Integrators, resellers hope to cash in on Sun-Microsoft pact

Anatomy of an agreement

Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have a long history of animosity, which is why the April 2 announcement that the companies have put aside their differences came as a surprise. Here are some details of the nearly $2 billion agreement:

Legal issues. Microsoft agreed to pay Sun $700 million to settle Sun's antitrust lawsuit in the United States. Sun said the agreement also satisfied the objectives it had been pursuing as a litigant in the European Union case.

Patent issues. Microsoft agreed to pay Sun $900 million to cover past patent infringement claims. The companies agreed not to sue each other over patents and to seek broad cross-licensing deals.

Java issues. Sun agreed to let Microsoft continue to ship and support its Java Virtual Machine for Windows so users can run Java code. There is no word on whether Microsoft will update JVM to support the most current version of Java. The companies said they will collaborate to make Java work better with Microsoft's .NET environment, but stressed there are no plans to merge their software development tools.

Technical collaboration. Sun and Microsoft said they will share server technology so their products can interoperate. Microsoft agreed to pay $350 million to begin incorporating Sun technology into its products. Sun later will make similar licensing payments to Microsoft as it begins to use Microsoft technology. The cooperation initially will center on Windows Server and Windows Client, and eventually will include other areas, including e-mail and database programs. The companies said directory services is an important area, where better integration can mean a "less complex and more secure computing environment."

Windows code license. Sun agreed to sign a license for the Windows desktop operating system communications protocols under Microsoft's Communications Protocol Program, which was part of Microsoft's consent decree with the Justice Department and 18 state attorneys general. The protocols can be used to develop server software products that provide services to Windows client operating systems and other compatible server or client software.

Running Windows on Sun. The companies said Sun's Intel Xeon-based servers would be certified to run Microsoft Windows. Certification for Windows running on Sun's AMD Opteron-based servers is pending.

Scott McNealy, chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc., said he anticipates that Sun will roll out interoperability features and capabilities quarterly as it updates system software.

Henrik G. DeGyor

"As part of doing all of this collaboration, we had to make sure we took care of other ongoing legal matters between the two companies," said Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer.

Henrik G. DeGyor

The stunning agreement between long-time rivals Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. has sparked optimism among integrators and resellers, who say the partnership could translate into new opportunities in the government market.

A closer relationship between two companies, whose technologies are widely used but largely incompatible, could reduce complexity and improve functionality of enterprise systems created with their products.

But everyone in the industry agreed that the success of the new partnership is not guaranteed, nor will the anticipated technology streamlining yield near-term opportunities.

[IMGCAP(3)]"No one should be altering their buying decisions at all," said Laura McLellan, vice president of business strategy at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "There's depth to this agreement, but nothing you'll see immediately."

The fact that there's an agreement at all took the IT industry by surprise. Less than two weeks after the European Union fined Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft $613 million for anti-competitive practices, Sun and Microsoft reached a nearly $2 billion agreement to settle their differences and begin collaborating on technology development. Both companies said the agreement had been in the works for more than a year but stalled in December.

"We needed a framework for our collaboration that honored our mutual interest in intellectual property," said Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer. "As part of doing all this collaboration, we had to make sure we took care of other ongoing legal matters between the companies."

On April 2, Microsoft agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle various disputes, plus $350 million to incorporate Sun technology into future Microsoft products. (See "Anatomy of an agreement" sidebar at right.)

The legal settlement removes the main litigant in the EU's case against Microsoft. It also gives a much-needed financial injection to Sun, which, on the day of the announcement, reported a quarterly loss of more than $750 million and said it would lay off 3,300 workers. But the planned technical collaboration between the two companies holds the most promise for government users, integrators and resellers.

Almost all organizations intend to use some mix of Sun and Microsoft technologies, said Tom Murphy, vice president for technology research services at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. If the two companies can make their systems communicate seamlessly, it will reduce data center complexity and allow applications to operate across both platforms.

For now, the agreement means agencies that have an installed base of Windows computers can relax, knowing they can run applications written in Sun's Java programming language through the Windows Java Virtual Machine, which is Microsoft's version of Java. Windows JVM was a source of disagreement between Sun and Microsoft, and led to a previous settlement that would have required Microsoft to stop shipping JVM this year.

As for the larger interoperability efforts, experts said they would wait to see what the results would be. No one knows for sure when such collaboration will bear fruit, because achieving the kind of interoperability the two companies envision takes time.

The parties involved said they will gradually make the Sun and Microsoft platforms work together. Sun CEO Scott McNealy said Sun plans to roll out interoperability features and capabilities quarterly as the company updates its system software.

[IMGCAP(2)]"It will just be an evolution," he said. "There will be no one product that we launch. As the technical teams get at the issues, you'll see a gradual building of the portfolio of compatibility."

Even when Sun and Microsoft systems begin to work better together, analysts said the need for systems integration will still be there.

"Just because the systems are more interoperable means maybe you'll have to do less dirty work. But the setting up and making them work together will still be important," Meta Group's Murphy said.

Integrators may benefit greatly in their ability to create hybrid Sun-Microsoft solutions that better meet agencies' specific needs, said Barry Jaruzelski, managing partner at McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. Because the Sun and Microsoft platforms will work together, integrators will be able to design blueprints for solutions that can be deployed quickly at multiple agencies.

"We'll probably see more investment in building repeatable best practices," Jaruzelski said. "Now, we can go to an agency and say, 'Here's 70 percent of a prepackaged solution,' and just do the 30 percent needed to customize it for the particular group."

Experts said resellers with a strong services practice could see additional opportunities to win government business. Interoperable systems would expand their portfolio of solutions, so a Sun reseller, for example, could branch out easily by selling solutions based on Solaris, Linux and Windows on a single hardware platform, Murphy said.

Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based CDW Government Inc., said his company spends a lot of time helping government agencies deal with interoperability issues. The Sun-Microsoft deal could conceivably make CDW-G's solutions more attractive, he said, because less integration should translate into lower costs.

"The effect could be very positive," he said. "By reducing complexity, we can help agencies get more bang for their buck."

Like other observers, Peterson said he doesn't expect to see any short-term increases in IT spending as a result of the Sun-Microsoft agreement. But over the long run, interoperable systems should translate into more enterprisewide projects, he said. *

Staff Writer Brad Grimes can be reached at bgrimes@postnewsweektech.com.

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