Sun-Microsoft pact whets users' appetites for more

The agreement between Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to improve interoperability was an essential step toward enabling broad adoption of technologies such as Web services and grid computing, users said last week. And they want other vendors to follow suit.

"(Vendors) have to get along together because our systems are requiring that they get along together. They have no choice," said Roger Squire, director of production operations at a multibillion-dollar food distributor that he asked not be named.

Sun and Microsoft made it clear that their recently announced accord was prompted by user demand for better interoperability between the two vendors' technologies. But whether the agreement is really a sign that users are gaining clout with vendors was a matter of debate at last week's AFCOM data center user-group conference here in Las Vegas.

Vendors still "steer the users to their vision," said James Rodgers, a Lyndhurst, N.J.-based data center manager for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He added that he has seen little change in how vendors operate.

But the downturn in IT spending over the past several years has given users a little more power, others argued.

"I think vendors are listening more, and they have to listen more, simply to survive," said Don Tissell, server facilities manager at Frito-Lay Inc. in Plano, Texas.

Kent Howell, manager of computer operations at Illinois Power Co. in Decatur, said he believes that economic conditions and expanding technology choices are empowering users.

For instance, Howell said he recently dropped some mainframe tool vendors that had "predatory pricing" practices. "There are competitors out there willing to cut deals to get their foot in the door. And we're not opposed to taking advantage of those opportunities," even if it means giving up functionality, he added.

Sun is in the eye of that particular storm, with its Unix servers facing growing competition from low-cost, Intel-based servers running Linux. On the same day it announced its agreement with Microsoft, Sun posted a quarterly net loss and said it was cutting its workforce by 3,300 employees.

Sun officials said the specifics of how users will benefit from promised interoperability improvements haven't been formulated. "We have yet to even put the liaison teams together to go meet and talk about the next steps," said John Loiacono, who replaced Jonathan Schwartz as head of Sun's software division. Schwartz's promotion to president and chief operating officer was made public when Sun announced the Microsoft accord.

But Pat Ridder, manager of computer operations at Maricopa Integrated Health System, a regional health care provider in Phoenix, said he believes users will see some clear benefits in the form of lower maintenance costs.

"Sun is to midrange hardware what Microsoft is to software: Sun makes some of the best hardware around," said Ridder. But, he added, server software maintenance is costly.

If the two companies "are really looking at more interoperability between their hardware," Ridder said, the result will be a larger pool of people with skills to address issues on both platforms, potentially lowering maintenance costs.

Users remain divided on the likelihood that the Sun-Microsoft accord will prompt other vendors to form interoperability agreements.

"Unfortunately, a lot of vendors haven't gotten into the interoperability trend," said Dennis Reid, operations manager at Time Customer Service Inc., the Tampa, Fla.-based order fulfillment center for publisher Time Inc.

But the demand of interoperability is growing as enterprises improve integration across business units and supply chains, develop Web services and consider technologies such as grid computing.

"Customers are not going to tolerate this noncommunication between vendors," said Barbara McMullen, director of the Institute for Data Center Professionals at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

One thing is clear: Users who spoke with Computerworld last week said they won't be convinced of the sincerity of Sun and Microsoft until they see tangible benefits.

"Do I expect anything great and wonderful out of their newfound friendship? No," said Ken Lambert, manager of system software at Associated Third Party Administrators Inc., a financial management firm in Alameda, Calif. "I think they have a long way to go to show that they have our best interests at heart. If they are about to prove me wrong, that would be wonderful."

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