01 May 2000 - So much for working together. IBM and Sun Microsystems are starting to make presidential politics look tame in comparison to their battle for Web server market dominance.
The hostilities really began picking up steam late last year when IBM CEO Lou Gerstner issued his "180-day imperative" following the company's lackluster fourth quarter and ordered his troops to "get out and be aggressive" against Sun.
IBM last month dubbed itself "the new dot in dot-com" following Network Solutions' decision to replace its A.Root domain Sun server with an IBM RS/6000 S80.
No one can really say outside either company whether the claims they are making are true, but that hasn't stopped either side from cranking up their marketing machines.
"This year has been a reaffirmation of our competitive position against Sun," says Mike Maas, manager of product management for IBM's RS/6000 line. "It's being driven by the S80, which is actually outselling Sun's high-end box. This is the big brother to products we will be introducing in the future."
No one can really say outside either company whether the claims they are making are true, but that hasn't stopped either side from cranking up their marketing machines. IBM was relentless in contacting the press about delays in Sun's upcoming UltraSparc III-based systems in the weeks leading up to Sun's third fiscal quarter earnings announcement on April 13.
Sun partners confirm the delays, saying the systems should roll out in July, but they add that Sun customers are not complaining. "Sun continues to grow their business, while [IBM/Sequent] is faltering," says one integrator.
Still, that's only a piece of the massive frontal assault being mounted against Sun by Big Blue. IBM is in the process of Linux-enabling all of its hardware platforms--Netfinity, AS/400, RS/6000 and S/390 servers--so all of them can run the same applications. In recent weeks, it also took the covers off an incubator program its running in conjunction with Epoch Systems to provide start-ups with Netfinity servers at no charge for the first six months.
And just to make sure it doesn't miss an opening, IBM's Monterey project will allow AIX to run natively on Intel's upcoming IA-64 platform.
IBM does have room to maneuver. While Sun last month topped Wall Street's earnings estimates when sales jumped from $2.95 billion to $4 billion, IBM topped estimates despite a revenue decline of $1 billion to $19.3 billion.
The companies also are facing off on software, and IBM's vaunted support of Java looks more and more tenuous. Since last fall Sun has hired two of IBM's top Java executives-Pat Sueltz, who replaced Alan Baratz as the head of Sun's software business, and David Gee, who worked closely with Sueltz at IBM. Along with Anne Thomas Manes, a highly regarded Java analyst who joined Sun last month from Patricia Seybold, they are in charge of setting a viable software strategy, something Sun has yet to achieve. At Sun's Java Business Conference in December, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and president Ed Zander welcomed Sueltz to "the real Java team."
IBM continues to distance itself from Sun. Big Blue last week joined a consortium that plans to create a superset of Java and other emerging Internet standards and touted its co-authorship of SOAP, the Microsoft-backed XML-based messaging protocol. Manes points out that IBM also is working on ebXML, the Sun-backed alternative, but adds that she has not yet convinced Sun to hedge its bets and work on SOAP. Both protocols are vying with several others to become the Internet standard.
IBM so far has refused to support newer Java initiatives like Sun's Jini, fielding competitors instead, and has become more strident in its criticism of Sun's licensing practices and Sun's failure to turn over Java to a standards body. Companies willing to sign licenses for Sun's Java 2 Enterprise Edition continue to trickle in, but IBM--along with Oracle--has refused to sign.
Madison Cloutier, the VP of Tower Technology, says he wonders what IBM ultimately will gain from its investment in Java. Tower's e-Performance Java consulting business is booming, but the top platforms are Linux, Solaris and HP-UX.
Sun, meanwhile, is openly critical of IBM. Following an IBM press tour last month in which IBM officials bashed Sun for being proprietary, David Gee contacted reporters. "[Some of my former colleagues] are in a very difficult position--they're defending a declining company," Gee said. "The fundamental issue with IBM is that it's not gaining market share in its core business, which is hardware, and software drives hardware. Nobody is writing new applications to run on IBM hardware."
In turn, IBM counters that that battle isn't confined to hardware and software; it's also services, and IBM Global Services is the leader in that arena. "The dot-coms are beginning to realize they can't just put up a server and expect to run their business on it," says Maas. "We are very committed to solutions and service and support."