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Sun looks to be customers' advocate in WS-I

Sun's senior executive in charge of Web Services Interoperability Organization initiatives says the company is pursuing election to the group's influential board in order to be the industry's "custodians regarding standards cooperation." Sun also hopes to convince the WS-I, which was founded by Microsoft and IBM, to embrace royalty-free standards and open all board seats for election.

There aren't many Web services companies that have more at stake in 2003 than Sun Microsystems, Inc. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based vendor was initially shut out of the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) -- an influential vendor consortium founded in February 2002 by IBM, Microsoft and others -- thanks to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. However, late in 2002 Sun successfully lobbied the WS-I to expand its governing board and then quickly joined, eager for the chance to be on the same footing with Microsoft.

In a recent conversation with, Mark Herring, senior director for Java Web services at Sun, discussed why Sun waited to join, Sun's WS-I agenda and how it hopes to help customers.

Mark Herring
Sun recently joined the WS-I, but only after the organization created an opportunity for Sun to become a board member. Why was that the key issue for Sun?
Herring: We held off at the beginning because the board [members] had already been decided. We lobbied greatly for the WS-I to change their rules to open up some board seats, and that took a long time. As soon as that happened, we joined. Even though we're not a board member today, they're voting early next year for the new board seats and we'll definitely run in that election.

Are you confident that Sun will be elected?
Herring: It's hard to predict these things. We're aggressively pursuing it; we're heavily involved and getting a lot of good feedback. But it's hard to predict any election, right?

What would happen if Sun were not elected?
Herring: I don't know at this stage. I doubt our attitude would change. We'd be pretty surprised if we weren't [elected] because of the value we bring and for the reputation we have with Web services and interoperability.

Expert analysis
Here's what Tony Picardi, senior vice president of global software for Framingham, Mass.-based research firm International Data Corp., had to say about the significance of Sun joining the WS-I:

"Sun was the first initiator of Java, and so they have that history. They provide a collective good to the industry by supporting the open standards committees and products and tools, along a broad range of areas. So it's important that they're there with all the other vendors. That's the whole point of Web services."

Assuming Sun is elected to the board, how will Sun's contribution be different as a board member versus as a contributing (lower status) member company?
Herring: As a board member, you can change some things. We'd love to see the WS-I adopt royalty free standards. They haven't made a decision on royalties yet, but all of today's standards are under a thing called RAND, or reasonable and nondiscriminatory, meaning they have reserved the right to charge you later if they choose. We'd like to see them taking a more aggressive stance, saying that these things will be free.

We'd also like to see them push interoperability standards so there isn't a lot that happens behind closed doors, and we'd love to see them open up all board seats for election, which is something we do with Liberty Alliance [the Sun-led industry group that is establishing an open standard for federated or single sign-on network identity].

IBM has been a force behind many of Sun's Web services-related initiatives. How does IBM differ from Sun?
Herring: They're an interesting company. They've been involved in a lot of standards efforts, but they're almost in the passenger seat for a lot of these things. They're living on the Java side of the world -- IBM jumped on our bandwagon. In a lot of cases they're friends, and in others they might be foes. We both have fairly large Java franchises, and neither of us has a big investment in.NET. But Sun and IBM don't agree on everything. I'm hoping [IBM] will keep us all honest, so Sun doesn't hijack Java standards at the JCP (Java Community Process), and we'll keep them in check too.

There is some speculation that IBM, which is a WS-I co-founder, is pushing for Sun to join the board in order to mitigate Microsoft's influence. Does that concern you?
Herring: I don't know. I would see the endorsement as more of an endorsement of Sun being a leader in Web services, rather than a way of doing something against Microsoft. It's more like they recognize that we're gutsy and we're leaders, and they can't take that away from us.

Timeline: Sun and the WS-I
This timeline chronicles the key events in Sun's relationship with the WS-I.
  • 6 Feb 2002 - Microsoft, IBM, BEA, HP, SAP and others create the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I)

  • 11 Feb 2002 - A Sun executive openly asks why his company wasn't asked to join the WS-I

  • 15 May 2002 - Court proceedings reveal Microsoft intentionally excluded Sun from the WS-I

  • 11 Jul 2002 - Sun expresses interest in joining the WS-I, but only as an equal to Microsoft and IBM

  • 17 Oct 2002 - WS-I agrees to add two new, limited term seats to its board of directors

  • 25 Oct 2002 - Sun agrees to join the WS-I
  • According to reports, Sun must be what the WS-I calls "a contributing member in good standing" for 90 days before it can be elected to the board. What does that mean, and is Sun being made to jump through hoops needlessly?
    Herring: I believe the way it works, and I'm not the expert, but the general membership votes on who should be in those two new board seats, and then the companies who are on the board at the moment make sure they agree with the vote. Then, depending on how many votes you get, you either have a two-year or one-year stint before the next elections, but it'll only be those two seats that are up for re-election.

    Can you give me a example of how Sun's WS-I efforts will ultimately benefit Sun's customers and the industry?
    Herring: I think it's more than just Sun's customers who will benefit. It's any poor customer out there trying to make a decision on what to do with Web services. A lot of the customers I've spoken with see this as an endorsement that the industry is making sure things work together. I don't think they'll see any huge changes because we'll be pretty good custodians regarding standards cooperation but then compete with implementations. Having Sun here as well gives them the reassurance that maybe things will be okay.

    According to the media, the benefits of Web services are still years away. What will those benefits be?
    Herring: I think they will change the way [businesses] interact like the way the Web changed the way we operate. Today, because of the Web, you assume you have access to information. Web services will do that by adding transparency to your internal business processes, and fundamentally they'll shift the way companies look at themselves. They'll ask themselves 'What are the services we provide?' As an example in everyday life, a lot of companies once had their own shipping departments, but then FedEx came along and said, 'This is a service we can provide better than everyone else.'

    What was the most important Web services development of 2002?
    Herring: I think on the whole, it would be all the vendors agreeing on things. If you go back one year, all the vendors weren't in the same camp. Today we all agree that Web services are [important], and that we need to agree on the technology standards behind them like SOAP, XML, UDDI, etc. So there weren't any huge technological innovations, but the vendors started speaking the same language.

    What do you or expect or hope the biggest development of 2003 will be?
    Herring: I think the big story will be customers making some money with Web services because unless you get that to happen, technology never gets past the incubator stage. I think in 2003 we'll see some bleeding-edge companies doing that, and we'll say, 'That's what Web services are supposed to be all about.'


    CLICK for an exclusive: IBM's Web services play off Microsoft and Sun

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