Microsoft, Sun and IBM battle for the web

26 Oct 2002

The internet will become central to both computing and communications. Once all business, government, education and most consumers are plugged in, the reasoning goes, then the rationale for having separate resources at all of these outer points is thoroughly undermined.

IBM chairman Lou Gerstner expressed it neatly: “No company’s systems are an island. They’re part of a new, emerging, global infrastructure that is made possible by the emergence of the internet, and that no one enterprise can — or wants to — own.

“It’s collectively owned, accessed and relied upon by every business, government, school, hospital and neighbourhood. In that respect, computing infrastructure is rapidly becoming like all the other kinds of infrastructure we take for granted in the world — the telephone system, the highways and the power grid. This has been a long time coming.”

So far, so good, but even infrastructure can be supplied in different ways. Microsoft is clear that its .NET should be as dominant a brand in this new world as Windows is in the present marketplace. This time the software giant is embracing open standards with all of the enthusiasm of a latter day convert and is a member of the Web Services Interoperability Organisation.

This top-level industry body looks set to establish worldwide agreement on at least the language of the next web generation and the protocols that will allow data to be freely exchanged and applications to talk to each other. Microsoft describes .NET as its platform for XML web services, enabling the creation and use of XML-based applications, processes and websites.

But of course others can make the same claim, because XML is an open international standard. Strictly it is not a technology but rather a set of protocols with umpteen possible variants in practice (to suit particular types of transaction or industry).

Other sets of initials that will become more familiar to managements trying to come to grips with where all of this is going are SOAP (simple object access protocol) to let applications talk to each other, WSDL (web services definition language) that speaks fluent XML so that services can automatically exchange understanding of their capabilities and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) that lets businesses find others with which they might have something in common.

It may sound like a fog of initials, but the whole idea is that in a short time all of this will be of concern only to IT people. Today we exchange email with no thought to what sort of machine a recipient may be using. The possibilities are obvious if we could do the same with all of the business transactions up and down the supply chain. It should be stressed that web services enable applications to deal with each other behind the scenes. What you or I see on our screens and the way we use our applications remains local, as does our data, customised for our way of doing things.

“In terms of what is actually being delivered the early wins were in the area of application service providers (ASPs),” said Ian Taylor, chief technical architect of Microsoft Ireland. “The .NET strategy and products were able to demonstrate that it was feasible to deliver over the internet what was previously only possible over an organisation’s own network. Now we are going after the enterprise market, persuading businesses to buy into the concept because it offers clear benefits. Along the supply chain, for example, companies may have nothing in common other than that they are doing or want to do business together.”

According to Ian Taylor, Microsoft is aiming to show that its .NET platform and application building software suite Visual Studio .NET together offer the most readily deployed and cost effective solutions for existing Windows users. “They are optimised for Windows and that is the only platform we target,” he said, “but of course the resulting applications can work with anything else that shares open standards.”

Sun Microsystems espoused the internet and the web while Microsoft was still sceptical. It gave the world Java, the versatile programming language that can run on any device. It also has a decade-old slogan — ‘the network is the computer’ — that even now epitomises where we are going.

“The internet is becoming the universal delivery mechanism,” said Aidan Furlong, Sun’s country manager in Ireland, “not just for PCs but increasingly for personal digital assistants, mobile phones and other devices with embedded chips. The challenge for enterprises is to use their IT environment to transact and to communicate with others — anywhere, any time and on any device. The Sun Open Net Environment, or ONE, architecture offers a technology foundation for that which is comprehensive but modular and flexible. It is in a sense a technology stack, ie offers effective solutions from bottom to top but everything is truly open so any component element can be replaced by its equivalent from somebody else or existing resources.”

Sun believes in evolution rather than revolution and has been helping enterprises to internet-enable existing business data and applications for some years now, Furlong added. “Most businesses today want to give top priority to getting more from their current investment. In fact they will invest in the future if it helps them better afford what they invested in in the past.”

Sun has a very strong claim for technology leadership in internet fundamentals, with its own Solaris operating system, its powerful position in the Linux community and its Java strength.
“We have the technology to connect anything that has an electronic pulse,” Furlong said, “as well as the other essential elements of security, identification and authentication. Those are the foundations on which a web world of e-business can be solidly constructed.”

A similar approach is taken by IBM: “This new vision is not something that will come about with a Big Bang,” said John Scully, head of the IBM Global Services business in Ireland. “There are a lot of legacy systems that are enabling enterprise applications such as supply chain management and enterprise resource planning as well as customer relationship management, many of them with web linkages in recent years. The challenge is to plug them all together. A large part of the solution is smart middleware that brings applications together no matter where they come from or what platform they run on. Web services offer the possibility of interoperability between those applications.”

Most senior management is cautious and even reluctant, in Scully’s view: “Quite rightly, because the vision may be clear enough but there is quite a way to go. For most enterprises the trick will be to go for small, quick hits with a clear return to pilot and test the concepts. Many others will be doing the same thing, which will add experience and move everything forward.”

IBM is adding an almost unique element of its own in that it is a strong proponent of grid computing, in other words ganging up the processing power of a number of computers. At present this is at supercomputer and university and research institution level in the US and the UK, with massive bandwidth connections between them and huge government investment.

Here in Ireland TCD and Maynooth are working with Linux clusters of linked machines at the same location. But the concept that computing power will become commoditised and delivered over the internet is both clear and generally acknowledged as practicable and even inevitable. Like electricity, you can draw as much as you need, when you need it, constrained only by the capacity of your delivery system, which is bandwidth in this case.

Combine that concept with web services and you have a new vision of distributed computing that could deliver almost any application conceivable. It is also just as applicable to in-house deployment in the enterprise network or to sharing in a partnership or supply chain, a region or over the entire world public internet.

None of this, unfortunately, gives company managements clear specifications for what exactly to invest in next. It is still a vision and a direction, not a map, and there is no single route or technology or leader to follow. But it is where we are heading and in a couple of years the wonders of today’s web may seem like primitive image and text delivery with little functionality.