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Can Sun turn SOA rhetoric into weapon against IBM and SAP?

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As with asking someone you fancy out on a first date, IT strategy is often a matter of timing. Having completely missed out on the Java application server market, Sun Microsystems now seems to be positioning itself to take a slice of the SOA pie.

Two events happened last week that indicate Sun is doing a lot more forward thinking on Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs) than it could ever have been accused of devoting to either the Sun ONE or the iPlanet application servers.

First, was the $387m acquisition of SeeBeyond Technologies, which buys Sun a SOA sales force. Next, was the release of Sun's implementation of the Java Business Integration (JBI) specification under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) along with its application server.

Sun's actions come when there is sufficient flux in the industry for Sun to stand out by articulating a clear and convincing strategy. OASIS recently criticized the industry for confusing customers over what exactly is meant by an SOA, while IBM's head of software Steve Mills hit the west coast twice to convince customers IBM has solid vision, products and services for SOA.

Jonathan Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president of software, told The Register Sun is taking a clear line on what exactly it means when it says SOA. "SOA is being defined in 15 different ways by people, [but] we are talking about SOA as it relates to integration and composite applications," Loiacono said.

Loiacono believes - this time - Sun is in the right place at the right time. "People are moving away from just an application server to the 'next thing', everybody is talking about SOA," Loiacono says. Application servers, he notes, are now a commodity that can be downloaded for free, thanks to JBoss and JOnAS.

Sun's SOA strategy will use SeeBeyond's sales team of 60 to ride point into vertical markets. Sun will sell a mix of SeeBeyond's Integrated Composite Application Network (ICAN) software while also prying open accounts to push other software in Sun's middleware stack, in areas like security and identity servers.

"We had the lower level piece [of integration] with directory but nothing above directory. We could talk about web services and a SOA architecture, and we'd have the application server and portal server... but then people would ask: 'What tools do you have to integrate?' and we'd have to go to our partners," Loiacono said.

ICAN certainly fills the gap in Sun's integration portfolio by providing the company with a Java-based, visual environment for the development and integration of business processes. Additionally, the SeeBeyond customer list provides a ready market for Sun's other products in sectors like health, banking and manufacturing.

However, with the SeeBeyond purchase, and all this talk of SOAs and composite applications, comes a new set of challenges for Sun.

Naturally, Sun can expect to compete more directly against its age-old systems and Java foe IBM. IBM has, according to analysts, a market-leading position in integration that it has worked hard to sustain during the last three years by channeling knowledge gained in vertical markets into product bundles and various blue prints. Quite simply, IBM realized customers lived in vertical worlds, and technology must be delivered that meets these sectors' specific needs.

Sun must counter IBM's strength by trying to partner past the larger rival. Speaking to El Reg last week, Sun's chief executive Scott McNealy revealed the company does indeed plan reference implementations only, unlike IBM, they will be developed with partners and systems integrators like EDS. SeeBeyond is "not a vertical play" McNealy insisted, ruling out too deep a dive into verticals.

Echoing McNealy, Loiacono said: "Everybody is in, or getting into, some level of integration... we are not going to do SOA just for financial services of just for healthcare. Nearly 100 per cent of customers have an issue with SOA, integration and composite applications."

Sun also faces something of a challenge in the form of SAP. McNealy, Loiacono and Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz overnight at JavaOne began talking about composite applications - that's new to Sun. Composite applications, though, are a part of SAP's NetWeaver strategy.

SAP is using NetWeaver to open up its proprietary ABAP architecture and is now busy attempting to develop an ecosystem of ISVs that build composite applications for NetWeaver. The man leading SAP's campaign is George Paolini - the person who helped Sun build the community organization around Java. SAP is a company on a mission that, according to reports, has hired 200 executives from across the industry to build out NetWeaver and expand sales and management. SAP is - clearly - no longer "just" a big manufacture of ERP systems as it tries to re-invent itself as a "platform".

If there is a weakness in Sun's SOA strategy, it is in composite applications against SAP. While composite applications are a relatively new area to software development, Sun seems unwilling to hit the road, as SAP is doing, in order to expand its existing list of 6,000 partner ISVs and recruit legions of new companies who are capable of building composite applications for the Sun platform.

Instead, Sun hopes it can undercut SAP and appeal directly to grass roots developers using its "open" JBI implementation to achieve a "volume" market for its integration and application server platform. "We have an opportunity to get a lot of traction and take the encumbrances out of the way [to integration]," Loiacono said. "JBI and open source reduce the barriers to entry for developers."

Loiacono believes Sun can play in integration without becoming too focused on verticals. Platform neutrality seems to be the key, with Sun leaving specific domain expertise, in areas like health or PeopleSoft, to specialist plug-in providers. "You can have one integration," Loiacono says. Without abundant blueprints, greater focus on verticals and more evangelizing of the ISVs, though, Sun could find its SOA strategy going the same way as its application sever.®

Related stories

Sun makes SOA play with SeeBeyond
Sun tries to SeeBeyond hardware with $387m buy
Sun opens more middleware source, plots Java future
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