Stacking the deck on platform dominance

Platform dominance is the pat explanation often given for Microsoft's steel-like grip on the throat of today's enterprise IT. After all, if you control the technology from the Web browsers on their desktops down to the OS on their servers, there's not a lot of room for competitors to slip in and stake out territory of any size. Given the strength of the approach, it's no surprise to see Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat now trying to imbue their firms' with a similar vertical coherence.

Microsoft has always held the high ground, with the ability to deploy into an enterprise OS with a variety of server options, a database, a useful assortment of complementary applications, and a complete desktop. It's been an easy answer for a lot of firms and one that persists to this day as the biggest barrier to competitors trying to penetrate the enterprise space. Red Hat's recent acquisition of JBoss gives the market its first realistic glimpse of how a potential competitor is most likely to arise.

Snapping at the heels

While Microsoft has traditionally enjoyed the significant advantages of a head start and a concerted and visionary R&D effort, the increasing maturity of a growing variety of independent product offerings is allowing Oracle, Sun and Red Hat to narrow the gap via strategic acquisitions. Oracle and Red Hat in particular are benefiting from full cash coffers and a willingness to turn fiscal capital into intellectual capital. "If you can't build 'em, buy 'em."

The acquisitions path to building a comprehensive platform would never have worked even just twelve short months ago-the necessary critical mass of mature products simply was not there. Today, however, as firms like Sleepycat Software Inc., JBoss Inc. and others gain in sophistication and market acceptance, opportunities to create the type of vertical coherence that allowed Microsoft to become, well, Microsoft, exist for the players with the deep pockets.

The key to success in this area will be the ability to present to enterprise customers a viable collection of key components which sing in harmony. The magic combination of OS, server and database is the most fundamental building block and one that has been surprising hard to assemble, at least to the market's satisfaction. Microsoft has been able to present their OS, running a variety of server products and the SQL database. The .NET framework allows the Microsoft family of programming languages to run in the environment and creates a combination of resources that has been deemed sufficient for the needs of a wide variety of organizations. Red Hat now brings to the market the Linux OS, running the Apache Web server and combined with the MySQL or PostgreSQL database. Add to the mix either PHP or JBoss Java, and you have a stack of software which provides a lot of power and flexibility at a fraction of the cost of the Microsoft proprietary stack.

Team game

The presence of enterprise quality commercial support from name brand vendors levels out the playing field in this growing battle for the enterprise platform. Differentiators will increasingly come from technical issues, the presence of skill sets and for some, the cost of switching. That latter factor will keep a lot of people right where they are for the foreseeable future, but where there are new installations at stake the battle will be hardest fought.

What does this mean for the enterprise? Of course is the first answer that comes to mind is "more choice" but perhaps more importantly, it means less vendor shuffle: the ability to achieve choice in the market without having to certify and deal with 15 different vendors and their various policies, processes and personnel. It should also mean reduced software acquisition costs and less fragmented commercial support.

For those who have the inclination to manage this process at a more micro level, the option exists to create an even wider range of customized solutions by use of the tools provided by firms like Spikesource Inc. and Bitrock SL. IT departments with the ability and the desire to create the specifications and deploy their own configurations can create stacks of products, from the OS to the desktop, and have them delivered as one unified installer.

These two industry trends-the assembly of competing integrated stacks delivered by major firms and the emergence of tools that allow people to create their own stacks-show us the way forward. In retrospect you can see that the market has followed a natural progression: from a fragmented marketplace with a variety of vendors running incompatible proprietary systems, to a market dominated by a single major player. Now we see the emergence of open standards and the appearance of options for the enterprise premised on open standards.

Should open standards and licenses be given the industry backing they deserve, the trend is destined to become the norm.

Ric Shreves is a partner at Water&Stone, a firm specializing in open source content management systems. He speaks and writes frequently on the subject of Internet technologies in general and on open source in particular. Contact him at ric@waterandstone.com.

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