Sun strips price tag off application server

Sun Microsystems Inc. will give away a basic version of its Sun ONE Application Server, the company said Wednesday, part of an effort to broaden the customer base for its middleware products beyond companies running its own Solaris operating system.

Sun said last month that it would bundle the Platform Edition of its Sun ONE Application Server, version 7, with its newly released Solaris 9. Wednesday's announcement means that, by the end of the year, the product will also be available at no cost to customers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, Red Hat Inc. Linux, and the Unix operating systems from IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).

Application servers provide a platform for deploying enterprise applications, such as e-commerce software, and for distributing data to a variety of client devices or building Web portal sites. Sun is one of the smaller vendors in the market, which is led by BEA Systems Inc. and IBM.

Sun officials here said the move should allow customers to extend Web-based applications to parts of their business where costs had otherwise been prohibitively high. For example, a large retailer could deploy the free application server at dozens of satellite stores, allowing them to run a Web-based procurement application tied into the retail company's central inventory management system.

Based on IBM's published list prices, which do not any discounts, Sun claimed that customers could cut the cost of deploying such a Web-based infrastructure by as much as two thirds. "The key with retail is, the margins are low. They need a way to do this cost-effectively," said Stewart Wells, executive vice president of Sun ONE middleware.

Such cost comparisons are hard to judge, however, because "each vendor is going to twist it their own way," noted Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc., in Sterling, Virginia. The Platform Edition of Sun's application server would be suitable for deploying certain basic types of applications but doesn't offer the kind of administrative or high-availability features required for important enterprise applications, he said.

Customers who need management software for monitoring and administering applications remotely will have to buy the Standard Edition of the product, which will be priced at US$2,000 per CPU, Sun said. Those who need higher levels of reliability will need Sun's top-end Enterprise Edition, priced at $10,000 per CPU, which adds clustering technology that Sun acquired from Clustra Systems Inc. earlier this year. The software automatically sniffs out the root cause of a software or hardware failure and takes steps to keep applications running, according to Sun.

For Solaris and Windows NT, general availability of both the Platform and Standard editions of Sun ONE Application Server 7 is set for September, with the Linux, HP-UX and AIX editions to follow by the end of the year, said Patrick Dorsey, group manager of Sun's Web and application server products. General availability of the Enterprise version is expected in the first quarter of 2003, he said.

The free Platform Edition includes a J2EE 1.3 server engine, messaging software, support for Web services standards such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language), and an HTTP engine for basic Web server functions. It does not include a full Web server, which must be acquired separately, Dorsey said.

While licenses for the Platform Edition are available at no cost, support for the software is priced at $795 annually per CPU, according to information on Sun's Web site.

Besides helping to broaden the customer base for Sun's Java technology, which is locked in battle with Microsoft's .Net software, Sun hopes to make money from its strategy by selling more hardware and services, and by persuading customers to upgrade to fee-based versions of its products over time.

Customers who want to upgrade from the free product to the Standard Edition will do so by activating a software "key" that turns on additional functions in the product, Dorsey said. Upgrading to the Enterprise Edition will require installing new software from a CD or from the Web, he said.

Sun is also developing add-on "modules" for its application server that will provide, for example, more sophisticated Web services management capabilities, or additional security features for "trusted transaction" environments, Dorsey said. Those modules are expected to begin appearing in 2003.

Sun also fleshed out its tools strategy Wednesday, announcing plans to release its Sun ONE Developer Platform in the fourth quarter, priced at $5,000 per seat. The product includes tools from Sun ONE Studio 4.0 and developer licenses for a variety of Sun server software, and aims to provide a more integrated environment that lets teams of application developers collaborate on projects.

"I think they have a pretty good story there," said Current Analysis' Willett. "They take different elements of the platform and give you common tools and administrative capabilities that allow you to leverage their directory, portal and other products more easily."

Oracle Corp., another smaller player in the application server market, is also looking to bolster its competitive position: The company recently bought from WebGain Inc. several tools for Java developers, and has been in talks with HP over the possible acquisition of its middleware assets, according to industry sources. Oracle and HP have declined to comment. The application server has become the new operating system, providing the software components for deploying applications that link businesses over the Internet, Sun Software Group Executive Vice President Jonathan Schwartz said Wednesday.

Sun isn't the first vendor to give away a version of its application server; HP late last year announced a similar plan. HP, however, failed to attract a large customer base for its product, according to analysts, and the company revealed earlier this month that it will "retire" its middleware products and look to partnerships with vendors such as BEA Systems Inc. instead.

Sun officials sought to play down any comparisons, saying HP failed because it wasn't committed to the ongoing development of its Netaction family. Sun will continue to pour money and developer support into its middleware products, Schwartz said.

Sun will continue to pursue a multi-faceted strategy that includes software, hardware, tools and services, he said.

"We want to be the leading provider of the infrastructure that makes the Net work," Schwartz said. "Are we a software company? Sure, but we're not Sun Microsoftware. Are we a hardware company? Sure, but were not Sun Microhardware. We're Sun Microsystems."