Web-services rivals compete for hosting allegiances
By Brian Fonseca
(IDG) -- The rising tide of Web services is leading to a battle among Microsoft's .Net framework, Sun's ONE (Open Net Environment) platform, and Linux for the allegiance and revenue from Web-hosting service providers.
As part of its strategy, Microsoft is expected to continue developing tools for a service provider industry it views as a "great test bed" so it can gauge the application management, integration, and packaged value-add delivery nuances of Web services and .Net, according to Ted Chamberlin, a network analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.
"Microsoft's grand plan is to get to service providers and hosters with products such as Site Server and Commerce Server and nudge out the BEAs to ensure that Sun doesn't take the lead in Web services," Chamberlin said.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun is hard at work integrating and building Sun ONE environments upon its partners and customers and its Sun Tone certification program, according to Blake Connell, group product marketing manager for Sun ONE.
Sun ONE's ability to eventually deliver services to J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition)-enabled handsets and PDAs will stretch provisioned services even further in Sun's favor behind the strength of Sun's install base, Connell said.
With a foothold in the Web services space, Linux also remains a strong contender, so long as providers can overcome some shortcomings. "The biggest problem [service providers face] isn't in going to be Linux. It has more to do with how to deploy it and then migrate the back-end services into a Linux infrastructure," said John Dunkle, president of Workgroup Strategic, in Portsmouth, N.H.
Microsoft's drive to draw the attention of Web-hosting giants has momentum. This week, Ensim, a hosting automation company, will introduce WEBppliance for Windows 3.0. Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is endorsing the software appliance as a means to sell and support .Net-based Web hosting services to small and midsize businesses through telecommunication and service providers, said Andy Kim, vice president of marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Ensim.
WEBppliance features a set of control panels for delegated self-management of Web sites and domains and supports Microsoft's PAG (Prescriptive Architecture Guide) for high-volume Web hosting on Windows.
Kim said many of Ensim's service-provider customers that deploy large Linux businesses are discovering that their customers are asking for Windows-based domains.
"Customers are starting to use ASP-based tools and applications, and they want to have [them] run natively in a Windows environment rather than emulation mode on top of a Linux domain," Kim said.
One of those customers in need of a Windows platform is Len Geiger and his Carlsbad, Calif.-based hosting company, WebIntellects. A beta user of WEBppliance, Geiger said .Net's high-end impact should fit well in dedicated hosting arenas.
"As our customers grow up and they outgrow their shared environment, that's when they start moving into dedicated, and that's when they can start going toward more expensive products of .Net," Geiger said.
Through its acquisitions of beleaguered hosting giant Exodus and CDN (content delivery network) player Digital Island, Cable & Wireless has its sites set on forging a massive Web services presence, said Dave Asprey, strategist at Exodus, a Cable & Wireless service based in San Jose, Calif.
Last month C&W announced an agreement with Microsoft to fully support .Net. Efforts include the development of an internal service-level management application built entirely using .Net and upgrading the host's capability of deploying Microsoft architecture in its datacenters through .Net-enabled Microsoft 2000 servers.
"Our alliance with Microsoft was a big step to say we're not just paying lip service. We're partnering with one of the big monsters in Web services to get engineering support and build products around this," Asprey said.
But he did say it is common for most customers to have Microsoft applications and Unix applications running together.
"Web services is going to do great things for the Web-hosting industry. The amount of application-to-application or server-to-server traffic is going to explode," Asprey said.
.Net's dominance is by no means assured. Although Web services is an element service providers can ill afford to ignore, Gartner's Chamberlin said the tenuous condition of the market is prompting much caution, particularly in the area of security.
".Net applications talking to other applications opens up security holes galore. These service providers can't afford to swallow that. Any sort of screwup or mistake the hosting market makes is magnified by 10," Chamberlin said.
With most enterprises only spending hosting dollars toward short-term ROI projects of 90 days to 120 days, Microsoft could find service providers and their customers unwilling to wait around for .Net to show results, Chamberlin added.
Yet the ability to incur rapid changes in a high-volume network and isolate applications from each other through .Net is perfectly suited to relieve pressure upon service providers from their customers, said Pascal Martin, solution unit manager of the network service providers group at Microsoft.
"Service providers are looking for great reliability. Visual Studio .Net and .Net framework accommodates change and the ability to integrate changes much easier," Martin said.
Martin said that .Net will enable a Web services "hosting development environment" where service providers and hosts pool developer resources and partners to build toolsets for the creation of customized faster applications that are easier to host.
"Programming makes it easier to modify applications and the ability to deliver it. Not only will [hosters] host the application, but where they can find pieces of functionality they may want to use. This is bringing us a new dynamism to better answer customer needs," Martin said.
Joining Microsoft in outfitting service providers with a platform infrastructure to enable Web services, Sun and its ONE initiative are not without supporters.
Telus, a Burnaby, British Columbia-based service provider, plans to use its Sun ONE platform to offer customers commoditized solutions that require less customization and shorter outsourcing cycles, according to Steve Jenkins, director of national alliance management at Telus.
"The Web services platform is for us to provide ease of integration and migration for customers bent out of shape with the ASP and dot-com bomb that has gone over the past few months," Jenkins said.
Some observers believe that Web services gain traction among service providers until their underlying IT infrastructure -- particularly Linux-based systems -- become more stable.
"The number of Web services that can be deployed today without security and transaction support is pretty limited. And that means it doesn't have a critical mass that would make it economically viable for hosting by an ISP or an ASP," said Mike Gilpin, analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.
Gilpin said that eventually users, particularly in the larger accounts who are currently deploying Web services on leading Unix platforms, will want some of those same services on complementary lower-end Linux servers.
"People using platforms like Solaris for Web services will start to look at Linux as a platform for the Web and that will include Web services," Gilpin said.
Ed Scannell contributed to this report.
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