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Sun-Microsoft Interoperability Effort Key for Both Companies

For those still stunned, in the wake of last Friday’s press conference, that Sun Microsystems and Microsoft are actually cooperating, think “interoperability” – particularly in the area of thin-clients and servers.

Both companies have a vested interest in interoperating as much as possible, besides the obvious benefits to customers. They have a common enemy too: Linux.

Sun Microsystems’ and Microsoft’s announcement last Friday of specifications to enable their rival single sign-on systems to interoperate is, as the company’s senior execs said at the time, the first step toward greater interoperability between the two firms’ products. Other features of the agreement, first outlined a year ago, include joint work on an XML-based systems management specification as well as achieving interoperability between the Java and NET programming environments.

In addition, Sun last week said it had licensed Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol or RDP, which is the underlying thin-client technology that supports Microsoft’s Windows Terminal Services on Windows server platforms, including Windows Server 2003.

Sun also early last week agreed to buy thin-client access technology vendor Tarantella and its Secure Global Desktop (SGD) line of products for approximately $25 million. Tarantella has been a competitor to Citrix and its MetaFrame product in the thin client arena for several years. Sun officials said they intend to integrate the technology with Solaris and Sun Ray thin-client systems.

The idea, executives said, is that a user will be able to access Windows, Linux, Solaris, and mainframe applications all from a single thin-client device. Indeed, one of Tarantella’s products supports Windows Server 2003’s Windows Terminal Services using RDP.

“We've done a licensing and protocol agreement . . . so you can take a Sun Ray [thin client], and that Sun Ray can access Windows applications through Windows Terminal Services,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told press conference attendees last Friday. “Sun even went out and bought Tarantella, [which] is a value-added product that essentially facilitates that scenario of interoperability between Sun gear and Microsoft gear.”

“[RDP] will be very complementary to and supportive of our thin client Tarantella Sun Ray effort,” added Sun CEO Scott McNealy. Over the past year or so, Sun has also gotten its AMD Opteron-based Sun Fire servers certified to run Windows Server 2003, although it doesn’t distribute the system with its servers itself – at least not yet.

While Linux is a threat to both companies, in fact, presently the bigger threat is to Sun and its Solaris operating system, according to several analysts. “The majority of wholesale Linux defections continue to come at the expense of mid-range UNIX installations,” says a report issued last month by research firm The Yankee Group.

Indeed, the ability to easily interoperate with the other major players, from single sign-on, to management, to accessing applications on Windows Terminal Services, may well become a key selling point for Sun.

It’s a good strategy, say analysts. “RDP allows Sun to better interoperate in a Terminal Services environment,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “Of course, Sun would like that application to be on a Sun server,” he adds.

That will not necessarily be the case, if Microsoft has anything to say about it. The software giant has made much fuss over the idea that its Office set of productivity applications and a mesh of complementary products constitute a sophisticated development platform – one that can be used to deploy comprehensive distributed applications in the enterprise. Office’s already dominant market share on the desktop means that Sun would be foolish to ignore the potential to run those applications remotely.

“Considering that interoperability is the number one priority for IT managers, Sun has every reason to make sure its software interoperates really well with Microsoft,” says JupiterResearch senior analyst Joe Wilcox.

“[Sun realizes it] needs to support much more heterogeneity than before,” says Jean Bozman, vice president of global enterprise server solutions at researcher IDC. That’s especially true given Windows Server’s significant penetration into IT shops, as well as Sun’s own success with its x86-based servers, she adds.

Likewise, however, Sun is too great a presence in corporate data centers for Microsoft to ignore, especially as it fights to keep its place under the Linux onslaught that has both companies on guard. The two rivals, therefore, will continue to cooperate, even as they compete with each other.

“What you're seeing is Solaris and Windows very tightly bringing their whole ecosystems together in a nice and interoperable way, while we can still compete and give the customer choice,” said McNealy.

The question for both Sun and Microsoft though is Will that be enough to stave off Linux?

Scott Bekker, ENT magazine’s editor-in-chief, contributed to this report.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.