Jamming With Java: Sun's Rebranded App Server Approaches the Enterprise

By ServerWatch Staff (Send Email)
Posted November 12, 2003


Sun Java System Application Server Standard: A Java 2 Platform, J2EE 1.3 application server designed for departmental and non-clustered SMB configurations

Like the popular song says, "starting over is hard to do." Yet that's basically what Sun continues to do with its application server. Today, two name changes later, little remains of the old iPlanet (Sun-Netscape alliance) versions. Originally called the Sun ONE (i.e., Open Net Environment) Application Server 7, Sun in September rebranded it the Sun Java System Application Server Standard 7.

Overall, Sun has incorporated the the Java features in a very clean manner; its decision to go back to the first square seems to have made a difference. This time, Sun picked up the entire list of current Java specifications to offer a fully implemented J2EE 1.3 environment that handles most essential tasks well, especially well in the case of Web services, and at a competitive price, too.

Under the Sun

Compared to application server offerings from other vendors the packaging for Sun Java System Application Server is relatively simple. There are three editions: Platform (free, basic features, and small footprint); Standard (with additional monitoring and management features), which we tested in the Windows version; and the recently released Enterprise (adds load balancing, and cluster and failover support).

Like most of the major software vendors, Sun has developed a "stack" of software (in this case as part of Sun ONE) who's components either depend on or works closely with the application server. These include: Portal Server, Directory Server, Web Server, Communications Server, Commerce Services, Webtop, Studio, and the Solaris operating system.

Up and Running

Having installed the earlier iPlanet version, we were pleased to see how much easier it is to work with this version. Lots of traps have been removed, particularly the requirement of having a Web server and directory server pre-installed. As usual, some location information must be tweaked, but for most administrators, the basic configuration should take less than an hour.

Good documentation contributed to making this possible. We particularly liked the HTTP (Web based) training provided with the product; it's very helpful for the overview if nothing else.

Speaking of Web servers, the built-in Sun Java System Web Server (formerly Sun ONE HTTP Server) is a good choice with lots of performance features, but if needed, there's support for all of the other major Web servers. As another bonus, Sun Java System Message Queue (formerly Sun ONE Message Queue 3.0) is included as a native Java Message Service (JMS) provider. This too is a highly regarded product. We also noticed that Sun "snuck in" the Java 1.4 version of Java Virtual Machine a little ahead of the competition.

On the other hand, support for wider interoperability is mediocre, at best. The most unusual omissions are direct drivers for database systems. It routes them through JDBC, which is not known for high performance. Most application servers ship with a bevy of direct drivers for Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and other databases. Less surprising is that support for Microsoft products is not very complete, especially for Active Directory, ActiveX, and COM+.

Deployment

Sun's support for standard J2EE deployment is relatively free of complications (unlike what we've seen in BEA WebLogic, for example). There's a very handy utility for verifying the code in EAR, WAR, and JAR files, which will help catch "non-standard" (as in, non-portable) Java. Hot deployment and reloading are supported, as is Ant and XML-based server configuration. We found the Lifecycle Listener Classes very useful for development -- provided that Sun Java Studio is the development tool.

We believe most admins will consider Sun Java Studio (formerly Sun ONE Studio) version 4 a plus. This remake of Forte for Java has a lot of plusses, although debugging isn't at the top of our list. Sun is also working closely with Borland to provide JBuilder support. The combination of Studio and Application Server, along with the Web Services Developer Pack, is Sun's attempt to keep developers from becoming entangled in the ever-changing Web services specifications -- a kind of plug-in system for new WSI, SOAP, and other features and requirements.

Administration

The app server's new Web-based administrative console is a big improvement; as is the stand-alone Java application console. This is not to say that Sun's work is done. The Standard Edition offers few real-time monitoring capabilities, and certain aspects of performance can be gleaned only from log files. There are some look-and-feel issues that should improve with maturity.

Currently, both IBM and BEA provide administrative facilities that are simply more complete, more refined, and easier to use. Although nothing is wrong with Sun's administration console, it will take a rev or two to add the features and polish. In addition, we question how easy it is for users to move from administering the Standard Edition to scaling up to the clustering and load-balancing in the Enterprise Edition.

The recently released Enterprise Edition uses the new framework that underlies the Platform and Standard Editions to implement what Sun calls a "high availability layer" (in large part a persistence database) and to guarantee continuous service within a cluster. The technology is based on a design by Clustra Systems. Load balancing, failover support, and a more sophisticated management console are also part of the Enterprise Edition. This is a lot of "new" functionality introduced at a time when the enterprise field already has several well-established players (i.e., IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and BEA). Time and experience will be the telling factor for the Sun Java System Application Server Enterprise 7.

As Good As ...

For the Standard Edition, the question is not whether this version of the application server is ready to do battle with BEA or IBM but rather whether it can hold its own in the departmental and SMB markets. Our answer is "yes," based on price and quality of the product. Although the server faces stiff competition from open source products, namely from JBoss application server, its refinement gives it the edge.

For Sun-oriented shops, especially those running Solaris, Sun ONE Application Server in its current incarnation deserves to be the server of choice. For others, it's important to check out the competition and keep an eye on the maturation process of this phoenix-like application server.

Pros: Top support for J2EE features (as expected) for a good price
Cons: Needs time to add and polish features, add direct database drivers; lack of a track record in performance and reliability

Reviewed by: Nelson King Original Review Date: 11/12/2003
Original Review Version: 7.0

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