Sun/Netscape alliance brings directory ties

Sun is getting ready to roll Netscape's directory technology into the next edition of Solaris, a move that could strengthen Sun's operating system as a platform for directory-enabled networking and electronic commerce.

The integration effort, revealed last week by Sun/ Netscape Alliance chief technology officer Hal Jesperson, is the first big news out of the alliance since it was formed in March in the wake of Netscape's acquisition by America Online. Jesperson spoke last week at the Catalyst Conference, a directory and security event held in Lake Tahoe, California.

Sun plans to take most of the Netscape Directory Server 4.1 code, sprinkle in code from Sun Directory Services and embed the results in Solaris 8, which the company plans to ship early next year. Jesperson also hinted that Sun may include Netscape's Certificate Server in Solaris for supporting public-key infrastructures, directory-enabled authorisation and authentication schemes.

Sources say the Solaris 8 directory will be a high-performance, general-purpose directory intended to support a range of applications and services. Sun declined to comment.

"Sun is getting a proven enterprise-class directory built into the operating system -- it's a strong direction," says Gary Rowe, executive vice president of The Burton Group, which sponsored the Catalyst Conference. He says Sun's directory/operating system model actually resembles that of Microsoft, which is building the much-anticipated Active Directory in Windows 2000.

"This is another example of the directory as an important part of the network infrastructure," Rowe says.

The advantages of having a directory built into an operating system should be similar to those gained when TCP/IP stacks became native to operating systems. Although the operating system is a little bulkier, developers will be able to write applications to Solaris and assume that the programs can take advantage of the underlying directory services.

Directories are a key piece of infrastructure for supporting user management, establishing rules and policies for net resource use, and managing security certificates. These are key functions for supporting e-commerce sites. One reason AOL bought Netscape was for the latter's expertise in directory and e-commerce technologies.

According to Mark Smith, directory architect for the Sun/Netscape Alliance, Sun will scrap its Directory Services software and transition customers to the Netscape technology. The Netscape and Sun directories are based on the Internet Engineering Task Force's Lightweight Directory Access Protocol; that should make the transition easier, Smith says.

Such an integration project can be challenging. Just ask Microsoft, which has spent three years trying to embed Active Directory into the next version of Windows NT.

But sources say Sun and the alliance, staffed by both Sun and Netscape employees, are in the process of working out a licensing deal for the Netscape technology. The alliance has already licensed Directory Server 4.1 to Check Point Software, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq.

Sun has long been a leader in the hardware arena. But the company's software products, including Sun Internet Mail Server and Directory Server, have not sold as well as Netscape's comparable products. Netscape can cite many high-profile directory customers, including Lehman Brothers and Ford Motor. Ford uses uses Netscape's Directory Server to support 340,000 employees.

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