Application servers unmasked

Champions of application servers promise that the technology can ease the process of developing complex electronic commerce applications. It is a claim that IT development managers have heard before, so many are prudently evaluating the technology before taking the claims at face value.

Many of today's IT development managers lived through the broken promises of client/server and rapid application development. A lack of client/server infrastructure and experience exasperated the situation, especially as users waited to receive new application executables or updated application versions.

Emerging application architectures -- in particular, those involving e-business services -- promote a multitiered and thin-client approach built to conquer the problems brought on by client/server. The current prototypical architecture has a user with a browser communicating with a Web server that, in turn, delegates to one or more servers the task of managing and executing business logic from numerous data sources scattered across various platforms.

The need for servers to manage business logic created an opportunity for application servers to become a key infrastructure element in a multitiered, distributed architecture. Application servers are ideally suited for the Internet because they handle all of the attributes required of an e-business service, such as availability, scalability, security and integrity, and yet are flexible enough to build business functionality.

In theory, application servers separate business functions from system functions along well-defined lines. Organizations should therefore be able to build business components and independently choose the application server on which to deploy them. In practice, however, the choice is restricted to those application servers that support the component model used for the business logic.

Application servers typically provide services as interfaces defined within the context of an accepted component infrastructure, either the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs) model from Mountain View, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. or the Component Object Model (COM) from Microsoft Corp. Each of these models is able to handle business functionality defined as components within the same infrastructure.

The combined use of Java and CORBA has come to provide a simplified, distributed component model for many a distributed project. In some ways, it may be the most widely used component model, but it lacks the completeness of EJB and COM and also suffers from some contradicting characteristics.

Our expectation is that the number of application servers in the EJB camp will grow, and individual products will be differentiated through system services, special purpose services and interfaces. Microsoft, on the other hand, has embedded its COM application server -- Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) -- in the Windows platform, effectively killing any competition. The only Windows alternative -- the Jaguar offering from Emeryville, Calif.-based Sybase Inc. -- is now part of Sybase's Enterprise Application Server, which supports both the COM and EJB component models. As long as the Windows platform thrives, however, there will be many companies besides Microsoft adding services and interfaces to MTS.

Understanding application servers

The definition of the application server category has long been shrouded in fog. This is because the concept has evolved over the past few years, with the term being applied to a number of very different products. Currently, two major definitions of the category are in use. The more generic definition counts an application server as any product that handles business logic and is capable of service requests over the network, directly or through a Web server. This definition is the source of much misinterpretation as most of the product services are left unspecified.

The more restrictive and meaningful definition can be found by combining the EJB specification with Microsoft's MTS technology and using the broad spectrum of services each considers as defining the services for the whole category. Thus, a description of the application server product category essentially turns into a recounting of a fairly large number of services. To make things easier, we will roughly classify these services as Presentation Services, Distributed Object Services, Transaction Services, Security Services, Integration Services and Deployment Services.

Descriptions of each service follow, though development managers must note that some services may fit into multiple classes. For instance, Declarative Security Services straddle Security Services and Deployment Services.

Presentation Services

Developing a thin-client Internet application means mixing static and dynamic information, and maintaining client-side state on top of stateless protocols, in particular HTTP. While it was common for application developers to build proprietary mechanisms for such work a few years ago, Web servers and application servers have since taken on the task.

In addition, Presentation Services deliver content to the user interface, and are responsible for tying the user interface to business logic and other system services.

While some application servers provide an integrated development environment (IDE) to ease the development of user interfaces, others require development of the user interface on a separate IDE. There are also some servers that provide drag-and-drop utilities to allow developers to quickly assemble user interfaces and tie them to business logic.

These services, due to their association with the Web and the HTML layout, are currently being reclassified as extensions of the Web server functionality and are moving out of the core application server offerings.

Distributed Object Services

Distributed Object Services are the services closest to being core offerings. Because the current state of computing demands that business functionality be encapsulated into objects, developers now must define protocols that handle object life-cycle events and make objects available on the network.

Distributed component models are targeted specifically at these issues. They first define the concept of a component, how it should be programmed and what events it is expected to handle. The model then defines how components are accessed in a distributed environment.

Component models can be easily projected into blueprints of distributed systems architectures, and can build the business logic so that it fits into any such architecture.

In each of these models, the concept of a component matches an equally crisp concept of a container. Containers interact with components according to the protocol defined by the model. They activate components, instantiate objects and relay network requests. They also keep request queues, and manage threads and thread pools for request processing.

While the concept of a container is well-defined, the implementation of the container functionality is fertile ground for adding value; it is in this field that application server vendors contend for market share. Thus, today's application servers are first and foremost containers according to some defined distributed component model. All other services are provided on top of this base functionality.

Three distributed component models are widely accepted today: Microsoft's COM, EJB, and a model that combines Java with the CORBA object request broker standard of the Object Management Group (OMG), Framingham, Mass. We will take a brief look at each.

Microsoft's COM -- The COM specification fills Microsoft's need for a binary component model. The first widely available component model, COM developed into a full-fledged distributed component model with the advent of the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM).

Microsoft incorporated transaction monitoring facilities, as well as Security and Deployment Services, into the COM model, giving birth to the first widely available object monitor, MTS. MTS allows organizations to build enterprise systems by developing the business logic as MTS-aware COM components. These components can be easily built with any of the Microsoft development environments -- Visual C++, Visual J++ or Visual Basic. While Visual C++ is required to build components that can link with specific legacy systems, Microsoft still touts Visual Basic as the environment of choice for ease of use. Microsoft's Visual Java toolset is currently in limbo due to the suit with Sun.

Given its usefulness in building and managing enterprise applications, and after a short separate life as a standalone product, MTS was quickly bundled with the Windows NT operating system.

EJB -- Taking a cue from Microsoft, Sun created the JavaBeans component model utilizing contents that could gain wide industry support. The EJB model builds on the JavaBeans component model, borrows CORBA for distributed computing, and defines Transaction Monitoring, Security and Deployment Services along the trails blazed by Microsoft.

Though a follower in terms of chronology, the EJB model has earned unmatched support in the industry and has taken the technology lead in some areas.

The development of EJB components is usually done through one of many Java development environments that have come out over the last two years. Vendors of EJB-based application servers are either relying on alliances with IDE vendors or providing their own tools to make the building of components as smooth as the building of standalone functionality. The two different approaches can be seen in Symantec's VisualCafé or BEA's Web-Logic on one hand, and Progress' Apptivity or IBM's WebSphere on the other.

Java/CORBA -- As the battle between EJB and COM continues, CORBA appears well positioned to become a mature intermediary and the trusted communicator of enterprise data.

Java seems to have some difficulties extending beyond the world of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), while COM has its own platform restrictions. CORBA can span both worlds and most computing platforms. For example, the standard Java2 VM now contains a CORBA Object Request Broker, and the EJB specification delegates to CORBA the communication of data. CORBA vendors provide bridges to COM, though application-specific bridging is easily achieved using any CORBA offering on the Windows platform. Even Microsoft recently promised to provide a COM-CORBA bridge.

Despite all of this, CORBA has still failed to produce a set of native application servers. The problem with CORBA lies in its strengths. As CORBA developers focus on interplatform, environment-neutral data communications, the technology is all but painted into a corner when it comes to defining a component model.

By combining CORBA's distributed computing with Java's component model, one can indeed obtain a simple distributed component model. Because of its simplicity, and the fact that it is born of the synergy of two well-accepted technologies, it is very widely used nowadays. Yet it suffers many limitations because it breaks the neutrality promises of CORBA and lacks the completeness of EJB, which in some ways seems to subsume it.

Transaction Services

The scalability requirements of many e-business systems -- mainly due to the large numbers of clients that must be handled -- require that resources be reused, pooled and maintained. Prior to the advent of objects, transaction monitors handled such duties. The handling of the object life cycle now resides in the realm of Object Monitoring Services.

Object monitoring -- All application servers provide some sort of object monitoring. MTS was the first to implement the concept of object, while EJB application servers now do so as prescribed by the EJB standard.

Roughly speaking, object monitoring consists of carefully giving out references to objects and reusing objects across many clients according to well-defined rules. This strategy should reduce the number of objects in the system and produce savings in the costly object creation and destruction phases, which include the loading and saving of an object's state from persistent storage.

Transaction management -- Most enterprise systems need to reliably store and transfer data. Such systems usually rely on one or more database engines for storage, and remote method invocation or message queuing for data transfers. Products providing such functionality are extremely reliable, but reliability and consistency break down when the functionality of the products is glued together by business logic.

A common example is when enterprise data needs to be updated in a consistent fashion across multiple databases. At fulfillment time, a merchant must simultaneously update both the inventory and order database. When the order is shipped somewhere in the system, a piece of business logic decreases the number of available units by one, marks the order as fulfilled and inserts the tracking data. To avoid introducing data consistency issues, these updates must be managed as a single transaction.

Not nearly enough organizations around the world use transaction managers to keep their data consistent. Companies often rely on offline reconciliation of updates, executed by an overnight batch process or another special-purpose mechanism involving logging and manual interventions. However, all of these ingenious mechanisms are not only difficult to validate, they are unable to cope with the stringent online requirements of e-business.

As organizations begin to automate operations and incorporate the Internet into internal processes, expect to see less ad hoc transaction processing and more reliance on well-defined distributed transaction semantics and, of course, transaction managers.

Application server vendors recognize the need for transaction management, and business logic containers ideally fill this need. Sun, IBM and others are moving quickly to incorporate transaction management into EJB computing platforms. Microsoft has also moved swiftly to incorporate its transaction management into the Windows NT offering.

Security Services

Also common to all distributed enterprise systems is the need to secure valuable data that is accessible only to authorized users. A number of distributed security models have been developed in the past decade with basic characteristics such as authentication and authorization. Authentication refers to the presence of an authentication protocol that identifies the requesting party, while authorization grants access only if the requestor's identity is included in a specific list (the access control list) or if the requestor can assume a specific role (role-based authorization).

Infrastructures based on such models have been widely deployed for user authentication for operating system and network access. The most widely available is the all-pervasive NT domain security. The Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) provides an alternative infrastructure. These infrastructures were built to incorporate enterprise intranets, but have been shown to be inadequate in the face of Internet-based systems. Specifically, e-business applications deal with a user base much larger and more dynamic than any organization's employee population. Such applications may also have to handle communication across enterprises and, in general, across entities not controlled by any single security authority.

E-business systems initially took on the task of building their own security infrastructures, in most cases with an application-specific slant. But there is an obvious need to have these security infrastructures reliable and reusable across different applications, as well as manageable in a uniform manner. Application servers have stepped up to the plate to provide such capabilities, providing Declarative Security Services that are relatively easy to use and Programmatic Services that can at the same time grow to support the specific needs of an application.

Declarative Services are based on the fact that application servers are aware of the component attributes of the business logic (activation, interfaces and methods) and can secure them without programming. A single user interface can administer both the security of the application server and the security of all business components. At times, declarative security is not the right fit and application-specific logic can better handle access control.

Application servers provide programmatic interfaces to let business logic take over security. Consider the case of a system that handles bank accounts. The application logic can verify that the initiator of a transaction corresponds to the account owner before allowing access. In this case, the application-specific control is obviously simpler than anything based on components or interfaces. However, it does require that the application server make the identity of the transaction initiator available through programmatic interfaces.

Integration Services

Distributed enterprise applications rarely stand by themselves. Rather they usually reach inside a company's data vault and other internal business support systems, such as mainframe applications running under CICS, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) packages, IBM Tuxedo-based transaction systems, stored procedure packages on an SQL DBMS, or CORBA-based distributed services. While specific hooks or communication layers can be developed to attach to these systems, the task may be quite complex (take the case of transferring a transaction context from an EJB into an OTS-based CORBA system).

The baseline for all application servers is support for communication with SQL database systems. Added value can include connection pooling services. Vendors are currently scrambling to provide other integration services to differentiating application server products. As noted, prospective application server users should scrutinize such features. Expect to see more architectural standardization, as it is in the interest of application server vendors to allow easy access to the platform by third parties. For example, Sun has defined the Connector architecture for the Java 2 Enterprise Edition platform, a reference implementation of an EJB environment. The jury is still out on that move, but expect reaction within a year.

Deployment Services

Deployment Services are used to deploy applications, and include Directory Services and Availability Services such as load-balancing and fail-over.

Directory Services are used by components to find other components and can also be used by clients to find servers. There are a number of standard interfaces that programmers can use to register or find a component. The most widely available are the Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI), the Active Directory Service Interface and the CORBA Naming Service. The first two interfaces are usually a layer over the universally accepted Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), which can talk to most available directory products. For fast access and ease of deployment, some application servers also provide an internal directory implementation.

Availability Services allow deployment to be quickly adapted to a growing number of users while maintaining the quality of service within a desired parameter. This is a vital requirement for e-business applications, whose success is often measured by the number of users they serve and are rarely positioned to control their user base. The simplest load-balancing and fail-over mechanism relies on the Internet Domain Name System (DNS) to randomly distribute users among servers. This is what Web farms often do. A slightly more sophisticated approach relies on hardware communication re-directors.

To provide better load-balancing and fail-over services some application servers use the Directory Service, advanced programming models (special-purpose stubs and handling of component state) and out-of-band communication. In this area, application servers differ wildly and care must be taken to fully understand the limits. For instance, transparent fail-over is often qualified by restrictive conditions on the business logic, as an all-purpose fail-over mechanism cripples performance.

The programming model required by an application server for specific Availability Services can also impact the application architecture. It is important that users investigate such models at the very beginning of a project or the whole application can become trapped in a scalability corner. The description of the services provided by application servers is useful in structuring the product selection.

Choosing your application server

The application server to be used within an organization must be carefully selected so as to justify the financial investment and maximize the resulting business benefit. The first element to consider, as it is strongly tied to the organization's available staff resources, is the programming model used to build the application logic. Choose an EJB-based application server and, if your development team is mostly versed in COM and Visual Basic, you will find yourself having to deal with a fairly steep learning curve. The advantage of using an application server is that it allows development resources to focus on the core business logic; it therefore makes sense to choose an application server whose programming model is similar to the model used within the organization. Outsourcing expertise offers partial relief, but it makes sense only if it is considered in conjunction with a knowledge transfer effort.

The next element to consider is the specific need to communicate with other internal systems, be they databases, ERP systems or special-purpose systems. Finding an application server with the appropriate connectors will greatly facilitate integrating new business logic with existing systems and processes. For instance, if there is a need to connect to Tuxedo-based transaction systems, BEA's WebLogic offering allows as seamless a service as you can get. Should your business functionality require extending transactions to the mainframe, IBM's WebSphere Enterprise Server would make the short list. In general, an organization's connectivity requirements typically define the short list of servers.

It is also important that the selection be done with the enterprise in mind. As much as a company would like to use different application servers according to project needs, application servers are complex products with distinct learning curves for development, deployment and administration. For example, the issue of demarcating transactions and securing the system is the most complex at every stage.

In addition, application servers must be evaluated for reliance on accepted component models with support for object monitoring. The most widely available ones are currently the overly mentioned EJB and COM/MTS models. Application servers with a unique model for encapsulating business logic are either hindered from providing sophisticated services (scalability, fault-tolerance and the like) or must be further evolved with the learning curve thus forced on application developers.

Finally, application servers are used for their ability to scale and, in general, to provide high availability. Performance ratings, load-balancing and clustering features are important when trying to manage the explosive and often unexpected growth associated with e-business applications. Should the application server not be able to support such growth, the organization faces the burden of rearranging functionality in an attempt to scale the application.

Evolution and future

Some organizations have spent considerable resources building in-house application frameworks to find that the burden of maintenance is more costly than expected. These frameworks often provide only a small portion of the services required by in-house systems, and companies may find themselves having to look for application-specific alternatives or invest in more resources to extend the framework.

Others have bought and adopted commercial application frameworks from suppliers like Forté Software. Because different commercial application frameworks have no common infrastructure and no common model for the building of business logic, these frameworks are often viewed as constrictive commitments to software companies with an unclear future. A firm that buys a commercial application framework is committed to building its business logic according to the framework's rules. If the framework's vendor were to go out of business, the company would find itself having to rebuild its business logic according to different rules.

With the advent of the Internet, Web servers were used as e-business application platforms. While Web servers have proven to be excellent platforms to serve static data, they have very little support for the building of business logic. Applications were built using unscalable CGI platforms or they were built against a Web server's proprietary API. In either case, high-level services were not available, and organizations once again had to choose between building their own framework or purchasing one and committing themselves to it.

For the first time, application servers offer a framework and a number of high-level services that let an organization build business logic without fear of lock-in, while also limiting the risk of software obsolescence. This is only possible because the underlying component systems and interfaces are standardized.

There is also room for the development of a lively vertical component market that would help organizations to concentrate on building strategic business components; in other words, the logic that differentiates it from its competitors. Creating an e-business system could then be as easy as combining such strategic components with third-part.