Three years on, can Sun's Jini mesh with Web services?

Sun Microsystems is dusting off its Jini networking technology and promoting it as a tool that can be used to help deliver Web services. But while some analysts hold the technology in high regard, others question its role beyond a few niche markets.

When Sun launched Jini it was explained as a plug-and-play technology that would allow all kinds of devices, including printers, cell phones and handheld computers, to communicate with each other over networks and share services. A Jini-enabled printer, for example, would automatically "announce" its presence on a network and make its printing service available to nearby users. That vision has largely failed to materialize, analysts said, in part because Internet-enabled devices have been slow to take off.

Three years later, Sun is emphasizing a role it thinks Jini can play in delivering software as a service, in a distributed e-commerce or travel reservation system, for example. Such services run over networks characterized by a mix of new and legacy systems, and unstable connections that come and go as computers are switched on and off or as networks fail. Sun is pitching Jini as an intelligent transport layer that can keep track of which services are available and ensure their delivery over such constantly changing networks.

Some analysts aren't convinced that demand for Jini will be widespread. Web services, to the extent that they exist today at all, are being used mainly for linking applications inside an organization or among established business partners, which makes Jini's ability to "look up" and connect with distant Jini-enabled computers of questionable value, said Mike Gilpin, a research fellow with consulting company Giga Information Group Inc.

In addition, Jini has attracted nowhere near the level of broad industry support that helped propel Sun's Java into the mainstream, he said. Because customers have no guarantee that Jini will be supported in products from established players such as IBM Corp. and BEA Systems Inc., many will be hesitant to use it.

"If you look at why Java was successful and Jini was not, it's really about that buy-in from the rest of the industry. If it were not for IBM getting behind Java, it wouldn't have taken off the way it did, and there hasn't been a significant level of buy-in for Jini," Gilpin said.

Sun is only too aware that Jini has been thought of as a device technology, but says its potential use in software services was there from the start. The press and the public latched onto the device idea because it was easiest to understand, a Sun official said.

"When we launched Jini, the device message came out very strongly and overpowered the message that Jini was not just for devices but could accommodate any service implementation, be that in hardware or software," said Franc Romano, a group marketing manager with Sun. "Over the last couple of years we've been coming up with a more balanced message."

The company points to dozens of companies that are using Jini today. It asserts that some 80,000 developers have signed up for a Jini license, which provides them with a development kit and allows for research and development use and limited testing. If a company wants to sell its Jini product or use the technology in a production environment, it must pass Sun's compatibility tests to receive a commercial license, which is free of charge. So far, 75 companies have acquired commercial licenses and are using Jini for live applications, many in the health care, financial and telecommunication sectors.

One such company, Montreal-based Newtrade Technologies Inc., provides middleware and services to the travel industry, and created an online booking engine that links distributors such as travel agencies with hotels, car rental companies and other suppliers. Newtrade uses Jini, along with Java, XML (Extensible Markup Language) and a J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) server, to integrate its customers' disparate computer systems in a way that allows them to place reservations and perform transactions in real time over the Web.

While hotel chains and other large corporations can use technologies such as Sun's Java Message Service, which are relatively costly to purchase and support, Jini plays a vital role for connecting hundreds of smaller establishments whose IT infrastructure may be no more than a single DOS-based PC, said Frédéric Lalonde, Newtrade's chief technology officer and cofounder. These smaller systems may go online and offline unpredictably, and their IP addresses are frequently changed by Internet service providers, creating the type of "dynamic" networks that Sun says Jini is designed for.

Jini overcomes these problems, according to Lalonde, because of its ability to locate and communicate with other Jini-based computers over a wide network. "What Jini provides is an efficient, cost-effective delivery mechanism for all this interaction between the clients and back end systems," he said. "It's making sure that everything between the remote site and the central location is humming along."

The technology has its problems, he said, particularly when it comes to security. Jini has a "disturbing tendency to open random ports" in firewalls when it searches for other Jini-enabled computers, Lalonde said. To fix this, Newtrade had to recompile the Jini source code, which is freely available, to create a version that is firewall-safe, he said.

Sun acknowledges the problem and is preparing a new version of Jini, codenamed Davis, that will address the security issues, Romano said. That version, likely to be version 2.0, is due out about this time next year, he said.

Eko Systems Inc., in Fairfax, Virginia, uses Jini to provide hospitals with a system for automatically collecting data about patients from anesthesiology machines, ventilators and other hospital equipment. The devices send this data to a Jini-enabled "charting station" where medical staff also enter other patient care information. The data is uploaded to a Java server, which in turn is connected to the hospital's main IT infrastructure for use in customer billing, registration and other applications.

Jini is used throughout the system, allowing medical devices to be dynamically configured when they are connected to the network, and ensuring that patient data is routed to the appropriate location, said Jim Edmiston, Eko's cofounder and chief technology officer. "(Jini) can create network appliances out of things that are really pretty dumb," he said.

Eko picked Jini because of its stability, according to Edmiston, and because it makes it easier to monitor and update the system remotely. Eko has deployed its system in two hospitals to date, with plans to outfit three more by the end of the year.

Sun is mindful that it's trying to persuade businesses to use a technology that remains largely unproven. It sees Jini as being in the "early adopter" stage, where it will appeal to companies with a specific problem to solve. Nor is Jini an essential component for many types of Web services today, Romano said. However, he argued that when networked devices become ubiquitous, Jini's ability to pinpoint computers of any type across a network, and to do it on a potentially vast scale, will be essential.

Although use of Jini and the Jini logo are free, Sun's motives are not altruistic. It hopes Jini will help expand the market for Internet-based services as a whole, helping Sun to sell more of its servers and storage equipment -- a theory that "a rising tide lifts all boats," Romano said. What's more, Jini today works only in conjunction with Java, which helps promote the use of Sun's Java technology.

"You have to use Java to the extent that there are some basic features of Java that we take advantage of," Romano said. "Jini extends the Java programming model to the network."

Jini was "truly a visionary idea" and in many ways helped define what came to be known as Web services, said David Smith, a vice president with Gartner Inc. He agreed that as Web services and networked devices proliferate, a technology with Jini's capabilities will become essential. To succeed, however, Sun must forge closer ties between Jini and XML, and allow it to work independently of Java, he said.

Sun's mistake has been not to position Jini as an integral part of the Java platform, where it might have found greater support among developers, according to Mark Driver, a research director with Gartner. Instead, Sun marketed Jini separately and tied its success in large part to the expected explosion of Java-enabled devices. That explosion hasn't taken place, leaving Jini without a home, he said. He also believes Sun "greatly overhyped" the technology to a degree that may have damaged its reputation.

"I think Jini is still two to three years ahead of its time," he said. "The question is, has it created such a negative buzz that it will be incapable of resurfacing? I'm more pessimistic today than when Jini was first introduced, but I'm not going to write it off yet."

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