Sun Unveils Information Portal to Applications, Data First

If push technology was the marketing cause of celebration for 1998, then the recent phenomenon of the enterprise information portal is the likely 1999 counterpart. In the early months of this year, a number of vendors announced information portal ventures. Sun Microsystems Inc. (www.sun.com) is no exception. With the introduction of a new portal technology called I-Planet, Sun hopes to stake out an aggressive position in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Sun’s foray into the information portal space couldn’t have come at a trickier time. According to Jim Balderston, an Internet analyst with Zona Research (www.zonaresearch.com), the term information portal is being used so often and in so many different contexts that it’s in danger of losing whatever relevance it might originally have possessed.

"We warn a lot of clients about the use of the word ‘portal’ because it means so many different things to so many different people," Balderston explains. "While you may get a little buzz bounce by using the word portal, you also run the risk of being vague and uninformative because the word is now so broad and horizontal in meaning." He notes that the I-Planet technology is a refreshing and original contribution to the information portal scene.

I-Planet, a portal in the strictest sense of the word, provides secure access to an end user’s applications or data through the medium of any Java-enabled Web browser. According to Sun, I-Planet differs from point-to-point solutions, such as virtual private networks or other remote access products, because it facilitates access on virtually any browser-enabled end user device without specialized software or hardware.

And while many existing portal solutions are limited by the constraints of the protocol or application schema underlying their implementation -- such as HTTP or e-mail-based approaches -- Sun says I-Planet can provide access to any application or data residing on either Windows NT, Sun Solaris, MVS mainframe or Novell Network information systems.

According to Balderston, I-Planet’s most significant value-add may be the degree of transparent application access that it provides for the end user.

"The I-Planet stuff is very interesting because it allows people to access their information from anywhere, and that’s the piece of the announcement that I think is really, really interesting," Balderston comments. "If I’m running through an airport and I have about five minutes to spare, I don’t have time to unpack a laptop, dial into a corporate RAS server, etc. I do have time to wipe a credit card through a kiosk where I can access my desktop as it resides on a server, however. And that explains in part the appeal of I-Planet."

And it’s because I-Planet removes much of the complexity associated with remote access and information management technologies that it will be successful, argues Dr. Stuart Wells, senior vice president of the Sun-Netscape Alliance and the developer of I-Planet for Sun. "We have become all too accepting of the limitations of technology...going through the hassle of finding a data port, ensuring that our 10 pound laptop is properly configured and dialing through some sluggish modem pool," Wells observes. "With I-Planet, all you have to do is access a browser, enter the Web address and the appropriate authorization information and you have access to your entire intranet."

If Sun is projecting great things for I-Planet, the Unix specialist and Java creator is certainly putting its money where its mouth is. According to Sun, I-Planet has undergone extensive deployment on a corporatewide basis under the name Sun.Net. Overall, Sun says its Sun.Net implementation has saved it more than $10 million in access charges and support costs per year.