Sun, Microsoft cozy up on Web services standards

Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Friday announced enhancements to product interoperability between the industry rival’s platforms, including single sign-on capability for

Web services.

It’s been just over a year since the companies signed a 10-year technology collaboration agreement. Since then, said Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, the two organizations have been working in four to five key areas to deliver the kind of solutions their customers want. These include identity management, security and storage.

“A year ago you could say we were emerging from the courtroom and entering the computer lab,” Ballmer told media at a live news conference in Palo Alto, Calif., which was also telecast and Webcast. “Twelve months later I think we’re poised thanks to the work of hundreds of engineers on both sides to leave the computer lab now and really enter the marketplace together.”

While the two companies may be entering the next phase of their agreement, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said it has taken a lot of effort to get to this point.

“It was one thing to declare peace a year ago,” said McNealy. “It was a non-trivial effort. It wasn’t all easy. There were times over last year where looked like antibodies were not going to make things happen.”

As part of the original agreement, Microsoft paid US$700 million to Sun to resolve pending anti-trust issues and an additional US$900 million to settle patent issues. The two partners also agreed to pay royalties to use each other’s technologies. Ballmer, however, said there is still some confusion in the market as to what the agreement actually entails.

“Some folks can get confused,” said Ballmer, adding some people asked if Microsoft and Sun were going to converge their technologies. “There won’t be a .Net and a Java, there will just be one thing. There won’t be a Solaris and a Windows, there will just be one thing. That’s not the challenge we took upon ourselves.”

The firms have announced two jointly developed and published draft specifications – Web Single Sign-On Metadata Exchange (Web SSO MEX) Protocol and Web Single Sign-On Interoperability Profile (Web SSO Interop Profile) – enabling Web SSO between Liberty and WS systems. This means that companies with products that support the specs will be able to offer users SSO via their Web browsers.

“We’ve co-operated together and then in the standards bodies to really get a strong Web services managing specification in the marketplace,” said Ballmer.

The Liberty Alliance was originally started four years ago as a consortium of Sun, Bell Canada and 30 other companies. Its original mandate was to take a decentralized approach to managing digital identities, and was set up as an alternative to Microsoft’s Passport service.

Ballmer stressed the importance of Microsoft’s and Sun’s relationships with customers and systems integrators like Accenture, EDS and NEC, to help them identify key priorities and concerns.

“We want to make sure that we address the key issues our customers have in taking advantage of the great innovations that are coming from Sun and other partners of Sun around Java as well as partners of Microsoft,” said Ballmer.

For that reason, the two companies set up a technology advisory council comprised of 10 large enterprise customers that are either joint customers or customers of one or the other company, said McNealy. They asked customers to identify their top issues that are causing them problems in their day-to-day business. From that, the customers compiled a list of 20 separate items and areas.

“Clearly the whole single sign-on, active directory manager and identity management were key,” said McNealy.

The two companies also announced improvements to interoperability between their operating systems and management products with the development of the Web services specification WS-Management. Co-authored by Microsoft, Intel and Sun, among others, the spec defines a single protocol to meet management requirements for hardware devices, operating systems and applications. Sun has also created a Java-based WS-Management implementation that will be released to the open source community.

Microsoft has also certified Windows to run on Sun Opteron boxes, which involved close co-operation between the two companies’ engineers, Ballmer said.

“There are two clear survivors in the OS marketplace,” said McNealy, referring to Sun’s Solaris and Microsoft’s Windows. “They both run on the x86, x64 market, they’re volume players, they’re supported by very large R&D budgets and they have very large installed bases.”

Sun has also licensed Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol and will implement it in its Sun-Ray ultra-thin client product line. This means, for example, that a user using a Sun Ray terminal can have access to applications that run on Solaris as well as applications that run on Windows, explained Ballmer. “We’ve attacked that challenge,” he said.

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