Web services: The difference between Microsoft and Sun

Like comparing cats and dogs?

Like comparing cats and dogs?

You may now have some idea what web services are all about. Vendors, however, all have their own, slightly different approaches. Microsoft and Sun are arguably the two most important companies peddling a web services vision. Here, Sonya Rabbitte asks some experts about how these giants differ...

"You can't think of web services without thinking of .Net," said Alan Lawson, research analyst with Butler Research.

And he's right. Microsoft's latest offering has become so synonymous with the generic term web services that we'd almost forgive you for thinking they are one and the same. Only that is by no means the case.

Enter IBM, HP, Oracle and literally hundreds of smaller software vendors but most of all enter the company at the head of the Java-inclined crowd, Sun Microsystems. Sun One is its collection of software - Sun's Open Net Environment - which is some a kind of antidote for anyone thinking web services equals .Net.

A recent reshuffle of Sun's iPlanet, StarOffice, Chili!soft and Forte offerings has drawn them under the Sun One umbrella. It is as much an exercise in promoting the Sun One brand as it is in simplifying or developing the product range.

But monikers and promotion aside, what are the material differences between Microsoft .Net and Sun One? Just as users, analysts and the media have different interpretations of web services, so too do vendors - in fact even more so in this case.

Take these simple goals. Microsoft wants to ensure web services are pre-fixed by XML. Sun wants to see web services hosted on Java.

Both are venturing into new territory. Microsoft must look more than it has in the past at back end systems, moving further away from the PC software that makes it most money to server software.

Sun, which makes a good living by selling hardware, must stop thinking about server boxes and workstations and concentrate on software packages. James Governor, an analyst at Illuminata, put it like this: "Sun, because of its Java heritage, is about platforms and systems first. Microsoft is more into interoperability. Sun will talk about integration but look at where Sun makes money. It makes millions of dollars by selling boxes. It does not do software."

Ashim Pal, Meta Group VP web and collaboration, also distinguishes between the two offerings, claiming the two companies have approached web services with different visions of their end use.

While the idea of interactive applications - that for example book our hotels and rental cars, order our foreign currency and reschedule diary appointments as soon as we log on and purchase a flight - may be years away, it is this all singing, all dancing, consumer-embracing vision that Microsoft is promoting.

There are still issues over the reliability of the technology, and the delivery timeframe, says Pal but the vision is there.

"Sun is leading with the technology mission rather than the user experience," he said, and indeed this is against a backdrop of web services that are more likely to transform B2B interaction, far from things most of us are likely to see.

But while the vision may look less complete and the back end orientation less glamorous than Microsoft's oft-cited holiday scenario, the technology components are as credible.

"Sun's strength lays in back end applications and integration, not in the bits the clients see. In most organisations there will be a mixture of both," added Pal.

Sun has come in for criticism over its perceived isolationist stance. Randall Heffner, VP application architecture at Giga Group, reckons Sun has tried to go it alone with Sun One, a move which has left it on the sidelines while Microsoft and IBM plough ahead with a consensus on standards.

"Sun tried to go it alone with Sun One in the past year, so Microsoft and IBM have shut Sun out to a certain extent. Early on Sun brought rhetoric to the table but not technology," he said.

Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun, defended the company's position. He said: "Microsoft and IBM chose not to invite us, chose to make up lies about Sun not being committed to web services. If we were web services laggards we wouldn't have been committed to SOAP with IBM in 2000."

Yet it must be remembered web services are at the fledgling stage. Few pundits are betting on overall vendor winners just yet. Some even suggest today's market leaders are jumping the gun a little.

"Microsoft has done some good marketing. But this isn't the right time to own market share, given there's very little out there to deliver on," said Butler Group's Lawson.

In fact, with backgrounds at opposite ends of the spectrum - Microsoft leading with visible, client-side desktop software and Sun excelling at behind-the-scenes, back end servers - the only consensus right now is that there'll be room for both in the brave new world of web services.

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