In-Depth

Three for the e-commerce road

The Object Management Group (OMG) and a band of key vendors have moved to build specifications for a standard
application server platform that should hide complex "plumbing" issues from corporate users, software suppliers and systems integrators.

According to OMG officials, the standard platform will incorporate the OMG Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) and the emerging Enterprise JavaBean (EJB) component model created by Sun Microsystems Inc. with a little help from the International Organization for Standards (ISO) and Java allies like IBM and BEA Systems Inc. CORBA and EJB both promise portability across multiple platforms. EJB carries that Java "write once, run anywhere" promise, while the OMG object request broker is used to integrate multiple systems. Together, said Richard Soley, chairman and chief executive of the OMG, EJB and CORBA create a system that is "language neutral, operating system neutral, machine neutral and platform neutral."

Though many observers had expected CORBA and EJB to compete for corporate mind share early on, the OMG plan has the backing of Sun, the prime architect of EJB specifications. EJB could have stood alone as a component standard, but the coupling with CORBA enhances it significantly, said Anne Thomas, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston-based consulting firm.

Thomas noted that Sun has never planned to build a substantial EJB infrastructure, deciding to limit that work to RMI, "a simple mechanism for distributed processing in a Java world." CORBA extends interoperability to far more systems than RMI, she said.

Stu Stern, director of Sun professional services for the North American field organization, said his group views "CORBA as a lower level protocol, but it is an excellent technology for getting from one process to another without having to worry about the underlying technology. There are a lot of issues that CORBA doesn't provide out of the box, and EJB can take care of that."

The obvious target of the combined effort is Microsoft's COM+ component architecture, though OMG and Sun officials downplay any competition.

Even some experts note that two component standards are inevitable -- Microsoft for Windows-only sites and CORBA-EJB for heterogeneous high-end sites. "Most of the companies I talk to don't even compare the two," said Paul Harmon, a prolific author on emerging technologies, senior consultant with the Cutter Consortium, an Arlington, Mass.-based consulting firm, and director of education and communication with Genesis Development Corp. "They either use MTS because they are all Microsoft, or they use EJB and CORBA for multiplatform systems," he added.

A CORBA-EJB marriage is a natural progression for an
application server business that continues growing at breakneck speed, said Harmon. "The two technologies [CORBA and EJB] are complementary. If one of them wasn't created, the other would have to create it to fulfill the promise," Harmon said, contradicting an early though quickly fading perception that EJB and CORBA are competitive. "CORBA and Enterprise JavaBeans are not competing in the application server market. It's just the opposite -- Enterprise JavaBeans wouldn't work right without CORBA."

Observers note that most of today's application server
systems are or soon plan to incorporate both CORBA and EJB technology. For example, Inprise Corp.'s VisiBroker 4.0 ORB offering, due out this summer, will implement CORBA 2.3, IIOP and an EJB layer sitting on top of the full product, said Andreas Vogel, a strategic technical advisor at Inprise. "When we look at CORBA and Enterprise JavaBeans, we saw that the two things coincided very nicely," he said. "CORBA is a good technology for implementing EJB. It's a very good fit from our perspective."

Iona Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass., is already at work integrating its ORB and Enterprise JavaBeans, said Senior Product Manager David Clarke. The project has not been as difficult as anticipated, he said. "There has always been synergy between the EJB standard and the CORBA standard," Clarke said. "We're building a CORBA container and finding it easy to host EJB."

Observers say the two models must continue on the integration path in order for both to survive. "I believe there's only room for two server-side component models," said Vogel of Inprise. "There will be COM+ for the Microsoft side, so there is room for one more component model." Vogel predicts that the second model will incorporate Java and thus EJB. "While EJB and CORBA are the contenders here, EJB has all the mind share. I believe that CORBA components will become a subset of EJB, adding features for enterprise deployment."

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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