Why Sun's JDS deserves a try

Summary:For $50 per year, Sun's Java Desktop System packs an operating system, full-blown productivity suite, Exchange-compatible mail and calendaring, Java development tools, and upgrade protection. David Berlind explains why Sun isn't drawing your attention to the latest release of this bargain.

COMMENTARY -- Something rather strange happened earlier this month. Sun released -- but did not announce -- a Solaris-based version of Release 2 of its Java Desktop System (JDS). Given the significance of JDS R2, for which a Linux-based version has existed since May 2004, why would Sun avoid drawing attention to this release?

Though it comes with an operating system (Linux or Solaris), JDS' primary value proposition is as a productivity tool. JDS is no Microsoft Office, but it does address most productivity needs for most users and, in what may be an advantage to some but disadvantage to others, it often does so in an MS-Office-incompatible way. (That incompatibility may be rectified as a result of a recent cross-licensing agreement between Microsoft and Sun.)

At a subscription price of $50 per year (officially, it's $100, but the $50 promo price shows no signs of changing), any software product that includes an operating system (Novell's SuSE Linux or Sun's Solaris 9, both for x86), a full-blown productivity suite (StarOffice), Exchange-compatible mail and calendaring (via Novell's Ximian Evolution Client), a complete suite of Java development tools, and upgrade protection via automatic updates (the key benefit of the annual subscription), is a bargain.

Comparing JDS on cost to alternatives means you have to understand the different licensing models (a subject that's garnering its fair share of controversy). JDS is available on a pure subscription basis. From the minute you start paying the per-user annual subscription fee, you are entitled to use JDS and get any software updates that Sun issues for the product. If your subscription lapses, you stop getting the updates which in turn makes it senseless to continue using the software because it would be akin to running Windows without getting any of the critical updates (which doesn't require a paid subscription).

Microsoft's model
In contrast, Microsoft's model is closer to the idea of "buying software." Technically, you never buy software. Sure, you may take possession of some CDs and documentation. But when you buy software, what you're really acquiring is a perpetual license to use a specific version of that software. If you plopped down CDW's retail price of $480 for a copy of MS Office 2003 Professional Edition, what you really acquired were the rights to use MS Office for as long as you like. Microsoft, at its discretion, can (and often does) issue free updates to licensees-in-perpetuity. But, to be assured that you won't have to pay the full retail price when the next major release of the software comes out, you must pony up to be part of Microsoft's Software Assurance Program. (There are exceptions to this rule for very large customers.)

According to Microsoft spokesperson Jay Cudal, Microsoft offers its Software Assurance Program on a fixed price basis: Customers sign up for three years and pay 29 percent of the original license cost per year. However, once companies get beyond a handful of copies of MS Office, they should move into one of Microsoft's volume licensing programs where, according to Yankee Group senior analyst Laura DiDio, the volume discounts for most companies generally run somewhere between 18- and 28 percent off the list price. (JDS' rock bottom price is available to companies of any size.) Larger enterprises, governments, and educational institutions get as much as 40 percent off.

In the best-case scenario (40 percent off Office's suggested retail price of $499) that includes upgrades the way JDS does, the upfront cost-per-user over three years for Office is $560 versus a three-year, per-user cost for JDS of $150 ($300 if and when Sun goes back to its non-promotional pricing).

Bear in mind that this overly simplistic comparison only considers the common upfront costs and that, in Microsoft's case, doesn't factor in the cost of the operating system. Mileage varies with all vendors on a case-by-case scenario and this doesn't take other longer term total cost of ownership factors into consideration -- such as periodic promotions, flexibility and manageability. For example, according to DiDio, Microsoft routinely offers promotions that trim the upfront costs (sometimes by matching the discount with an equal sized rebate) or that result in significant savings in training.

The third model is a hybrid of the first two. Red Hat spokesperson Leigh Day, in my previous discussions with her, has referred to this as the "You can take your toys and go home" model. What this means is that you can pay an annual rate for the equivalent of Microsoft's Upgrade Assurance, but if you decide to stop paying, you're still allowed to keep using the software. Although the Red Hat sales representative I spoke with said "we're negotiable," annual upgrade protection for Red Hat's workstation version of Linux is $179. (The official desktop version, available in license packs, averages out to $250.) Although Novell has a complete remake of its desktop version of Linux on tap for November and Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry cautioned that pricing might very well change, an annual subscription to the current desktop version of SuSE Linux costs $100 per year.

For something a little closer to JDS, here are a few more comparative data points. On a perpetual license basis (like MS Office) StarOffice by itself is currently available for $40. For $10 more, you get all of JDS, which includes a standalone copy of the Java Studio Standard development tool that normally costs $695. Granted, most users of JDS won't realize this value.

Too good to be true?
Given what's included for $50, everyone from corporate IT standards setters to small businesses have to be asking themselves two questions. First, "Could JDS satisfy a substantial percentage of our users' needs and, if so, should we be testing JDS for TCO advantage and deployment?" Second, "Why does this sound too good to be true?" Indeed, just about any number in the quantity column of a spreadsheet paints a very bottom-line-friendly picture of JDS. But beyond its bottom-line friendliness, it takes some work to understand whether JDS is all it's cracked up to be (or should be), and whether it might be a fit for your company or not.

For starters, the promotional inclusion of the normally $695-valued Java Studio Standard isn't exactly the gift that it sounds like. Sun officials with whom I spoke were up front about how Java Studio Standard is an older generation technology and how Java Studio Creator -- the product that Sun has positioned as the drag-n-drop visually-driven, easy Java development equivalent of Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net -- is a quantum leap ahead of "Standard." To the extent that non-Java programmer users of JDS want to break into Java programming, chances are they won't get far with what's included in JDS.

The Java development tool isn't the only Java-related JDS component that's behind. Even the version of the Java 2 Standard Edition Java Runtime Environment (JRE) that's included with JDS - version 1.4.2 -- isn't the latest and greatest version of J2SE that Sun has released. That honor goes to J2SE 5.0 (code-named Tiger).

Ultimately, however, which versions of Java technologies are included in JDS will have little or no impact on JDS' utility to the majority of its users. As for J2SE 5.0 (aka Tiger), of the few J2SE-based applications that are actually in use, Tiger is so new that none of them need it yet. By the time Tiger is a requirement for those applications (or any new ones), Sun will probably have upgraded JDS, and licensees will have inherited the rights to that upgrade by virtue of their annual subscription Where questions regarding the Java-related components in JDS may be of little or no consequence to end users, the same cannot be said of other components. For example, the browser included with JDS, Mozilla 1.4, is not the latest and greatest that Mozilla.org has to offer: Firefox.

The Web browser is one component that makes the launch of a Solaris-based version of JDS so interesting. Consider that JDS/Solaris was released after Firefox was, but didn't include it. Given how aggressive Sun has been in pushing the bleeding edge on technology and pricing schemes, one might expect the inclusion of the latest and greatest browser to be a no-brainer. Also, consider that Sun did all of the porting work -- including major fixes such as being able to cut and paste from Mozilla to StarOffice. It's significant that Sun not only ported JDS components such as Mozilla and Evolution to x86 Solaris, but that it is committing to them. After all, JDS is very much about rethinking how you should be doing lifecycle management and budgeting for your desktops. Given the subscription-oriented model that the company is pushing, it can't include those components without committing to their long-term support.

Another angle of the Solaris introduction that buyers should be in tune with is its timing. I suspect that the release of the Solaris version was more an exercise in synchronicity and multi-platform support than it was a typical product launch. An October release of JDS, which is Solaris 9-based, is likely to confuse headline watchers who are being bombarded with news of Solaris 10's pending release. Why, for example, would I buy a Solaris 9-based product when Solaris 10 is just around the corner? According to Susan Jeffries, Sun's product manager for its User Software Group, only a beta version of JDS for Solaris 10 will be available this year and that won't be until December. Sun doesn't expect to have shipping code until the end of March 2005. Even so, that's only five months away. Why should I be giving JDS/Solaris 9 any serious thought?

Understanding the answer means breaking with the way we've traditionally thought about acquiring desktop software. With JDS, you're subscribing to software. Subscribing to JDS/Solaris 9 today knowing JDS/Solaris 10 is around the corner is not unlike buying a copy of Microsoft Office that comes with an upgrade coupon to the next version because that next version is due to be released shortly. With JDS, it doesn't matter when the Solaris 10 version ships. It could be one month or one year -- all subscribers are entitled to it. Even so, one still has to wonder if it was worth it to Sun to build a Solaris 9 version with Solaris 10 being so close.

The answer is yes. In the same way that customers have to get into that subscription mindset, Sun is shifting gears from a company that was squarely focused on the SPARC processor architecture to one that's both processor- and operating system-agnostic. According to Jeffries, "Over time, the idea behind JDS is to give customers choice of platform and what type of technology they want to use JDS on."

To the extent that JDS is a platform itself -- one that should exhibit common behavior regardless of the underlying technology -- JDS for Solaris 9 serves as a validation point for Sun executives and customers that the company can synchronize JDS across platforms. If Sun decided to shoehorn Java Studio Creator, Tiger, or Firefox into the Solaris 9 version before launching it, the company would have had a severe synchronicity problem since the Linux version, by technical comparison, would have been far behind.

Such a move would have also run counter to Sun's strategic initiative to get all of its software on a quarterly release train -- an initiative started last year under the name Project Orion. Critics of Sun would have characterized the disparity as evidence that the company's interest in Linux is nothing more than bait-and-switch lip service geared at cultivating interest in Solaris. Sun's roadmap for JDS silences any such rhetoric. According to Jeffries, when the 2005Q1 release that supports Solaris 10 finally ships, Sun will also be shipping the Linux version with version 2.6 of the Linux kernel (the version that Novell will be supporting in its new release of desktop Linux.

Citing technical reasons, Jeffries said the company's motivation for going with the older technologies in JDS/Solaris 9 isn't that complicated. "You have to ask yourself," said Jeffries, "Do you want latest greatest technology?. Or do you want a secure desktop that you can deploy on large scale? We're offering the more stable secure desktop and waiting for the newer technologies to mature." Jeffries denied that her statement could be construed to mean that the newer version of J2SE (version 5.0, Tiger) wasn't ready for prime time.

Whatever the reasons, the end result is that, today, JDS is available with either Novell's SuSE Linux or Sun's Solaris 9 (both x86-based) under the hood. Now that Sun has completed the hard work in getting JDS onto Solaris, coming up with a SPARC version or even one for Apple's OS X shouldn't be too difficult. Given Sun's new relationship with Microsoft, it's not unreasonable to expect a Windows version at some point.

Which version should you take?
Assuming that your interest in JDS is still piqued. (mine certainly is), the release of the Solaris version introduces other questions. The first: Which version should you take -- the Novell SuSE-based Linux version or the Solaris version? Answering this question exposes the weakest link in Sun's JDS strategy and could end up being a source of consternation for buyers. To the extent that a JDS buyer is banking on Sun to stand behind JDS and guarantee that it works, it may be a little unnerving to learn that, if you want the Linux version, Sun can't give you a list of supported systems to run it on. For example, neither JDS' home page nor its system requirements page on Sun's Web site provides a list or points to one. When I asked Jeffries what systems JDS/Linux was certified to run on, she said "Since the Linux version is based on Novell's SuSE operating system, certification is based on what Novell certifies." After searching high and low for a list of certified systems on Novell's Web site, Novell's Lowry supplied me with a link to a list of 20 supported systems, all of which were either HP or IBM desktops and notebooks. Even though the list includes some business-class systems, the experience of being deferred by Sun to Novell, where the list was difficult to find and isn't very long, didn't exactly breed confidence in the overall offering.

And, if you were hoping to improve things by turning your sights to the Solaris version of JDS, you might be discouraged to learn that the only hardware that Sun currently supports is Sun's AMD Opteron-based Java Workstation. Sun sells these workstations through eBay and buyers can get them at a "Buy it Now" retail price of $2,815 or, they can take their chances at getting it for less in one of the auctions that Sun runs on an almost daily basis. In one recent auction of a Java Workstation 1100z that I watched, the winning bid was $939. The bottom line, though is that whereas JDS' annual subscription fee is enough to turn your head, the lack of hardware support may be enough to turn you away.

That said, there are indications that the list of systems supporting the Solaris version are about to expand. Jeffries said that "It does work on other systems and we're in the process of doing quality assurance on even more. What's difficult is the process of certification." Perhaps hinting that those "other systems" come from other vendors, Jeffries said that "We can't disclose the list right now." That's often code for "We're embargoed from discussing it until our agreements are final." Sun could use some partners in the hardware channel. Right now, it's on its own.

I'm surprised that a Dell-wannabe-cum-system house (like Gateway) hasn't worked out a deal with Sun to create a $300 turnkey solution that integrates a $50 ATX motherboard (with video subsystem), an AMD Athlon64 processor, a 40GB hard drive, and JDS (Solaris or Linux, buyer's choice) for consumption by businesses. If I'm running a business and I have an interest in JDS, my preference is going to be to outsource the systems integration work in a way that nets me a very low cost of acquisition (in other words, not $2,815 per desktop). Perhaps such a beast will turn up, especially after the next turn of the JDS crank (Solaris 10, Linux 2.6 kernel, etc.).

Finally, potential buyers may be curious about the degree to which either version -- Solaris or Linux -- legally exposes them to a lawsuit. If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that usage of open source software isn't necessarily free of legal risks. With products like Mozilla and Evolution, both versions of JDS contain their fair share of open source; and the Linux version virtually qualifies as a distribution of Linux. Here, the news is good. Even though Novell doesn't offer indemnification (see Protect Thyself 101: a primer on indemnification) on its desktop Linux (it offers it for server versions), Sun spokesperson Russ Castronovo told me "as long as Sun offers it as a product, it's fully indemnified by Sun." In other words, Sun is indemnifying a Novell technology that even Novell isn't indemnifying. That full indemnification applies to both the Linux and Solaris versions of JDS. In JDS' competitive set, only Microsoft matches Sun when it comes how far to the mat it will go to offer legal protection to its customers.

Is JDS for you? Now is a good time to bring both the Linux and Solaris versions in for evaluation. Not only will you get to experience an upgrade cycle in the next six months, but you'll get a better sense of the value that JDS can deliver if the list of supported hardware expands. Will it be more of Sun's hardware or will the company finally recruit some OEMs? The next six months will be telling.

You can write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check my blog Between the Lines or my archives.

Topics: Software

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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