Ferris Sees Winner in Liberty Alliance, Passport Battle

Ferris Research Inc., an analyst firm specializing in e-mail and e-mail-related technology, says Sun Microsystems’ Liberty Alliance program, despite just being announced, is already on equal footing with Microsoft Passport in the battle for authentication and authorization services on the Web.

According to Ferris, the model on which Sun’s Liberty Alliance operates has helped it recover from being released much later than Passport. “The Liberty Alliance work is more ‘open’ and will allow enterprises and service providers to retain control. This is a day-one goal,” says Michael Sampson, a research analyst at Ferris. “Microsoft Passport, on the other hand, has only just been opened up, with the day-one goal more closely aligned to usurping control of the customer.”

Liberty Alliance, which was launched on September 26, is comprised of 30 technology-centric companies including wireless carriers, software vendors, infrastructure providers, security vendors, and enterprises. Together the companies plan to develop an “open” identity system that will allow its users to maintain control of their customer information.

Customer control has been a key area of concern for critics of Passport, so much so that Microsoft announced last month that it would “open” the solution by making it compatible with existing authentication system Kerberos. Announcing plans for compatibility with Kerberos and actually achieving compatibility, however, are two very different things, says Sampson.

“Microsoft has a big job ahead of it in revamping Passport for Kerberos v5 support, and in securing enterprise support,” Sampson says. “Most Passport users have signed up through essentially coercive mechanisms, that in order to use MSN Hotmail or MSN Messenger, you have to have a Passport.”

Both Microsoft and Sun have some work to do before the models for their identity systems are finalized. But, Ferris believes while Microsoft moves to integrate Passport with Kerberos, Sun will have an opportunity to refine the Liberty Alliance, thus negating any advantage Passport may have had.

Among the details that remain unclear about the Liberty Alliance is which set of open standards it will base its identity system on. The program may, like Passport, be based on Kerberos or Security Assertion Markup Language or something totally different, says Ferris. Furthermore, Sampson says it is important that the Liberty Alliance gain the support of existing authentication and directory vendors like Critical Path, Netegrity, Novell and IBM.

“Authentication and directory vendors have expertise and experience in servicing the enterprise market,” says Sampson. “If Sun can get these firms on board within the Liberty Alliance, it (a) adds the expertise of these vendors to the efforts of the alliance; and (b) consolidates Sun's list of supporters versus Microsoft's.”

As a new identity system, the Liberty Alliance figures to have some catching up to do in terms of number of users (Passport currently has around 165 million users. Source: Gartner Research). However, Sampson says this obstacle is somewhat diminished because the coalition that has already announced support for the Liberty Alliance has a large subscriber base. “Given that they've signed on wireless carriers -- particularly Vodafone with over 93 million subscribers worldwide -- already indicates strong support,” says Sampson.

Ultimately Ferris believes the Liberty Alliance will emerge as the stronger identity platform over Microsoft’s Passport, primarily because Sun’s program is less threatening to its partners. “Large enterprises will be more willing to partner with the Liberty Alliance folks for federated identity, rather than with Microsoft,” says Sampson. “Trust of Microsoft as a business partner is low.”

About the Author

Matt Migliore is regular contributor to ENTmag.com. He focuses particularly on Microsoft .NET and other Web services technologies. Matt was the editor of several technology-related Web publications and electronic newsletters, including Web Services Report, ASP insights and MIDRANGE Systems.