NetDynamics users cry foul

Sun/Netscape benches application server; some users slam support, balk at migration

KeyCorp in Cleveland spent more than $10 million and three years building Web applications that rely on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s NetDynamics application server and development tools. So Senior Vice President Bob Dutile says he isn't happy that the Sun/Netscape Alliance elected to discontinue the NetDynamics product and base its forthcoming iPlanet Application Server on Netscape product code.

KeyCorp's applications won't run on the iPlanet software unless they're substantially revamped.

But what has made Dutile and some other big NetDynamics customers even more frustrated is the dearth of product information and the deterioration in support they say they have witnessed since Sun bought NetDynamics in July 1998. Sun joined forces to co-develop software with Netscape Communications Corp. later that year. (The company has started calling itself iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions.)

"They didn't keep us in the loop at all on where they were going with their products," said Mike Anderson, vice president of information systems at The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta. "Nobody knows what they're doing. It's almost like a little secret society, and it ticks me off."

Home Depot used NetDynamics to develop and deploy applications for vendor service, field reporting and information systems time tracking. But because Anderson couldn't get solid answers from Sun on product plans last spring, he told his developers to build their own servlet-based architecture.

Unanswered Questions

Anderson said he will probably try iPlanet, testing the conversion routine that he has been told will help move NetDynamics code to the iPlanet programming model. But it remains to be seen if code that had been fine-tuned for NetDynamics will work just as well with iPlanet. "If it takes effort and I have to do a lot of rewriting, I will probably take those applications and keep the functionality the same but rewrite them in our homegrown (system)," he said.

KeyCorp, which has about 100 NetDynamics development licenses, planned to migrate to the latest and final edition of NetDynamics. Instead, the bank started evaluating other application servers earlier this year, after spending three months trying to get answers on why core components were dropping off-line or slowing down. IPlanet is "just another candidate now," Dutile said.

"Sun was definitely one of our top vendors last year," Dutile said. "That obviously now is called into question."

That doesn't surprise Daryl Plummer, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. He said he has spoken with clients who are looking at other products. "I know (iPlanet) has lost some customers and not gained customers they could have gained."

Sanjay Sarathy, iPlanet's director of application server marketing, said iPlanet logged some 50 new customers this quarter and counts NetDynamics customers in the beta program for iPlanet 6.0, which is due to ship next month.

"If customers are complaining, we're certainly going to listen to those complaints and do what we need to do to make them happy," Sarathy said.

Not every customer is unhappy. Steven Durflinger at Excelergy Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., said an outside company spent two weeks at his firm "on the alliance's dime" to determine what needs to be done to convert NetDynamics applications. "We were one of the test-case customers," said Durflinger, who has spoken at Sun events in the past. "The answers I have been given make me feel it's worth sticking" with iPlanet, he added. "There will be some rewrite involved, but it will be less painful than writing from scratch."

To varying degrees, early adopters of any vendor's application server will pay some price for having adopted the cutting-edge technology before it reached a mature state. They built applications to their vendors' proprietary models. Now they face migration work as vendors move to a common programming model - Sun's Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE).

But NetDynamics users could feel more pain, because the code base for their product isn't being carried forward to the new iPlanet server.

Last May, Sun and Netscape announced that they would combine the best of their application servers. But in July, they said the newly branded iPlanet product would be based on Network Application Support code, because it was further along in supporting the important J2EE improvements that customers wanted.

"To actually take two code bases and 'munge' them together would have been too difficult," Sarathy said.

"Each tactical decision that Sun has made seemed to be the right one at the time," said Carl Zetie, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "But the end result has been to leave many NetDynamics customers in the cold."

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