoft-based frameworks. But with the ink now drying on a technical collaboration pact between the two companies, there's a chance Web services' two roads can become one pathway, even to the extent of minimizing the need for Web services on a network.

Word out of the Microsoft and Sun camps about their Web services collaboration plans is sketchy. Queries to both companies about their plans returned responses such as this from Microsoft: "We are excited about future opportunities for our companies to work more closely together," although "at this point it is very early to speculate as to specific impact this may have on various products, standards and pending benefits as they relate to different customers and their unique need."

Still, signs are emerging that the two are committed to putting their rivalry behind them. Sun's Application Server 8 software, which went public last week, includes Web Services-Interoperability (WS-I), a standard originally led by Microsoft, IBM and SAP.

Dennis MacNeil, a senior product manager for Java tools at Sun, pointed out that its app server includes the interoperability standard despite the advantage Microsoft has with its lead in the specification.

"WS-I's a great opportunity for Microsoft to step up and interoperate," he told internetnews.com. "J2EE is an interoperable platform, Sun's Java Systems Application Server is also very interoperable; so we've left the door open for Microsoft to interoperate with us."

Dana Gardner, a Yankee Group analyst who sees the spats between the two companies on Web services specifications as relatively minor skirmishes, would rather see Sun and Microsoft work on deeper interoperability, not draw lines in the sand.

"There has been some minor back and forth on some of the [WS-Reliability] and [WS-ReliableMessaging] specifications and standards but it really never rose to the level of distinction around Java," he told internetnews.com. "I think that this could be a molehill, rather than a mountain, if they just stick to Web services-level interoperability. But what would really be a benefit to enterprise, developers and independent software vendors would be a deeper integration between Java and .NET."

Gardner is a proponent of seeing Microsoft and Sun driving interoperability, not only on the content, XML-driven, level, but on the binary protocol level, too. He expects the two to take their agreement seriously, if for only one reason: Linux, the oft-prophesized Windows-slayer.

The feeling with independent software vendors (ISVs), he said, is that if applications are ported to Linux, they can be ported anywhere and not have to deal with the compatibility issues that plague the Windows-based industry. Integration servers on the other hand are expensive to maintain and require a lot of "hand-holding."

"I think that's part of why Microsoft and Sun are coming together. It's to try to blunt the attractiveness that Linux is holding for ISVs," he said. "A way to do that is to have much more portability, much more simplified integration across these frameworks and at a much lower and more transactional and binary level than what Web services are."

In his report, "A New Hope Emerges to End the Costly Disparity Between Java and Windows," he goes a step further (and reaffirms a deep-seated fear among the Java faithful) and states it "is even conceivable now that Microsoft could -- if the Sun pact proves fruitful and welcomed by customers -- buy or merge with Sun outright to become a full-scale IT solutions provider to better compete against IBM."

Gardner is not alone in thinking a Web services get-together is secondary to framework interoperability, though for different reasons. Ted Neward, author of several books on Java and .NET programming, told internetnews.com recently that the many different standards in Web services make interoperability, from a practical perspective, difficult for developers.

"At a certain degree, if your company is J2EE and .NET [based], and nothing else, do you really need Web services?" Neward said. "I would argue not necessarily," when open source alternatives and ORBS for .NET are available and "give you that binary remoting capability but without any of the concerns of lofty conversions between XML and objects and back again."