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i-Planet: A World Wide Desktop

Mobile workers may soon have an easier time accessing internal corporate files and applications thanks to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s April announcement of its i-Planet Web portal software. i-Planet reportedly enables users to access server-based applications running on Windows NT, UNIX (including Solaris) and mainframe hosts using a standard Web browser. That means, a traveling employee could use a PC in a hotel business center to access an application residing on the corporate mainframe, for example, or a sales representative could run a presentation or software demo off a customer's workstation. As long as the desktop client is equipped with a Web browser and a TN3270 client (for mainframe access), it can use i-Planet.

"Any organization can take a UNIX X Window application, a mainframe 3270 application or an NT application and, through the i-Planet software, deploy it without making one change [to the application]," says Kevin Kalajan, senior engineer for Solaris software at Sun and former chief technology officer of i-Planet Inc., which Sun purchased last year.

However, IT managers shouldn't count on i-Planet being a simple plug-and-play solution, says Dave Kelly, vice president of Hurwitz Group Inc., an analyst firm based in Framingham, MA. Network administrators should plan on having to devote some time to configuring and integrating the product with their back-end resources, something that may slow the rate of adoption of i-Planet initially, he says. "i-Planet will take some market education. Sun will have to show people how to utilize the technology," says Kelly. "But the market [for i-Planet] is a large one because just about everybody has these problems with remote access and secured access."

Companies may also need to purchase software above and beyond the $10,000 starting price for i-Planet. While i-Planet needs only a browser on the desktop, it does require additional, remote access software installed on the server. For access to Windows NT applications, for example, users will need to purchase Citrix Systems Inc. WinFrame software or Microsoft Corp. Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition (TSE). For UNIX X Window System applications, i-Planet supports GraphOn Corp. Go-Joe software (a five-user license for Go-Joe is included free with i-Planet). Companies can avoid the need for remote access software if they have an existing Web-enabled application that can be accessed via pure HTML, or if they require only email or file transfer capabilities. For simple email or file access, i-Planet comes with two Java applets--Netmail and Netfile--which can be simply downloaded to the browser without the need for additional server software.

The product, which has been beta-tested internally by Sun employees in the form of Sun's Sun.Net corporate portal, is targeted not only at enterprise customers but also application service providers (ASPs), which provide hosted applications.

i-Planet should find a receptive market in application hosting, says Ted Schadler, analyst with Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, MA. "The primary issue [for Sun] is whether there is an attractive market for applications that somebody else owns. And the answer is absolutely yes," says Schadler. In fact, Forrester is predicting a boom in the application hosting market over the next few years, reaching nearly $15 billion in revenue by 2003, up from $2 billion in 1999.

One ASP already interested in i-Planet is Digex Inc., Beltsville, MD. Digex, which manages dedicated Internet servers for corporations, got into the hosting business earlier this year when it began offering hosted electronic commerce applications from Pandesic LLC, Sunnyvale, CA. Now, Digex plans to offer i-Planet as well. "Many of our users are having a hard time with [access to] their legacy systems," explains Charles Boyle, director of research and development at Digex. "This gives them the same access as they'd get from the office, no matter where they are--in a hotel, using a [public Internet] kiosk--it looks the same." Boyle says i-Planet is ideally suited for companies that have either a distributed or traveling workforce, or those trying to consolidate IT resources.

Lawson Software, Minneapolis, MN, also sees plenty of potential in i-Planet. Lawson is planning to integrate i-Planet with its Lawson Insight II enterprise resource planning (ERP) application. "What i-Planet does is give a single point of authentication for all applications. So our customers will be able to access everything over the Internet, instead of having to install RAS [remote access software] on their laptops and do direct dial-in," says Jim McAllister, director of advanced technologies at Lawson.

Security is supplied through Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and URL redirects. When i-Planet detects a request from the client, it encrypts the traffic and directs it to the i-Planet server before routing it to an internal mail or application server. This provides the same level of security as having a virtual private network (VPN), says Evan Miller, Internet email services manager for Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas, TX, which just completed an i-Planet pilot to provide email access to its employees.

"You can put i-Planet on the firewall, and then someone from an airport kiosk could log on, authenticate themselves, establish a secure connection via SSL and then have a reverse proxy that forwards the IMAP connection to the Internet mail server," Evans says. i-Planet is also useful for providing internal email access to employees who don't have their own PCs. "In our factories, no one has their own desktop. This gives us a shared-PC solution."

Currently, i-Planet runs only on Solaris servers. However, future releases will support Windows NT and will add load balancing and improved scalability, according to Sun's Kalajan. "Today, with one of the larger Sun machines, you might get on the order of 10,000 simultaneous users. We want to get that up to 100,000 or 1 million."--sjh

Too Much 'X' in XML?

One of the great features of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is that it can be easily made to recognize new data formats, making it a potential godsend to developers in vertical industries who need to quickly create data formats for specialty applications. But could this very characteristic prove to be its undoing?

That's a distinct possibility, according to Ron Rappaport, who follows XML for analysis firm Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, CA. In his newly released report, "The Threat of XML Balkanization," Rappaport warns XML could wind up in the same sort of incompatibility quagmire that HTML found itself in not so many years ago when a proliferation of HTML extensions created problems for Web browsers.

In XML, the extensions come in the form of vocabularies, known as Document Type Definitions, or DTDs, which tell the XML parser how to read the "tags," or data identifiers, for a particular type of document. Each new use of XML spawns its own set of DTDs, such as for e-commerce, industrial applications, medical applications, individual corporate databases and so forth. Some developers are even creating overlapping, or competing, DTDs for the same market niche. For instance, vendors working in the online procurement space have several versions to choose from, including Commerce XML (cXML), which is being developed by a group of 40 companies lead by Ariba Inc., San Jose, CA, and RosettaNet, an nonprofit organization involved in creating XML-based supply chain process for IT companies. Another specification is underway at The Open Buying on the Internet (OBI) Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing open standards for business-to-business Internet commerce, that is working to integrate XML into its OBI protocol.

"There's a lot of duplicate energy being expended," says Rappaport. "The goal ought to be to create a sort of redwood tree of XML, with a number of vertical vocabulary branches. Right now we've got a bunch of bonsai."

XML, a document format similar to HTML but used for categorizing content, rather than page presentation, essentially allows the creation of Web-based database records that can be read by any XML parser with the correct DTD. Because data fields can be created simply by defining a new data tag, anyone can craft their own special version of XML. And not all of it necessarily adheres to the World Wide Web Consortium's XML 1.0 Specification.

"I see a lot of junk being developed out there," says David Connelly, president of the Open Applications Group Inc. (OAGI), a nonprofit consortium focused on business software interoperability. "It could confuse people."

Of course, not everyone thinks this massive influx of new XML vocabularies and the inherent confusion it may bring is a major problem.

"There will be thousands, probably millions, of DTDs, and I think that's a good thing. That's what XML is all about: extensible," says Bob Bickle, vice president of Bluestone Software Inc., Mount Laurel, NJ. Bluestone makes the Bluestone XML-Server for deploying XML-based applications. In April, the company also released a free contact management product, Bluestone XML-Contact, which allows handheld devices running 3Com Corp. PalmOS to share contact information with computers equipped with an XML-capable application server. Bickle sees the proliferation of DTDs as a natural development of XML, especially in fields such as manufacturing and medicine that have a high need for specialized vocabularies. For example, XML could enable physicians with handheld computers to receive and transmit patient data directly to a hospital server. "All of that information will have its own unique data sequence," Bickle says.

Like it or not, XML is a hot commodity for vendors and developers in these niche markets. And the number of vocabularies being created isn't likely to slow anytime soon. Adds Zona's Rappaport: "There was a time when I could say there were 10 DTDs, but then it turned into 75 before I could turn around. Now I'd say they're in the hundreds, and growing steadily. They're growing in places you wouldn't even think of--everything from footwear to air traffic control."--sjh

Setting Standards

Sun Microsystems Inc. has altered its course for standardizing Java 2. Sun, the company responsible for developing the Java language, originally planned to submit the specification to the Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1), an International Organization of Standardization (ISO) committee, using the Publicly Available Specification (PAS) process. Instead, Sun has decided to submit the technology to ECMA, formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association, for formal standardization.

For some in the industry, this is a good news and bad news situation. The good news is Sun hopes to make the technology a standard. The bad news is some observers view the sudden change could give Sun unfettered control over that standard. "Sun's shift away from using the ISO PAS process to achieve de jure standardization of Java has removed the element of recourse and creditability that ISO was providing," says Rich Ross, president of The Java Lobby, a nonprofit group dedicated to the advancement of Java standards and software. "ISO gave confidence to developers that Sun couldn't take this thing and be a runaway train with it."

Sun appears to have made the move to ECMA because of a recent change made by JTC1 regarding the maintenance of standards. According to JTC1's new procedures, modifications and maintenance of standards must come from a working group. Some Java followers believe Sun wants to maintain total control of Java even after it becomes a standard and that perhaps ECMA is a way for the company to accomplish this.

"Sun already has what they consider to be a very efficient and inclusive and fast process for evolving the Java technology called the Java Community Process," says David Harrah, group manager of public relations for Sun's JavaSoft division. "All the Java licensees are able to participate. Those companies can get together, come up with a solution that everyone agrees upon. We would have to scrap that process or go through the process twice if we had continued going through PAS."

Java Lobby Poll Results
Members of The Java Lobby rated their impressions of the following statement:

"Sun's process for Java is open and fair."

Here are the results:

  1. Strongly disagree 52 (9%)
  2. Disagree 81 (14%)
  3. Neither disagree nor agree 103 (18%)
  4. Agree 202 (36%)
  5. Strongly agree 129 (23%)

"With all due respect to ECMA, I don't believe it is equal in stature or power to the ISO," says The Java Lobby's Ross. "I think this creates the question, `Is ECMA in a position to provide any sense of security that Sun can't take Java at some future time and run away with it in some self-interested direction?'"

Moreover, supporters of Sun's Java efforts aren't sure what to make of the recent development. A spokeswoman for IBM Corp. provided a carefully worded response to Sun's submission to ECMA that was neither an endorsement nor a denouncement of the move: "IBM thinks that mature portions of Java should be managed and maintained by a standards organization and they are currently evaluating Sun's ECMA proposals," she said. Quickly adding, "IBM really doesn't have a feel on the proposal and the differences between ISO and ECMA."

ECMA has to officially accept the process of standardizing Java 2. It if it does, the group will then lay down rules for how that process will work. Once the specification is approved, ECMA will submit it back to JTC1 to receive ISO approval. At that point, because ECMA is a Class A ISO liaison, Java would not be required to go through PAS, avoiding the whole issue of being maintained by a working group. Java 2 could be forwarded to ISO for fast-track approval as an international standard.

To date, most Java supporters are happy with Sun's efforts. In fact, while Ross personally is not happy about the move to ECMA, the majority of his organization's members are happy with Sun's handling of Java. In May, members of The Java Lobby were asked to rate their opinion on the following statement: "Sun's process for Java is open and fair." The members were given five options: strongly disagree, disagree, neither disagree nor agree, agree and strongly agree. Out of 567 respondents, 59% either agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, indicating support for Sun's management of Java. Only 9% strongly disagreed with the statement.--ptc

Not Your Father's ISP

The future is bright for Internet service providers (ISPs) in terms of revenue, according to a report from International Data Corp. (IDC) published in April. In "Internet Service Provider Market Analysis and Forecast, 1998-2003," the Framingham, MA-based market research firm predicts the U.S. ISP market will grow from $10.7 billion in 1998 to $15.1 billion in 1999, and will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 28% through 2003, when it will reach $37.4 billion.

IDC views the ISP market in four segments: corporate access, individual access, wholesale and value-added services. According to the report, individual access was the largest segment in 1998, accounting for $4.7 billion in revenue. Furthermore, this segment is forecast to remain the largest until 2003, when value-added services is expected to move into the top spot. And it is the area of value-added services that several companies have targeted in recent announcements.

Sun Microsystems Inc. unveiled its new service provider initiative in May, designed specifically for ISPs wanting to provide services beyond plain Internet access. The initiative, called ServiceProvider.com, includes more than 20 products and services to help ISPs improve their core business. A major portion of the announcement includes applications for messaging, secure intranet access, i-Planet remote access software, leasing programs, developer support, performance analysis, capacity planning services, on-site technical account management, billing services and marketing support. "What's significant about the announcement is it has a broad scope of elements," says Greg Blatnick, vice president of  Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, CA. "Sun is directing their salesforce to work with these organizations to help them be successful."

In addition, Blatnick says, Sun is addressing a newly developing market for ISPs--acting as an application service provider (ASP). An ASP typically delivers application capabilities from a data center across a network to the client's desktop. A company like FlashBase Inc., for example, provides database functionality that is accessible via a standard Web browser; software hosting and data storage takes place on the service provider's servers.

Blatnick says that ISPs planning to offer outsourced applications such as an e-commerce system, or FlashBase's database, can turn to Sun for all the necessary products, including hardware, software and support. "Sun comes from the position that they would like to have servers play the dominant role [in this space] and those servers obviously should have a Sun label," he says. "Applications can then be accessed or downloaded from any Java-enabled client and, again, I would suspect that they would prefer that those Java clients have some amount of Sun content."

The ASP space received additional support in May with the formation of the ASP Industry Consortium. The consortium comprises 25 technology companies, including AT&T, Citrix Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Sun, Uunet and Wyse Technology Inc. With little more than a mission statement, the group says it plans to work on industry standards and promote the ASP business model.

Another company hoping to help ISPs broaden their services is SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics Inc.). The newly renamed company has formed partnerships with several independent software vendors (ISVs) to develop product offerings designed specifically so ISPs can offer additional services. "ISPs, high-volume Web sites and Web content providers are looking for new and differentiated service offerings," says Mike Apker, marketing director for SGI's Internet systems division.

SGI has been working with Intershop Communications Inc., maker of e-commerce software, to develop integrated e-commerce systems. For example, the companies codeveloped an e-commerce package for Swissom, Switzerland's largest telecommunications provider. Other companies SGI has been working with include ODS Networks Inc., to create virtual private network (VPN) services, and RealNetworks Inc., to provide Web multimedia capabilities.

If IDC's numbers are correct, expect to see more products and services announced in the coming months designed to help ISPs expand their core business beyond mere Internet access.--ptc

NCs See Slow but Steady Growth

The Network Computer (NC) industry is expected to maintain a healthy rate of growth in the coming years, according to a recent survey by International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, MA--and it may have Microsoft Corp. to thank for it.

Worldwide shipments of enterprise thin clients are expected to jump 87% from 369,000 in 1998 to 1.2 million in 1999 and 6 million in 2003. Much of that growth can be attributed to an increase in demand for Windows-based terminals spurred, in part, by the release last year of Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server Edition (TSE) software and the subsequent TSE price cuts announced in January. In contrast, Java-based NCs are expected to grow more slowly.

"By far, as we move forward into the forecast, the majority [of thin clients shipped] will be Windows-based terminals," says Eileen O'Brien, director of NC research for IDC. "Of the 6 million units to ship in 2003, approximately 4.2 million will be Windows-based terminals and 1.8 million will be [Java-based] Network Computers." O'Brien estimates that the Windows-based terminal market will have a compound annual growth rate (in unit shipments) of 80.7% from 1999 to 2003. The market for Java-based NCs is expected to grow 58.1% during the same period.

Shipments of Java-based NCs, including Sun's JavaStation (left), are expected to grow in the next few years, but at a slower pace than Windows-based terminals.

However, Howie Hunger, director of channels and marketing for Network Stations at IBM Corp., reports that IBM is seeing healthy sales of both its Windows-based and Java-based NCs. IBM, which sold 81,000 of its Network Station NCs in 1998, according to IDC, makes three different versions of the Network Station for Windows-based computing, Java-based computing and Internet access or terminal emulation. The Network Station 1000, aimed specifically at Java computing, accounted for 35% of sales, according to Hunger. "That states that either customers are using those devices for Java or they see a need for Java in the future," he says. However, Hunger estimates that 50% of the total units sold were used for Windows access, indicating many customers may have multiple uses for their NCs.

Hunger adds that the market for NCs is shaping up to be a fairly diverse one, with customers putting NCs to work in various applications from terminal emulation to full-blown, client-side Java processing. "We take a very broad view of the thin-client marketplace, from Windows access all the way up through Java. That's why we've had good success in the market," Hunger says.

IBM, which has landed a number of major customers for its NCs in the past year, came in second in number of shipments only to Wyse Technology Inc., San Jose, CA, which sold 117,000 of its Windows-based terminals in 1998. Sun Microsystems Inc. sold just 10,000 of its JavaStation NCs last year, according to IDC estimates.--sjh

Shared Registry System Tested

The initial test program of the Shared Registry System is underway and if all goes well will conclude June 24. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) selected five initial companies to test the software necessary to connect to the domain registry database. Since 1993, Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), Herndon, VA, has maintained the database and controlled the process of registering .com, .net and .org domain names. However, last year, the U.S. government formed ICANN to make domain registration a competitive business and not controlled solely by NSI.

The five companies selected by ICANN are America Online Inc., CORE (Internet Council of Registrars), headquartered in Switzerland, France Telecom/Oléane, Internet Names Australia, a division of Melbourne IT, and Register.com, a division of Forman Interactive Corp., New York, NY. Through the test program, these companies must debug the software and APIs needed to connect to the Shared Registry System. Early indications are the test phase was an excellent idea because there is a great deal of work needed to get the system fully operational. "From our standpoint, we would have loved to have been up and running the second we got the software," says Sascha Mornell, director of marketing at Register.com. "But ICANN correctly anticipated that wasn't going to be the case."

Similar sentiments were expressed by the other test registrars. "People should not assume that this is simple, straightforward or trivial," says Clive Flory, general manager for Internet Names Australia, administrator for the com.au domain. "As with all software projects, it will not be without its share of technical challenges and problems."

One of the early fears was to see how NSI works with the other five registrar companies, which will be in direct competition. For the most part, NSI has done everything ICANN has asked it to do. "NSI and their people have been very professional about the process" Flory says.

But Register.com's Mornell says while NSI isn't doing anything overtly to derail the project, he does question its general support of the Shared Registry System. "[NSI] is about as enthusiastic as any company would be that is about to give up their monopoly," Mornell says.

Once the test bed stage is over, ICANN will open up the process to an additional 29 companies that have met the organization's accreditation process. These companies include AT&T Corp., RCN Corp. and 9NetAvenue Inc.--ptc


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