Cloud-based Java offers risks and rewards

VMforce shows the revenue potential of Java as a service, but will the cloud model save the Java community or split it apart?

As the fallout from Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems continues, customers remain rightly concerned as to how Oracle might try to wring profit from Sun's software portfolio, including the Java platform. True, most of that software is open source. But while Oracle has long contributed to various independent open source communities, it's much more reluctant to give its own products away. Most recently it slapped a $90 price tag on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) plug-in for Microsoft Office, a product that Sun offered free of charge. If that sounds reasonable, bear in mind that the minimum order is 100 copies.

Specifics of Oracle's future plans remain scant. For anyone seeking insight into how other Sun product lines will fare under Oracle's aegis, however, the ongoing attrition of former Sun execs can't be encouraging. The "father of Java" himself, James Gosling resigned in early April, saying he felt "pretty burned out and trashed" and that the future of Java had "become complicated."

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But fears that Oracle may soon move toward more aggressive commercial licensing for Java may be premature. For one thing, Oracle already has its profitable WebLogic line of Java EE products, which it gained in its $8.5 billion acquisition of BEA Systems in 2008. For another, there's more than one way monetize a platform like Java, as VMware and Salesforce.com demonstrated this week with the announcement of their VMforce joint venture.

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VMforce brings Java to the cloud On the face of it, Salesforce.com may seem like an odd partner for VMware. As the virtualization market has grown increasingly crowded, however, VMware has sought to break out of its niche and position itself as a provider of infrastructure for the cloud as well as the data center.

On the face of it, Salesforce.com may seem like an odd partner for VMware. As the virtualization market has grown increasingly crowded, however, VMware has sought to break out of its niche and position itself as a provider of infrastructure for the cloud as well as the data center.

With VMforce, VMware and Salesforce.com offer a complete, pay-as-you-go platform for Java development. Customers deploy applications on Java runtime environments powered by VMware's virtualization technology. On the back end is Salesforce.com's Force.com platform, which provides data storage and the ability to interface with services for messaging, search, security, and identity management, among other features.

Notably, VMforce doesn't do Java EE. Applications run on a proprietary version of the Apache Tomcat server that has been optimized for cloud environments. When building their apps, developers can choose from ordinary Java objects, JavaServer Pages (JSPs), servlets, or the Spring framework, which is a popular alternative for customers who feel Java EE has grown too costly and cumbersome to be practical. (No real surprise there: Spring became a VMware product when VMware acquired SpringSource in 2009.)

What customers gain from this arrangement is the ability to deploy Java applications without worrying about purchasing hardware, maintaining an operating system, or tuning their Java runtime or their database. What VMware and Salesforce.com gain is a nice, monthly usage fee. In effect, they've figured out a way to profit from Java without ever selling a single license.

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