Microsoft and Sun in new clash

Microsoft releases its long-awaited BizTalk XML server to manufacturing, while Sun and its allies push ebXML as the preferred XML infrastructure

On yet another front, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are going to war.

This time the battle is over shaping standards for Extensible Markup Language space. The Extensible Markup Language, or XML, which has evolved as the standard way to share data over the Internet, is a Worldwide Web Consortium standard. But the delivery vehicle for XML is not. And therein lies the controversy.

On Tuesday, Sun and its partners announced a new milestone in the development of the ebXML infrastructure championed by the standards group OASIS and The United Nations. Also on Tuesday, Microsoft announced that it had released to manufacturing its long-awaited BizTalk Server 2000, which is Microsoft's XML orchestration server.

BizTalk Server is one of Microsoft's growing stable of .Net Enterprise Servers. The product allows customers to interconnect e-marketplaces, XML-enable their enterprise applications and/or integrate their back-end systems, according to Microsoft.

"I think they [Microsoft] will have real traction with this product," said Meta Group vice president Will Zachman. "Microsoft's story on this [XML] front is much more coherent than any other companies have to offer... The only real alternative to BizTalk is, ebXML and it's lame. It's just Sun and a bunch of bureaucrats backing it."

"There was a lot of scepticism about Microsoft getting this thing [BizTalk Server] done, but they have," Zachman continued. "It's one of the last missing pieces of the puzzle for business-to-business communications over the Web."

Despite Zachman's rosy comments, the sailing has not been smooth for Microsoft with BizTalk Server and the underlying BizTalk Framework technology.

Microsoft announced BizTalk Server in March 1999, and the product was slated to go to beta in the latter half of that year. Instead, BizTalk Server never made it into beta until August 2000. Microsoft said the product will ship in January in volume through PC pre-installations, hosting deals, and the retail channel. Fifty customers are currently deploying the gold code, which was released on Monday, according to Microsoft.

The BizTalk Framework specifies the way companies should exchange data, in Microsoft's view. On Tuesday, Microsoft published the final 2.0 release of the Framework, which specifies how businesses should implement XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) backed by Microsoft, IBM, and others.

"BizTalk Framework is like the envelope for sending data over the Net," explained product manager David Wascha.

But the BizTalk Framework isn't the only specification for handling this task. Microsoft's framework competes head-to-head with the ebXML technical specification due out from OASIS in March 2001. It also competes with some of the specifications put forth by RosettaNet.

But Meta Group's Zachman said IBM's decision to support SOAP and other, related Microsoft-backed standards, could give Microsoft a leg up over its framework competitors. He went so far as to characterise IBM's decision to back SOAP earlier this year as "renewing the IBM-Microsoft axis of power."

Microsoft BizTalk Server requires SQL Server 2000 to work. It comes in two flavours: Standard and Enterprise. The Standard version sells for $4,999. The Enterprise version -- which includes multiple-CPU and clustering support as well as a software development kit -- costs $24,999 per CPU.

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