With interest in Sun and its vision of the "network is the computer" at an all-time high, SunSoft is set to proliferate its product line
Through interviews with SunSoft president Janpieter Scheerder and other executives, analysts, and customers, the picture emerges of a division moving Solaris into new realms like 64-bit computing and a Java-based, objected-oriented world in which "applets" diminish the need for Windows applications. But even as it pursues these bold ambitions, the same old squabbles in the Unix camp nip at SunSoft's heels. (2,900 words)
Janpieter Scheerder sunk with a sigh into a cushioned chair in the hallway of the Sun training building in Mountain View, CA. No wonder -- he had just emerged from one of those periodic closed-doors sessions during which Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy tries to keep the presidents of the seven Sun operating companies aligned within their respective orbits. As president of SunSoft, Scheerder rules a division that employs 17 percent of the Sun workforce and provides the operating system, development tools, and management systems for Sun and Sun-compatible hardware, as well as Intel-based servers, and potentially, some machines running the PowerPC microprocessor.
Speaking softly with a slight Dutch accent, Scheerder pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and issued what must be a common lament at SunSoft.
"We have 2,600 very talented software engineers here, and we hardly ever get any attention," he said. "We have to find a way to get us out from behind the clatter of all the Netscapes in Silicon Valley."
Indeed, this could be the year that SunSoft comes into its own. With interest in the Internet at an all-time high, the world is suddenly humming Sun's tune: The network IS the computer. The revved-up UltraSPARC microprocessor inside the new line of servers that Sun announced in mid-April have focused attention on the software "gas" that makes Sun hardware run. At this promising juncture, SunWorld Online asked SunSoft executives, customers, and industry analysts to chart the future course of this "neglected" planet of Sun.
Proliferation of the crown jewel
In Scheerder's view, SunSoft's mission is simple. First, SunSoft must deploy the Solaris operating system, not just on SPARC microprocessors, but on Intel and PowerPC as well, and therefore ensure the greatest potential volume for what is already the most common variety of Unix. Secondly, the company is pushing development tools, like the newly-announced JavaWorkShop, a hardware-independent environment for developing World Wide Web applets. Finally, SunSoft's Solstice group aims to stitch the operating and development environments together to manage an entire enterprise. This three-fold mission -- deployment, development, and management of Solaris -- is expressed in SunSoft's organizational structure, which is divided along those lines.
"We have worked very hard to make Solaris a crown jewel that runs from the workstations to the largest machines," Scheerder said. "It has a unique ability to scale across an entire enterprise."
In recent years Sun has moved to port Solaris to the Intel platform. SunSoft actually demonstrated Solaris on the PentiumPro the day Intel's new microprocessor debuted. David Spenhoff, director of product marketing for Solaris, said the leap to Intel was a defensive move to counter Windows NT, Microsoft Corp.'s solution for the workgroup server level. More recently, SunSoft has also helped port Solaris to IBM's version of the PowerPC platform, although it is questionable whether that platform will ship in volume.
"We recognized several years ago that there would be three microprocessors that would be volume survivors," Spenhoff said. "Intel, SPARC, and PowerPC. We felt it was important for us to have an operating system that spans the range of hardware options so customers get more flexibility in their purchasing decisions."
But Paul McGuckin, a vice president and senior Unix analyst with the Gartner Group, said SunSoft has not been terribly aggressive in supporting Solaris on anything but Sun hardware. For instance, although several thousand applications run on Solaris for SPARC, a selling point for Sun, only a few hundred run on Solaris for Intel, he said.
"They have done little to convince us that SunSoft is anything other than the house brand of Sun," McGuckin said. "Yes, they have ported Solaris to Intel, and they are in the process of porting it to PowerPC. But, the only success story is on Sun hardware."
McGuckin said customers have chosen Solaris on Intel when it is packaged with a larger solution. That is what Oracle Corp. did when it chose Solaris on Intel as the operating system for its workgroup server.
By SunSoft's way of thinking, however, that is exactly how the Solaris on Intel initiative is supposed to work. It gives Sun a way to team up with other solution providers to rescue sales at the low end of the server market where all Unix vendors are most vulnerable to competition from Windows NT.
"The momentum on the Intel side has been building rapidly thanks to announcements with key partners like Oracle, Informix, and SAP," said Mary Anderson, market development director for the Solaris on Intel product line.
One of the problems faced by Sun and its competitors is the disunity of the Unix camp that makes it difficult for customers to mix and match hardware and software solutions despite the promise of "open systems." But Scheerder argued that the splintering in the Unix camp is no greater than the sharp lines drawn between Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows NT. "I can take one of my children's games and move them across these Windows environments and they break," Scheerder said. "Trust me. So this myth (of Unix disunity) is just not true."
He said the Unix camp could and did work together on concepts like the Common Desktop Environment, intended to give Unix systems a common look and feel to counter the ubiquitous Windows screen. SunSoft now ships CDE as an alternate choice on the latest versions of Solaris. What other Unix vendors plan to do with CDE isn't clear, and to Scheerder, it doesn't matter.
"We did what we set out to do," he said, and that was to create an easier-to-use and more intuitive environment, especially for people familiar with Windows or Macintosh screens. Spenhoff said SunSoft has licensed CDE to X-Inside, which is planning to port CDE to other Unix systems. But despite such efforts to proliferate CDE, Scheerder said SunSoft is not planning to force CDE on Solaris users. Open Windows will remain the default screen. Installing CDE will be an option.
"One of the things we've learned around Solaris 2 is not to force people," Scheerder said, referring to the bad will Sun caused by trying to make customers migrate from the SunOS to Solaris. "I'm not going to force the world to go one way or the other," he said. "I just don't think that is with the times anymore."
Looking ahead, SunSoft has laid out a plan to migrate Solaris to a 64-bit operating system. Delivering 64-bit performance would, among other things, allow users to address files that exceed the 2-gigabyte limit of 32-bit Unix systems. This is particularly important for data warehousing applications. Spenhoff said delivery of the 64-bit UltraSPARC processor was the first step in Sun's roadmap. He said SunSoft will soon release the first software installment on the roadmap, by upgrading 32-bit Solaris with 64-bit kernel asynchronous input/output. Once database vendors take advantage of the 64-bit kernel AIO, users will get a huge speed boost when reading or writing data to disk, Spenhoff said. By early 1997, SunSoft has said it will offer support for files up to four gigabytes. By early 1998, SunSoft has promised to deliver full 64-bit addressing and file system support.
McGuckin, the Gartner analyst, said Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alpha microprocessor and its 64-bit operating system have already reached this high-performance plateau. Now SunSoft, HP, and IBM are all in varying stages of playing catch-up. But McGuckin said 64-bit performance, though important in the future, is now only useful in a few applications, like data warehousing, where the ability to address an entire index in memory provides a 20-fold performance boost. DEC has been successful in selling its 64-bit Alpha machines into this high-end, data-warehousing space, achieving primacy in just the sort of market Sun wants to own.
"SunSoft is very aware of the opportunity they're missing (by not being at 64-bits yet)," McGuckin said. "But all things considered, it's a relatively small opportunity right now, and they're working on getting there in good time."
Java, Java, and more Java
If furthering the deployment of the Solaris operating system is SunSoft's biggest mission, it's hottest job at the moment may well be the creation of new tools for writing applications, especially those "apps" that use the Java programming language. Larry Weber, vice president and general manager of SunSoft's developer products group, gave a brief overview of SunSoft's main development tools, the Performance WorkShop for scientific computing and the Visual WorkShop for commercial systems. But the product that really had Weber jazzed was a new tool called Java WorkShop. Although Sun has formed a separate division, JavaSoft, to market Java technology, it was SunSoft which made Java WorkShop available over the Internet for a free 30-day trial beginning March 26.
"More than 15,000 copies were downloaded in the first two weeks," said Weber, who described Java WorkShop as an easy-to-use-tool for creating Java applets.
"What is different about this product is that we started focus groups to ask around for programmers who wanted to use a Java tool," he said. "We quickly found out we had two fundamental communities who wanted to write Java applets, traditional programmers and media communicators."
The result was a toolkit that starts users off with a basic set of Java applets and enables them to combine or modify these prefabricated routines to create entirely new Java applets. The WorkShop also makes it easy to paste these apps into HTML documents. Weber compared the process to creating graphics by modifying clip art. He is expecting plenty of interest when the $295 Solaris and Windows versions of Java WorkShop ship this month. Weber said a Macintosh version is expected to be available in the third quarter.
Evan Quinn, International Data Corporation's research manager for application development tools, gave Java WorkShop a glowing review for ease of use, portability, scalability, ease of testing, maintenance, and other features. "Java WorkShop instantly renders all other application development tools technically obsolete," Quinn said.
Weber was similarly excited about two other pieces of SunSoft wizardry - Joe, which is now in beta, and Solaris NEO, which has been available since November. Brian Croll, SunSoft's director of object systems, explained how Joe, NEO, and Java are all part of SunSoft's brew for integrating Solaris more strongly into the corporate IS network. Croll said Solaris NEO is an object-oriented environment that conforms to CORBA standards. Set by the Object Management Group, CORBA determines how data objects on the server side talk with each other. Joe is a transport utility that fetches CORBA data objects from the Solaris NEO back end and transfers them to a Java front end.
"Together these elements create a full client/server environment, using object technology, that can be deployed on the Internet or intranet," Croll said. "On the server side, using NEO to speak (CORBA) to an Oracle, Sybase, or Informix back end lets existing applications pass information, through Joe, to a Java applet running on an Internet browser."
Weber said Joe will be fully available in the third quarter. "Joe itself has a very interesting price point -- it's free," he said, to lure corporations into using Java applets to disseminate data. SunSoft will sell the NEO WorkShop for $5,995.
Sun's infatuation with Java has caused some observers to wonder whether SunSoft has lost interest in its OpenStep alliance with NeXT Software Inc. Scheerder said OpenStep still fits into SunSoft's strategy of taking object technology to the Web. It just wasn't discussed last year because the world had Web fever and Java mania.
"We spent last year getting people to recognize the potential of the Internet, which they do," Scheerder said. "Now they are asking how do they develop objects for it, and we say use OpenStep and Java WorkShop, and how do we manage it, and we say use NEO. So it's not a matter of deemphasizing one thing over another. It has to do with the timing of the message."
Solstice heating up
Providing high-level network management is the job of SunSoft's Solstice product line. Terry Keeley, vice president and general manager for Solstice, said his aim was to provide scalable management of desktop, server, and enterprise networks, as well as Internet connections, for the lowest overall cost of ownership.
"IT establishments get measured by how much money they spend as a percent of revenue, and that is supposed to go down, and how much revenue they generate per IT employee and that is supposed to go up," Keeley said. "Our products are designed to achieve both goals."
But Gartner analyst McGuckin said although Solstice has greatly improved Sun's network management capabilities, the company still lags behind IBM and HP in this regard.
"In breadth of management tools, I'd put it IBM, HP, and Sun, in that order," McGuckin said.
Users speak up
The last word, however, always belongs to the customer. Scheerder said he spends a lot of time urging SunSoft people to quit focusing so much on technology and spend more time listening to customers. Alex Newman, director of the 4,000-member Sun User Group in Brookline, MA, couldn't agree more.
"One of Sun's stumbling blocks historically has been its relationships with its customers," Newman said, listing grievances like abrupt product transitions and lack of training to use Unix systems that hardly provide an easy out-of-box experience.
The story of Frode Ødegård is just one negative footnote in a year that saw Sun achieve a record $5.9 billion in sales and unprecedented public acclaim.
Ødegård was a 17-year-old high school student in Norway when he got his first Sun workstation and started a company to sell a compiler that he wrote. Now 28, Ødegård runs a small research firm in Pasadena, CA. He recently decided to quit SunSoft's Catalyst program, which offers third-party application developers like himself a 40 percent discount on Sun workstation purchases. The reason? Sun didn't return his calls seeking technical specs for a planned purchase. Ødegård is shifting his 10-person shop to Silicon Graphics.
"It was not a decision I took lightly, but if they don't return my calls how can I buy anything," Ødegård said.
One sour sour note is hardly an indictment of a company that has enjoyed a well-deserved chorus of praise, plus the sales boost of a new product cycle. But surely the same SunSoft that used focus groups to make Java WorkShop easy enough for media people to use should be able to retain the loyalty of a programmer who cut his teeth on SunOS.
What's up with Wabi?
Newman, the user group representative, said another persistent complaint of Sun users is the scarcity of regular Windows productivity applications that run on Sun hardware. Sun tried to address this problem several years ago by creating Wabi, an emulation space inside Solaris to run common Windows applications. SunSoft also has a server version of Wabi. Maintaining and expanding this wedge into the Windows world had been the mission of the PC Desktop Integration Group in Chelmsford, MA. But earlier this year, PCDI was quietly folded into the Desktop Solaris Group and no longer exists as a standalone division although it will continue its work, according to a SunSoft spokesman. Former PCDI division leaders declined requests for interviews.
The silence on the Wabi front is in contrast to the thunder on the Java side. Essentially, Sun is pushing the notion that Java-type applets delivered via the Internet and intranets will minimize the need for 32-bit applications like Microsoft Word or Excel. Instead, networks will provide applets on demand via Java-enabled browsers. According to Sun and its allies, notably Oracle Corp., delivering applets over the network eliminates the most costly part of client/server systems -- maintaining and upgrading all the Windows applications on clients throughout the enterprise. Not surprisingly, network-delivered apps would mean fewer sales for Microsoft and more action for Sun and other client/server players like Oracle.
"The productivity apps that you are using today are done with," Scheerder said. "That doesn't mean word processing will go away. But there will be a new generation of network-based productivity apps that revolve around the information and what you do with it."
SunSoft has alternately mocked or ignored the recent alliance between Santa Cruz Operation Inc. and HP. The two teamed up behind SCO's version of Unix for Intel-based computers. Gartner Group's McGuckin said SCO has been the leader in providing standard productivity applications for Intel-based Unix workstations. Seven other computer makers, including Compaq Computer Corp., Data General Corp. and Unisys Corp., recently signed onto the SCO camp.
Peter Galvin (SunWorld Online security columnist) of Corporate Technologies Inc., a Boston-based value-added reseller of SunSoft products, said Solaris on Intel has a good implementation of Wabi that runs key Windows productivity applications. Given that SunSoft has a decent solution, at least for Solaris on Intel, Galvin sees little reason for Sun to heed the SCO alliance for now.
"You have to remember this is Unix and alliances come and go," Galvin said.
As for his opinion of Sun's grand vision to do away with clumsy Windows programs in exchange for applets that are just a network plug away, Galvin is like much of the world outside Mountain View. Which is to say, from Missouri.
"The whole applet thing is a nice theory but even if it works it will take time for usable applets to mature," Galvin said. "And until they do, people will use productivity applications to get things done."
Summing up the SunSoft situation, Sun User Group director Newman said the software division's fortunes reflected those of the company as a whole.
"One of the problems that I believe Sun will encounter continually is that it's a Hydra," Newman said. "There are times when I see that these planets of Sun are not all necessarily moving in the same direction. My hat is really off to Scott McNealy for trying to herd this bunch."
About the author
Tom Abate is the technology writer for The San Francisco Examiner. In addition to his daily technology coverage, he has written about Unix and the Internet for magazines including Upside and UniForum.
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