sunsSun has been riding the Java wave, but will it come crashing down on its hardware business?

Java has been a blessing for Sun Microsystems Inc. But for Sun’s revenue-driving hardware business, could Java turn out to be a curse?

More than any other company, Sun is tying its future–in the form of its successful RISC-based hardware business–to Java. While other RISC vendors are hedging their bets by embracing Windows NT and pledging support for Intel Corp.’s IA-64 architecture, Sun remains steadfast in its opposition to the Wintel camp.

With Java still unproven in the enterprise, that’s a risky bet. But it’s one that Sun is willing to make, to the level that they have even taken up sponsoring coding camps like The Open Community Camp.

“The whole strategy behind Java is to create a level playing field; the master plan is to have a chance to compete,” said John Loiacono, director of strategy and branding at Sun Microsystems Computer Co., in Mountain View, Calif.

Such competition creates a double-edged sword for Sun. If Java does take hold as a viable, platform-independent environment for enterprise sites, it could negate Sun’s claims that its Unix-based SPARC processors provide unique advantages over Wintel systems.

“Java penetrates the corporate strategy on all levels,” said Jacek Myczkowski, leader of CEBUG, a user’s group in Ohio. “But the verdict’s still way out if they can parlay that up the [product] food chain.”

A door opener?

Sun claims that the emergence of Java has led directly to new hardware sales. As evidence, officials point to the double-digit growth in server revenues since Sun started beating the Java drum in 1995.

“Java is an incredible door opener,” said Ed Zander, SMCC’s president. “A lot of times we walk in with a Java story and walk out with a data warehouse sale.”

That’s why Sun is positioning its servers and workstations as the ultimate Java platforms.

“We have designed the best Java thin-client servers on the planet,” said Bud Tribble, vice president and chief architect of Java systems at SMCC. “And if you want to run Java on the server, we have a more scalable implementation than anyone.”

To fuel workstation sales, which have flattened out in the face of NT’s encroachment into the workstation arena, Sun will promote its SPARCstations and Ultra workstations as the supreme platforms for developing Java applications.

Specifically, Sun is adding JIT (just-in-time) compilers and other software and hardware components to improve Java performance. In this regard, Sun’s not alone. Intel and IBM, for example, are working on Java compilers and accelerators for their respective Pentium and PowerPC processors.

Sun will also better compete on price, with plans to introduce a new line of SPARC-based “power desktops,” officials said.

Sun’s goal is to keep NT from eroding its dominant share of the Unix-based workstation market. The company had 41.5 percent of Unix workstations shipped worldwide in 1996, according to International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

For the traditional desktop, Sun is turning its attention to thin clients in the form of its JavaStation.

“They can get away without NT on the server, but they need to have an alternative on the desktop,” said Tony Iams, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc., in Port Chester, N.Y. “That’s where the JavaStation comes in.”

Still not available

But JavaStation, announced in October 1996, still is not commercially available (Sun officials expect the systems to ship by year’s end).

In addition, full-blown business applications for Java-based thin clients, such as Lotus Development Corp.’s eSuite and Star Division’s StarOffice 4.0, are just beginning to trickle out.

On the back end, Sun will bundle Java-based Enterprise Storage management software with virtually all of its servers, enabling them to be controlled from any networked Java client.

For customers, the choice comes down to basic issues: uptime, performance and scalability.

“Executions [on Solaris servers] have been reduced in some instances to milliseconds, load balancing is tremendous, and they run for weeks or months before I have to reboot,” said Robert Gahl, chief information officer at Sphere Information Services Inc., a Web services provider in San Jose, Calif., that has been developing on Solaris and other platforms.

But in its eagerness to take the lead in performance, Sun may be overstating its systems’ capabilities. Last week, a benchmark developer poked holes in Sun’s claims that its hardware provided 50 percent better performance over Windows NT systems running Java applications.

Pendragon Software Corp., which created the CaffeineMark Java benchmark, said Sun tweaked its JIT compiler to recognize Pendragon’s benchmark test, rendering an abnormally high score.

“We have no reason to believe this was a master plan from Sun management, but the compiler was tweaked to look for our benchmark, and that doesn’t happen accidentally,” said Ivan Phillips, president of Pendragon, in Libertyville, Ill.

Consequently, Phillips said the best Java performance Pendragon has tested is a system running NT and 300MHz Pentium II chips.

Sun admitted tweaking the compiler, but defended the action.

“Our job is to provide the best performance on the benchmarks that are available, and we did that,” said Brian Croll, director of product marketing for Solaris. “But if it’s not representative of real-world Java applications, then that’s a problem with the benchmark.”

What Sun seems to be ignoring in the real world is that many traditional Unix sites are integrating Windows NT into their networks.

“We use Sun hardware because it supports very large databases and applications, although we are running NT in parallel for desktop applications,” said Chris York, technology manager at Chase Manhattan Bank, in New York, which is using Java to build large platform-independent financial applications.

‘A line in the sand’

It’s these sites that could present a problem for Sun down the road. Sun’s main Unix rivals–Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Digital Equipment Corp. and NCR Corp.–all have dual strategies for supporting both Unix and NT. Sun, competitors claim, has painted itself into a corner.

“Sun has drawn a line in the sand and said, ‘NT over our dead body,'” said Richard Belluzzo, executive vice president of HP’s Computer Organization, in Palo Alto, Calif. “We don’t think that’s smart for business or smart for the customer.”

“Without Java, Sun would have been eclipsed a long time ago,” said Ihab Abu-Hakima, vice president and general manager of the enterprise systems division at Silicon Graphics Inc., in Mountain View. “We’re taking direction from our customers, who are implementing a dual-platform strategy.”

Sun does seem to be softening its anti-Intel stance a bit: It has worked out a deal with NCR to run a future IA-64 version of Solaris on NCR servers. But executives scoff at claims that Sun is ignoring the issues its customers think are important.

“Yeah, NT is daunting, but customers want solutions that solve business problems,” Zander said. “We didn’t flinch when competitors [announced] Wintel deals, because the only people who make money selling Wintel are Win and Tel.”

Additional reporting by Rob O’Regan

Related article: Server-Side Java VMs Deemed a ‘Level Playing Field’

Sun Microsystems Inc. may assert that Java applications run faster on Solaris, but the company can’t claim any home-server advantage when it comes to compatibility. IT professionals and software developers say they have encountered few problems running applications across different platforms’ Java virtual machines.

“I don’t feel there’s an issue mixing and matching servers,” said Eric OKunewick, vice president and manager of enterprise architecture for Key Services Corp., in Cleveland.

“It’s really a question of how well the Java virtual machine complies with Java specifications,” said OKunewick, who is using Sun’s Java Virtual Machine on Windows NT servers and IBM’s CICS Java Gateway on an IBM MVS mainframe.

Mark Kerbel, president of Screaming Solutions Ventures Inc., in Toronto, said he has a lot of confidence developing in Java for both Solaris and Windows NT, and has also done some work for IBM’s AIX. “There’s definitely a level playing field,” said Kerbel. “We feel very comfortable developing applications on one server that can be thrown onto another.”

Recently, Screaming Solutions built three Java server applications for a financial services provider in Canada that let customers gather personal financial data on a Web site. The applications run on three Solaris servers, but were developed on Pentium Pro PCs running NT, said Kerbel. “We used the exact same code,” he said.

Officials at Blue Lobster Software Inc., in Rochester, N.Y., also do most of their initial development work on NT, said Michael Hickman, vice president of technology. Blue Lobster has just finished testing for the next version of its Mako product, which links CICS transactions on the mainframe and Java client or server applications.

Simon Arnison, chief technology officer at Innotech Multimedia Corp., in Toronto, said he’s only experienced “teething problems” with different versions of the VM, mainly because of a lack of availability for BSD Unix, the Macintosh or Linux until recently. Innotech’s product, NetResults, is a Java-based text search and retrieval engine launched last spring on a variety of platforms.

“It’s been our experience, in having developed with 100% Pure Java, that the vast majority of implementations of the Java machine on the vast majority of platforms have been good,” Arnison said. That wasn’t the case one year ago, when he experienced everything from memory and date class errors to I/O errors and segmentation violations.

“We no longer write any of our products in native code; we’ve bet the farm on Java,” he said.

However, there’s been a tradeoff writing in Java: Speed has deteriorated. “Our products, compared [with] native C++ compiled applications, run anywhere from four to 10 times slower,” said Arnison. “It is with some anxiety and trepidation we’re awaiting the arrival of the new Hot Spot technologies” from JavaSoft for real-time profiling, a performance booster within the VM that turbo-charges application performance, he said.

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