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Is it too late for Sun and Web services? part two

A look at two primary technologies that Sun is betting will turn around its Web services fortunes — N1 and grid computing.

The Web Services Advisor
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...continued from part one

Sun is playing catch-up in Web services, even though it was one of the first companies to truly understand that PCs and networks would merge into a single unit, and that, in its own slogan, "The Network is the Computer" — a concept at the heart of Web services. In the last column, we looked at why Sun has fallen behind its competitors when it comes to Web services, and at the steps it was taking to make up for lost time. In this column, we'll look at the two primary technologies that Sun is betting will turn around its Web services fortunes — N1 and grid computing.

A look at N1
N1, Sun's technology for managing data centers, is at the core of Sun's strategy for Web services. It is designed to look at Web services "from a deployment perspective" rather than a developer's perspective in the words of Drew Engstrom, Web Services Strategist for Sun. The company, he says, is focusing on IT professionals who deploy the technology, rather than on developers who build the services. This is at least in part because Sun believes that Web services in the future will be more a matter of plugging together components rather than programming services from scratch. More importantly, as data centers become increasingly complicated, and as numerous applications servers deliver up Web services, rather than relatively few large central servers delivering applications, the data center is becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

N1 is a bit of an amorphous concept, but Paul Strong, a systems architect in Sun's N1 group, says that the heart of the concept is the idea that "the boundaries between servers and the network is gone. The data center network is a new class of system, and you need to think holistically about it….People want to manage services (such as Web services); they don't want to manage hardware."

To accomplish that, N1 "maps services components" onto the data center's hardware, and those services can then be managed as a unit. "Data is treated as an attribute of the network, and is consumed as a service, so you can apply policies to the data and let the system manage how that is handled," he says.

This kind of management and architecture, he says, dovetails into the Web services world. When you create a Web service, for example, you'll be able to graphically portray it and give it attributes, and for example, define how much of a server load it will require for each instance of the service. You could then drag that graphical image onto a group of 20 servers, and N1 will provision the servers regarding how they handle the Web service.

N1 itself is built using certain Web services technologies. For example, the N1 provisioning server is based on XML. Major parts of N1 are in essence Web services, Strong says, so N1 has been designed for a Web services-centric world.

The future of the grid
Further in the future, Sun sees grid computing boosting Web services, says John Tollefsrud, Sun's Grid Marketing Manager. In grid computing, computing resources on a network register with the grid, and those resources can be told to perform tasks when they would otherwise be idle.

Sun's Grid Engine is available for free as a download, and the Grid Engine project is an open source implementation. (For details, go to https://gridengine.sunsource.net/.) The Grid Engine works at the department level, while the for-pay Grid Engine Enterprise Edition can pool the resources of multiple department grids, and can also set enterprise-wide grid policies. (For more information, go to http://wwws.sun.com/software/gridware/.)

Sun is participating in an effort to define Web service extensions to grid computing with the Open Grids Services Architecture (OGSA), specifically using WSDL, UDDI, SOAP, XML and other Web service specifications and protocols. Combining the Web services and grid computing architectures, Tollefsrud says, will "open up new opportunities for business process collaboration," and will allow Web services to be used to more easily spread business and computing tasks across all of an organization's computing resources — and the world is moving toward requiring this kind of flexibility and technology, he believes.

But this won't happen in the short-term, he says, because extensions have to be built into application servers to be Grid-aware, and standards need to be agreed upon. So he doesn't expect grid computing to have an impact on Web services for the next several years.

But will it work?
Discussions of N1 and grid computing with Sun is rather high-concept stuff, and it can get difficult to get down to the nitty-gritty, and see exactly how N1 and grid computing will further Sun's Web services strategy, particularly in the short term. Robert Dorin, analyst with the Aberdeen Group, recently pointed this out in a report in which he said that at a presentation at the Sun 2003 Worldwide Analyst Conference, "When the VPs drilled down into the specific product and service areas, it seemed like 'same old Sun,' — lots of technology-speak, a plethora of acronyms, but a strong connection from the technologies to the core strategic objectives was never developed." To a certain extent, the same holds true for Sun's vision of N1, grid computing, and Web services; it's a bit difficult to make the leap from high-level concepts to seeing how they'll help businesses today use Web services to increase efficiency or gain new customers.

That being said, Sun's technology concepts most likely point the way to the future of Web services. Whether the company can translate those concepts into customers is still an open question.

Editor's Note: In the shorter term, Sun is promoting its Sun ONE Web Services Platform Developer Edition, a comprehensive suite of that tools developers can use to build and deploy Web services. Released March 19, it several different kinds of server software and developer tools, and incorporates a full gamut of Web services standards. Sun is aggressively pricing the software — it lists for $5,000 (Sun claims that individual components, if bought separately, would cost $36,000), but starting April 1 and continuing for six months, the software can be had for $999 street price. For more details, go to http://www.internetnews.com/dev-news/article.php/2115981.

About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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