Sun Tries to Avoid a Nightmare

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2004-05-14 Print this article Print

Sun Microsystems is having a tough enough time. Making nice to Microsoft helps it with its customers.

Called to task by their customers for childish squabbling, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have agreed to play nice. Sort of.

If you've heard Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy speak in the past about Microsoft, the last thing you'd have expected was McNealy trading hockey jerseys with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Yes, the same McNealy who once demonstrated the power of his company's computers through a simulation of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' head being blown apart in a wind tunnel.

Yet, there McNealy and Ballmer were on April 2, yucking it up for an early-morning press conference, swapping souvenir Detroit Red Wings uniform shirts and acting like two former frat brothers at homecoming.

It took a lot of customer muscle to pull them this close together. And some of that muscle came from close to the childhood homes of McNealy and Ballmer, in the heart of the Motor City. When I asked Tony Scott, chief technology officer of General Motors, if he was one of the customers who McNealy said "prodded" him toward interoperability with Microsoft, he laughed and said, "Guilty as charged."

Scott is a member of one of Sun's customer advisory councils, and has frequent contact with Microsoft executives as well. He says that the message that he and other customers sent the two was consistent. "We didn't go to Sun and say go smoke a peace pipe with [Microsoft], or to Scott [McNealy] and tell him to go hug Ballmer. The conversation was about certain pain points of integration with both of their products, where we end up having to pay lots of money to system integration firms to get them to work together."

So now that Sun and Microsoft have a 10-year agreement that sets the groundwork for making their products work together better, where should they start? Sun software CTO John Fowler says that Sun is talking to its customers about that. But it's pretty clear what their customers have in mind for their first at-bat: their directory services.

Directory services are the repository of the access and policy information that controls what information and applications individual users and groups of users can access. If you can't keep a complete directory of what assets you have and who can use them, your people and organization are less productive. Potentially more damaging, you potentially let the wrong people get to sensitive information.

"Microsoft is so dominant on the desktop," says Scott, "so we've got Active Directory deployed to support our desktop environment. And our directory infrastructure for everything else but the desktop is predominantly Sun [ONE Directory]." The problem is integrating the two.

The two directory services and their authentication systems are only remotely compatible. Active Directory and Sun ONE Directory both are "compatible" with the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, an Internet standard for retrieving directory information. But Microsoft's implementation of this "lightweight" directory service doesn't expose all of Active Directory's features.

For example, it doesn't give access to an Active Directory feature called "distributed locator." That can mean making a query to every directory server in a Windows network, rather than one query to all servers. To do better, applications have to use Microsoft's own directory protocol—which Sun hasn't been able to offer to its users until now.

For a company to make all its user and policy information useful, it ends up having to pay consultants to build a link between them. "So we end up having to pay for [integration] over and over and over and over again," Scott complains.

Then there are the differing approaches to maintaining a user's identity on the Internet that Sun and Microsoft espouse. "A nightmare for us is when we get critical mass in two incompatible standards," says Scott. Microsoft has its Passport service; Sun and General Motors are both members of the Liberty Alliance. "We need to push the two closer to each other," he says.

Microsoft and Sun will have to be driven closer together. But they know how to do that in Detroit.

Sean Gallagher is technology editor of Baseline magazine. He can be reached at Sean_gallagher@ziffdavis.com.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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