Sun is barging its way back into the Java server software market with the latest version of its application server - the first update in nearly two years.

Java Application Server Platform Edition 8 is built on fully redesigned architecture, includes the latest Java Web services standards, apparently uses 55 per cent less memory than its predecessor and is free.

Developers can download and deploy the software without charge and bundle it without paying a licensing fee. Documentation and access to online support is also free.

It's a move designed to steal the market and set itself up for the future. "Sun is playing into the basic recipe for upgrades," said Warren Shiau, senior analyst for software research at IDC Canada.

Sun is already considered to be a heavyweight alongside Oracle, BEA and IBM in the application server space but it has been outpaced in recent years and is now trying to get back in the game. "It sets them up to go after everything, but by giving the app server for free, they are also looking to get install base," Shiau explained.

In other words, Sun is setting the stage to offer more than a stack that can only sit on top of Unix systems. The recent announcement by Sun to make peace with long-time rival Microsoft, and previous revelations that it would move its stack to sit on Linux as well, demonstrate that it is going after a bigger picture.

"I think gradually they've come to the realisation that they have to appeal to a larger market as well," he said. "In the past they would've been very limited by the fact that their stack is really on a Unix stack." Shiau said the server market is open in a lot of respects, because it doesn't require a huge services organisation to be behind it. "There's room for Sun to move," he said. "I think Sun will do fine with this."

A lot of Sun's future success will depend on the new direction the company is taking with Windows and Linux. But for the company to really push forward, the incentive for the enterprise customer to adopt Java Enterprise System also has to be there. The JES is a suite of Java server products that includes the app server, Web server, directory server and clustering software, and runs to about $100 per employee.

"They are focusing on the application server as an instrument to get someone else, ultimately going after their full stack," Shiau explained. He added that they also hope to drive sales of JES. Sun said it plans to release a more advanced enterprise edition of the app server platform in the second half of the year, which will include clustering software.

Edition 8 of the application server also supports JavaServer Faces, which simplifies building user interfaces for JavaServer apps with reusable components.

Java System Application Server Edition 8 is now available for Solaris 8/9, Windows 2000/XP and Red Hat Linux. Standard and Enterprise editions of the software will be available later in 2004.