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Sun lets Jini out of the bottle

January 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:16 a.m. EST (1616 GMT)

by Ephraim Schwartz


(IDG) -- Sun Microsystems unveiled on Monday its Jini technology, which will -- if it succeeds -- make access to hardware devices on a network as transparent as accessing information on the World Wide Web.

Jini is an enabling technology written in Java that resides within a device, and does three things: It will allow any device to automatically register itself on a so-called Look-up service residing on the network; it will let those devices become available to any user on the network; and it will allow devices to talk to other devices on the network without the intervention of the operating system.

"All it is, is Java code. You can download Jini and the source code now for no charge, no fee, just to learn how to use it," said Emily Suter, business development manager at Sun. The technology is not open-source code, however, and a licensing fee will be charged when an OEM ships a commercial product incorporating the Jini technology, Suter added.

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At the heart of the technology is the Look-up service, which Mark Hodapp, senior engineering manager at Sun, describes as a "dynamically built directory." Once a device registers itself with the Look-up service, it becomes an object that can be accessed by other devices that may or may not be registered depending on user preference.

For example, a color printer can register itself and be placed inside the Look-up service, which records the necessary printer code or driver information. Another user can plug a digital camera into the network and choose not to register. However, the camera user looking for a color printer will find it in the Look-up service. Once found, the necessary code or driver information from the printer is sent to the camera, allowing the printer and camera to "talk" directly to one another without returning to the Look-up service.

If a device's status changes -- for example, if a printer goes down -- the device is automatically taken out of the Look-up service. Sun claims that this capability offers big advantages over standard directory services, where the printer would still be on the directory despite the fact that it is nonfunctioning.

The two-way technology in Jini that allows objects to talk to one another is called Remote Method Invocation (RMI). RMI bypasses both the OS and the processor, and does not require any special transport mechanism. It can be used over cellular networks, hard-wired connections such as IEEE 1394, Universal Serial Bus, serial or parallel ports, and the Bluetooth wireless communications protocol (see "Intel to launch wireless initiative," link below).

Sun officials stressed that the dynamic capabilities of its Look-up service will allow for ad hoc or "impromptu" networks to be created and disbanded seamlessly from quick meetings in a conference room to tying in to a "flexible" field office. For example, a branch office might register itself with the Look-up service to have instant access to printers or storage devices registered on the corporate Look-up service.

"It's a federation of networks," Hodapp said.

Sun officials acknowledged that Jini is still a work in progress. In particular, security features on the directory services will have to wait for the next version, Hodapp said.

"What we need to do with the next product release is a security system in terms of access control," Hodapp said. Although access-control capability is already embedded in Jini, there is no way at the present time to check for it, manage it, and control it. Sun is also working with Novell to blend Sun's Jini directory service with Novell Directory Services.

As Sun improves the technology it will post changes to its Web site and supply developers with new APIs, but the technology will remain proprietary to protect the intellectual property rights of Sun customers, Hodapp said.

Sun expects the first Jini-enabled products to be available by the end of the year.

InfoWorld Editor at Large Ephraim Schwartz is based in San Francisco.

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