Sun polishes upgraded iPlanet application server

Sun Microsystems plans to ship an upgrade next month to its iPlanet application server, following an industry trend towards integrating tools and other features that are intended to make developers more productive and ease complexity for companies starting to deploy Web services.

Version 6.5 includes a new "application framework" that offers pre-built Java components for basic functions like managing transactions, which should help developers build and deploy applications more quickly, according to Sun. The components are based on best design practices and come with advice about how to assemble them so that they work together efficiently, Sun officials said.

Aimed primarily at less experienced programmers, the components could benefit old hands who might use them to form the basic structure of applications that can be enhanced with more sophisticated capabilities afterwards, said Patrick Dorsey, an iPlanet product marketing manager.

Sun has also integrated the Web services module from its Forte For Java development kit, a move designed to reduce the number of steps that it takes to convert an application, such as a program for authorising credit card transactions, into a Web service that can be made available for use by other businesses. Including the Web services module should make it easier for a developer to take an application, put it in a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) wrapper, register it with a Web services directory online, and publish it using WSDL (Web Services Description Protocol), Dorsey said.

The updates follow a trend in which vendors such as BEA Systems, IBM and Oracle are adding similar features to their application servers in a bid to attract new customers. Application servers have become commodities, with features becoming standard across all products, and vendors are looking for new ways to differentiate themselves, said Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis.

"Sun needs to differentiate itself in areas like developer productivity, the Forte For Java tools, its portal software and integration," he said. "They're bringing in the same types of capabilities [as other vendors]. Sun isn't quite there yet; nobody is quite there yet."

The changes should help boost developer productivity, although perhaps not by the factor of 10 that Sun is claiming, Willett said. The level of improvement will depend in part on the developer and the type of application, he said. All of the vendors claim their application server is the fastest, and where possible customers should run benchmark tests to see which works best for them. Choosing an application server will also depend on factors such as what other software and hardware a company uses, and which tools their developers prefer, Willett noted.iPlanet Application Server Version 6.5 is due to ship in March priced at $US19,995 per CPU. Sun has also rolled in its iPlanet Message Queue software, which helps ensure that data reaches its destination on time. It also offered new resources for developers, including code samples, Web-based training materials and an online community resource for exchanging development tips.

About 100 customers began testing the new release a year ago, and 30 are using the software in a production environment today, according to Sun's Dorsey.iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions was formed through a partnership between Sun and America Online, now part of AOL Time Warner. Sun agreed last year to buy out the division from AOL, and has made the iPlanet products a key part of its Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Web services effort.

"We think that with iPlanet coming under Sun we've got a great shot at knocking off the number one provider," Dorsey said.

It expects to take ownership of the division officially in March, and is already throwing the weight of its sales force behind the iPlanet products. Willett said the new sales effort could help boost its position in the market.

Sun faces a competitive field, however. Like Sun, Oracle and IBM have identified application servers as a potential big money-spinner and are pushing their products hard. Meanwhile BEA, which leads the market according to analyst firm Gartner, is holding its developer conference in San Diego next week and is expected to announce future product plans there, including a new set of tools for developers.