In-Depth

Boosting App Server Performance

Suppliers scramble to advance performance and scalability as IT uses the technology to build more complex apps. Analysts offer assessment of today's offerings.

Application servers as a technology and a platform for the Web world emerged five years ago, just as the first e-business and e-commerce sites came on the scene. The initial value proposition of the Web application server was that it could connect databases to the Web.

"It was a great way to make interactive Web sites," recalls Sanjay Sarathy. "To take a Web site and allow people to input data that went back to a database or to query a database from a form on a Web site."

In the past five years, that role has expanded considerably. The application server now offers a complete transactional engine that serves as the hub of most new e-commerce services delivered today.

"It's the mechanism for rapidly building Web applications," said Sarathy, who is director of product marketing at iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, Mountain View, Calif., a joint effort of Sun Microsystems and Netscape in application server development. "So scalability, reliability and high availability are the key features of the application server technology."

Because of the number of vendors in the yet-to-shake-out application server market, analysts find it hard to classify and compare the various products.

"Broadly speaking, web application servers represent any product that serves as a juncture between the web and various classes of back-end systems, with the ability to script business logic for connecting the two domains," noted D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in its white paper, Web Application Servers Take Center Stage: Web-Enabled Enterprise Infrastructures. The Port Chester, N.Y.-based technology research and consulting firm goes on to state, "Web application servers thus have some characteristics of operating systems, but their lineage derives more directly from classical middleware products such as transaction monitors."

In a practical sense, the application server is an off-the-shelf shortcut for developers who do not have the requirements, skill sets, time or money to write their own integration code.

Mike Gilpin, an analyst at Giga Information Group, Cambridge, Mass., noted that leading vendors, including IBM, BEA Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., and iPlanet are on the cutting edge of server technology based on emerging Java standards. But, he asked, "Does that mean a general-purpose piece of Java application code put into a general-purpose Java application server is going to run as fast as lovingly hand-crafted C++, tweaked by a guru and running on infrastructure written by a guru? Absolutely not; not even close."

If you have an application that requires a coding guru and your organization can afford one, Gilpin recommends that you hire one—assuming you can find one.

"For an increasing number of people, and an increasing number of kinds of applications that people want to build, the industry-standard Java app server is becoming a viable solution," he concluded.

While C++ and Microsoft's new C# may be the guru's choices for server and application coding, leading vendors and the developers who rely on them are standardizing on Java, said Gilpin.

"The most interesting thing we see is that a lot of other product areas are now beginning to align more closely with EJB," he said. "For example, commerce servers. I think they are the first indicator of this trend where suddenly it's become very important to have a solution that either runs on an application server, or at least has some kind of EJB dimension to it.

The folks at Giga who follow commerce servers are seeing that increasingly now. Clients are saying, 'We want a commerce server that has EJB inside.' I think other application domains will begin to experience the same phenomenon."

From the vendor point of view, the J2EE architecture is important not only for the application and the server, but for the almost inevitable integration project required to link legacy data to highly scalable Web-based applications.

"Anything that's being done over the Web now is dynamic and using some existing business logic or data on a back-end system," said Patrick Dorsey, a product marketing manager at iPlanet. "What the J2EE architecture and application server brings to the integration side of the development is a multitiered architecture where you can actually have presentation logic at the front end on a Web server to run business logic on an application server. And then you can use systems on the back end in a very scalable and reliable way, even though the applications on them may have been created for a more controlled client/server, internal-to-a-company-type of architecture. It allows you to scale up those services or applications that are on the back end so that millions of Web users can use them at the same time."

Performance issues
In its study of vendor products, D.H. Brown tested and rated the four leading Web application servers: iPlanet Application Server 4.0, IBM WebSphere 3.0 Enterprise Edition (EE), IBM WebSphere AE and BEA WebLogic Server 4.5. In terms of performance, none of the app servers emerged as a runaway favorite and each offered functional advantages.

"iPlanet Application Server 4.0 and WebSphere 3.0 Enterprise Edition share the overall lead," the Brown report states. "iPlanet Application Server has the best security, reliability, scalability and management functions, while WebSphere EE has the best object and transaction services. WebLogic Server 4.5 breaks out with the best Web presentation services, and has strong security services, but does not match the depth of its competitors in terms of transaction and management functions... WebSphere AE, a midrange product from IBM, ranks competitively overall, but offers less functional depth than others."

In terms of market share, Giga Information Group said BEA Systems was the application server leader in 1999 with 32 percent of the market. Giga projects that this year IBM will catch up with BEA Systems, and the two companies will be tied with 24 percent of the market each. iPlanet, which Gilpin said has excellent technology but has been late to enter the marketplace, had 6 percent of the app server market last year and is projected to reach 9 percent this year.

"Right now, [iPlanet's] biggest problem is just that they were late to market," said Gilpin. "The early buzz I hear from clients who have been using it [iPlanet Application Server], is that it works pretty well. It has many of the same desirable characteristics that Netscape did in terms of performance and scalability, but now, of course, it's a full J2EE implementation. That's encouraging, but the lateness is a worry because of IBM and BEA having grabbed so much market share already."

According to Gilpin, IBM has the natural advantage of still being the vendor of choice for many large IT organizations. "And we're seeing a lot of those kinds of shops now go to WebSphere," he noted. "On the other hand, we see BEA in general as being the technology leader in the market. They tend to have features earlier than IBM does. For example, their personalization capabilities are, at the present time, richer than those of IBM. And their component frameworks that provide pre-built functionality and EJBs, those are [also] richer than those of IBM."

BEA Systems happily accepts Giga's evaluation of its technology leadership. "I think the industry is pretty much in agreement that we are the leader in J2EE," said Michael Girdley, lead product manager for WebLogic Server. "That includes all of the different areas of J2EE that you need to implement, things like messaging through JMS, Web servers for Java Server Pages, and a place where you can put your business logic and transactions."

Meanwhile, the IBM Software Group Division in Somers, N.Y., is touting its traditional strengths beyond performance.

"What we call it in our business is RAS characteristics—reliability, availability and serviceability," said Paraic Sweeney, vice president, WebSphere product marketing. "It's a function that you need to engineer into the product...like the use of a relational database for holding state information that gives you the failover and reliability you need in those B2B environments."

Scalability and reliability
In the beginning, scalability and reliability were the least of the worries of those pioneers putting up "essentially static—hand-edited HTML code," noted the D.H. Brown white paper. The first Web development application tools quickly hit the wall of "the enormous work loads created by the dramatic growth of the Web.

"For example, one of the most common Web development approaches in use today, called Common Gateway Interface (CGI), generates a separate heavyweight operating-system process each time a user action is initiated," the report reads. "While the use of CGI is appealingly simple and works well for small numbers of service requests, it can quickly bog down a typical server when a few hundred or thousand users attempt to access a site simultaneously."

For this reason, scalability and reliability have become key features in Web application servers. Products from iPlanet, IBM and BEA Systems, for example, received "very good" ratings in the areas of scalability and reliability when tested by D.H. Brown.

"iPlanet Application Server leads overall, with the most complete support for both clustering fail-over and load-balancing functions," the study concluded. "WebSphere EE follows, matching iPlanet Application Server's clustering fail-over functions, but lacking some of its load-balancing capabilities. WebSphere AE has a full set of load-balancing functions, but lacks some of WebSphere EE's component and transaction fail-over capabilities. WebLogic Server follows, with a competitive set of clustering fail-over functions, but slightly more limited load-balancing capabilities than competitors."

However, BEA Systems said its clustering architecture is key to reliability and scalability for customers using WebLogic. "Where we see our performance and scalability is in our lead of this clustering technology, where we do things that basically no one else does," argued BEA's Girdley.

BEA's clustering architecture links all of the WebLogic servers and WebLogic platforms inside one deployment, so they all run the same app or parts of the same app with automatic load balancing, distribution and failover, according to Girdley.

Kaiser Permanente, a nationwide HMO, is employing BEA's WebLogic Server with the clustering capability to meet its requirements for scalability and availability. Clustering allows multiple computers to run applications that can support hundreds of thousands of users who need around-the-clock access with no performance degradation and transparent recovery from errors.

On the other hand, LiquidPrice, a Cupertino, Calif.-based e-commerce start-up Web site for consumer electronics, decided to test IBM WebSphere's scalability potential. The LiquidPrice business model foresees sales of 10,000 items per month within its first year. For testing purposes, LiquidPrice at first scaled up the requests to one million requests a day. The firm ultimately found that IBM WebSphere running on one Microsoft NT server could handle eight million requests in 10 hours.

Other players
Beyond the three market leaders (BEA Systems, IBM and iPlanet), Giga Information Group's research indicates that there are a series of second-tier vendors with less than 10 percent of the market.

Among this tier of vendors are ATG, Cambridge, Mass.; Allaire Corp., Newton, Mass.; Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif.; Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif.; and Bluestone Software Inc., Philadelphia.

ATG has updated its commerce server to be J2EE-compliant, and it is popular with Internet boutique systems integrators. "Those integrators like ATG because it's a very reliable solution," said Giga's Gilpin. "They know that they're not going to lose the account because of some problem with the commerce server.

"Allaire is going to do well, but I think for a different reason," he continued. "They have always served what I think of as the Webmaster audience. They've got a clearly defined audience, and I think they are going to serve that audience effectively."

According to Gilpin, Sybase is gaining traction in specific niche markets, including mobile and portal technology.

Oracle will be able to use its sales and marketing muscle, starting from the installed base of Oracle 7 and Oracle 8i, to get its foot in the door of the application server market. Gilpin said Oracle has made some progress bringing EJB into its Oracle 8i product, but it is too early to tell how successful it will be in this market.

With as many as 40 vendors claiming to have high-performance, scalable and reliable application servers, it may be another year before a clear picture emerges in this product category. However, the coming holiday season, with its potential for millions of hits on thousands of e-commerce Web sites, may provide some pragmatic stress testing for the marketing claims of the vendors in this arena.

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