Sun shines on smart Web services

Web services are the new buzzwords in today’s Internet economy. The Web is a vast space and companies are now turning towards services such as personalization and data simulation centres in order to better anticipate and manage this growing requirement. Sun Microsystems Inc. is working to address this demand with initiatives like it’s new Sun ONE architecture and the opening of it’s first Canadian Authorized iForce Ready Center. This proof-of-concept centre was opened earlier this year in Calgary, in partnership with Burntsand Inc. Gail Balfour, ComputerWorld Canada associate editor, had the opportunity to speak with Mark Tolliver, vice-president of Sun Microsystems Inc. and president of iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, about some of the things Sun has been working on in this new space.

CWC: Sun has been promoting what it calls a strategic software initiative for the Web. When you say strategic, are you referring specially to personalization and contextual relevance?

Tolliver: Yes, that’s exactly right. So we call this initiative Sun ONE, which stands for Open Network Environment. And the whole point behind that is that as we look forward, there is a next phase of the Web – a next phase of architecture for the development of applications and services. That requires a new view, it requires an aggressive posture with respect to what standards and protocols will allow us to achieve this new level of relevance of context and personalization.

So what we’ve done is we talked about Sun’s commitment, through its iPlanet organization – which is the software arm that is building out most of the Web-based software, through its Java software organization and through its Solaris organization – to incorporate the open protocols and standards designed to help people build these smart Web services.

CWC: Could you describe some of these smart services?

Tolliver: There are some (services) that we are familiar with, like XML; some which are newer and emerging as we speak: like UDDI, which is a Web service discovery mechanism; like ebXML, which you can think of as a directory of businesses and business services; like WSDL, which is Web Service Description Language – a way for Web services to advertise themselves; like SOAP – Simple Object Access Protocol, which is all about the remote procedure calls – you have to use old vocabulary for Web-based services. And I think the point is that many of these protocols are new, but it’s time for the industry one more time to endorse the notion of open when it comes to the Internet. And so there was a very definite notion here that if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves fighting the same battles that we have fought in the past, with Microsoft in particular.

CWC: In what way does the industry need to be careful?

Tolliver: We want to make sure people understand the industry imperative to step up to the notion of openness and to keep the Internet based on publicly-available protocols. There are several examples of how, with Microsoft and their implementation of some of these Web-based standards and protocols, they are once again converting them slightly so that the Microsoft environment becomes self-contained and not capable of interacting freely in the Web-based environment. In other words, for Microsoft, many of these Web-based standards and protocols are once again second-class citizens – and that’s not in line with what we need if we are going to build this next generation of services in an open and industry-standard fashion.

CWC: Do you think there’s a danger of that, with XML for example, because Microsoft is playing such a big role in the W3C?

Tolliver: I think it’s across the board. What we are seeing is Microsoft adopting the slippery slope of lock-ins, once again. So for example, if you choose Commerce Server – which is a Microsoft product for business-to-business activity – you have by definition chosen SQL Server, you’ve chosen BizTalk, you’ve chosen Microsoft Exchange – you have to run Active Directory. So all of a sudden, you see the tie once again to Microsoft products. What’s important to understand is, across the board, there are slight changes and slight decisions being made, that prevent these industry and Web protocols from being truly open to the Microsoft environment.

CWC: Can you give some specific examples?

Tolliver: A couple of examples: with respect to LDAP – the directory access protocol – Microsoft will tell you that their directory is LDAP compliant. In fact, it’s compliant – if you are willing to reduce the level of security on your network. So it’s a second-class citizen in the Microsoft world. You have to compromise. In the case of Kerberos, which is a security standard, Microsoft has made some non-standard use of certain fields in the Kerberos protocol. And as a result of that, it does not interoperate with the rest of the people who use that ‘net-based security standard. And, and, and. So one of our main messages is: be careful. It is time for the industry, once again, to endorse this notion of open. And, as we do so, we think that Sun – through its Java and iPlanet activities – really does have a view of what this next generation of services is going to be about.

CWC: So what do you think it’s going to be about?

Tolliver: We call it Smart Web Services, with the notion of increasingly bringing the concept of context into play. What’s the difference between throwing out a Web page at random to everybody on Earth, and helping you figure out that your plane has been delayed and your gate has been changed? Context. Where are you, what information do you need in the context of which you’re working right now? And we believe that’s critically important. Our iPlanet organization is really building the large, scaleable products on which people are building such services today and will continue to build them as we go forward, starting with things like directories, Web servers and application servers – sort of the engine-room of the Web software world.

CWC: Is the recent popularity of simulation centres, like the one you opened with Burntsand in Calgary, the result of a new caution in the wake dot-com failures of the immature Internet?

Tolliver: The dot-com story is one we could talk about all night. But if you take just the technology angle of the dot-com thing, then the answer is yes. A lot of these people who had conceived an idea, pushed it out on ill-suited systems with poorly-designed architectures. And when they finally did get the opportunity to go big, if there was an opportunity for them to grow and expand, the first thing that happened is that they couldn’t serve their customers. And all we have to do is look back on the past couple of Christmases and talk to your friends and neighbours about the experiences that they had as this dot-com thing was spinning out. Go to [some e-commerce sites] and they lose your order, they don’t have what you want and the wait is interminable.

And I think one of the reasons that the dot-coms failed to capitalize on that window of opportunity – (when) the world was ready – was because they failed to deliver a service level consistent with getting people to come back. Part of that is fixable via things like the iForce centres. Because there we have an actionable thing – we have a place you go, an individual you talk to, equipment you use, software that’s ready. What we are doing here is so much more actionable than saying “Well, let’s get together and show them our slides.”