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Microsoft on collision course with Sun and Novell for directory market

AD/AM -- it's not a radio station. It's a technology that has created a sequel to the Microsoft/Novell saga. This time around, Gates and company have come for Novell's directory business and have also charted a new collision course with another old rival -- Sun.

Microsoft has the directory business locked up in the Windows enterprise. But when it comes to externally facing e-business directories, the company has to play catch-up with two familiar foes.

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  • The leaders in the growing market for standalone Lightweight Directory Application Protocol (LDAP) services are Novell Inc., with its eDirectory, and Sun Microsystems Inc., with its Sun ONE platform. Both are used to store and manage identity profiles of customers and to access privileges and network resource information.

    Until recently, Microsoft's directory efforts were focused on the enterprise. Last summer, the company said it would release Active Directory in Application Mode (AD/AM), a version of Active Directory that is de-coupled from the Windows operating system but which shares the same code base.

    AD/AM does not require deployment on a domain controller, and the software can run concurrently on a single server with each instance independently configurable. AD/AM is due out in 2003 -- sometime after the release of .NET Server 2003. Jackson Shaw, technical product manager of directory services at Microsoft, said that the company hasn't decided how to price or package the product.

    Shaw said that Microsoft decided to sell a directory service that could be easily installed in an e-business scenario. Its target audience is the customer who wants to use Active Directory but not bother with another Windows server or domain controller. It also caters to developers who need to work on Active Directory but don't want to set up a domain controller for that sole purpose. With AD/AM, a developer can work using just an XP desktop.

    Earl Perkins, an analyst at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn., said that the arrival of AD/AM will likely place Novell and Microsoft back on a collision course, but this time the two will be fighting over Internet directories and authentication servers, not the enterprise.

    Novell earlier this month released eDirectory 8.7, which now runs on IBM's AIX operating system and can be managed from numerous wireless and Web-based devices. The directory already runs on NetWare, Windows NT and Windows 2000, as well as other Unix-based operating system platforms. Microsoft's AD/AM will run on .NET Server or Windows 2000.

    The fact that eDirectory has been available for some time will put some pressure on Microsoft to win back otherwise loyal customers who happen to like Novell's eDirectory. Jim Acevedo, manager of network infrastructure at IdaCorp Energy, an energy trading company in Boise, Idaho, said that his company had been a pure Microsoft shop until it installed eDirectory to connect mobile users to its portal services.

    When Acevedo bought the eDirectory, he was looking for a way to expose e-mail, file access and other internal services to the outside world in a secure way. EDirectory uses its iChain proxy server as its primary access point. Both directories are able to synchronize. At the time, Microsoft didn't have a comparable product, Acevedo said.

    "It will be interesting to see what Microsoft comes up with," he said, "though I don't see anything in Active Directory today that makes it even close to eDirectory."

    Novell was never known for its speed in getting new technologies to market. The company ended up on top in the e-business directory segment due to unusual circumstances, according to Mike Neuenschwander, an analyst at the Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based consulting firm.

    "Overall, competition in the market had slowed, and Microsoft hadn't released any mind-blowing directory technology," Neuenschwander said. "At the same time, Sun has also matured its directory."

    Novell and Sun are already anticipating Microsoft's arrival. For example, Novell is trying to lure users of both Sun ONE Directory Server and Microsoft's Active Directory with free-license offers and other discounted user-based pricing. Meta's Perkins said that he thinks Microsoft could threaten the pricing model for e-directories by pricing its software according to CPUs instead of users.

    Perkins said that he is skeptical about the ultimate success of AD/AM. "But it is Microsoft, and even if Microsoft puts together an average offering with average capability, if they use their leverage and have a good price, they will do well," he said.

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