Sun looks to Orion for guidance

Project Orion is on target for early August beta-testing as Sun Microsystems revealed its plans for the anticipated software stack.

The offering signifies a bold gamble by Sun to shore up its enterprise software stack as competitors IBM and Microsoft forge ahead with their own integrated server offerings.

Analysts view the move as a marketwide shift toward competing at the stack level rather than fighting over individual server components.

"The whole point of Orion, Microsoft's Windows Server System, and IBM's WebSphere-based offerings is to move the realm of competition away from point product vs. point product and to be able to say, 'Hey, my stack is better than your stack,' " said Dwight Davis, vice president and practice director at Boston-based Summit Strategies.

Sun is betting on the ability to embed functionality into its Solaris operating system, while maintaining support for a range of industry standards.

Sun plans to "take every piece of software Sun manufactures and integrate them together, pre-test them, and embed them in the operating system," explained John Loiacono, vice president of Sun's operating platforms group.

The strategy will tightly integrate functions such as SSO (single sign-on), install/uninstall procedures, and single registration. It will also ensure that common components and frameworks are uniformly applied across the suite.

According to industry sources, Orion will be shipped between September and November and will include 12 components: Sun Cluster Server, Message Queue Enterprise Edition, Instant Messaging, Calendar Server, Messaging Server, Portal Server, Portal Remote Access Server, Identity Server, Directory Server, Web Server, and two versions of the Sun ONE Application Server.

"This [strategy] means having all components in the stack having strict adherence to industry standards. This is where we will differ greatly from Microsoft," Loiacono said.

Analysts question the integration strategy given the relative weaknesses of some of Orion's components. Whereas Sun's Directory Server is one of the best-selling products in its category, sales of other pieces such as its Web Application Server lag significantly behind competing offerings from IBM and BEA.

"Sun is gambling with Orion in that, on one hand, they are saying, 'Our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.' But their parts are not selling that great. They need a couple of best-of-breed components,” said Dana Gardner, senior analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. “That is going to be a challenge for them."

It is here where Orion will meet Microsoft's Windows Server System head on. Microsoft is packaging its Windows Server 2003 OS with a widely deployed set of products, including Exchange Server, BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, and SQL Server, in addition to the company's Visual Studio toolset.

As with Orion, all the components of the Windows Server System are stitched together to work as an "interoperable infrastructure" in hopes of reducing integration complexity and administrative costs.

In the long term, Microsoft's Project Jupiter figures to give Orion competition. Phase one of the project, to be delivered later this year, is a beefed-up version of BizTalk and supporting components. Phase two, slated for late 2004 or early 2005, will add Microsoft's Content Management Server and Commerce Server into the mix.

Analysts such as Summit Strategies' Davis argue that Microsoft's approach to an integrated stack may have been influenced by Sun's Orion plans. Yet according to Davis, because of its common OS platform, Microsoft will have an easier time moving toward its goal than will Sun and IBM.

"Microsoft has the easier job in terms of integration because they are integrating on top of only one operating system. Even though Sun has two [Solaris and Linux] now, it has the obligation through its stated strategy for Orion to opt for this swapping in and out of third-party components," Davis said.

Other analysts and users believe that Sun's bundled pricing scheme will encourage use of Orion's less popular products due to the unrestricted rights users will have to all products in the suite.

"If I buy [Orion just to get] Solaris and their clustering product, but there are also six or eight different pieces of software in that bundle, and I can use whatever I want, I might think hard about trying to deploy the app server or the portal," said Tim Desmond, a systems analyst at Metropolitan Life in New York.

Although Sun officials have declined to reveal specific pricing schemes for Orion, Sun's Loiacono said it will be a combination of subscription and "a la carte."

Loiacono argued that Sun will beat the pricing of any competitor regardless of whether the competition sells its products in a stack or as individual components.

"If you do an analysis of how people price individual components and what we will sell this thing for lock, stock, and barrel with all-you-can-eat pricing, we think we can be not just competitive but change pretty dramatically the economics of how software is sold and shipped," Loiacono said.

Yankee's Gardner said that the pricing of Orion will be attractive to corporate buyers because it will give them more IT spending predictability from quarter to quarter. Users cannot depend on pricing from IBM and Microsoft to be as consistent.

"With WebSphere, BEA, or Oracle, it is difficult to say what your costs are going to be. But Sun is telling users what it's going to be, and that gives them visibility into the cost-benefit analysis they never had before," Gardner said.

Executives from both Microsoft and IBM declined to comment on Orion for this story.

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