In-Depth

A new component realism emerges

As the economy slows and the last lingering remnants of the dot.com frenzy evaporate, a new realism is shaping work around components. Realists are dismissing the religious wars between J2EE and .NET as a waste of time because integrating the two technologies is easy.

Meanwhile, some say changes have to be made in approaches to testing and software licensing to fit the new distributed model. Vendors agree that the traditional testing lab is not suitable for the brave new world of distributed computing, and one vendor says the traditional per-seat approach to licensing is not workable.

At the same time, the idea of reuse, the big selling point of distributed components, is taking on a new form: Some argue that assets other than components, up to and including Web services, should be reused. Others say components other than GUI widgets were not meant to be reused in the first place.

Web services -- the ultimate distributed component technology -- is still not ready for prime time, vendors agree. But they are working to change that.

Can't we all get along?
Will Ballard, .NET practice manager at Momentum Software Inc., Austin, Texas, has deployed systems on J2EE, .NET and on ''those that have both, and they work together fine.'' While integrating J2EE and .NET systems ''could be tricky,'' it is ''perfectly possible,'' Ballard said. Linkage is the biggest problem during integration, he said, adding that there are three types of solutions to this: intermediate message queues like MQSeries, MSMQ or SonicMQ; SOAP-type services; or a classic data-to-data integration where ''you can use brute force if necessary.''

However, Hugh Grant, chief technology officer at Dublin, Ireland-based Cape Clear Software, a developer of middleware that lets Java and CORBA back-end functions become Web services, said simple integration such as a Microsoft front end and a J2EE, CORBA or MQSeries back end is ''pretty simple'' because ''the integration piece is almost a commodity. Everybody's got an XML interface, for example.''

At the very least, J2EE and .NET will coexist within the enterprise. Companies will select one of the two depending on their size, said David Holmes, chief marketing officer at Atlanta-based Jacada Inc., which deals with Global 2000 companies. ''Small- and medium-sized companies run their applications on Microsoft technology, so it's natural for them to move to .NET,'' he said. ''Not easy, but natural.'' In the Global 2000 community, however, ''corporations moved to Java as their enterprise language, so medium- to large-sized corporations have Java and J2EE skills and are dominated by J2EE,'' Holmes said. Nevertheless, the two will coexist in the corporate environment partly because corporations do not want to commit to any one vendor and partly because they will acquire companies that were Microsoft shops and will have to integrate them, Holmes said.

Jacada Integrator takes back-office applications from mainframes, Unisys, DEC VAX and other legacy platforms, wrappers them and exposes them as Web services so they can be invoked as Web services. ''We're a low-cost, low-risk alternative to rewriting or restructuring an application,'' Holmes said.

Testing revisited
Atesto Technologies, Inc., Fremont, Calif., ties in testing with performance management to give users a 360-degree view of their applications. Ronnie Ray, Atesto's vice president of marketing, said that because the Web is fully distributed, and Web services have fully interactive applications as well as users, testing and monitoring ''needs to shift to where the work is getting done, which is to the edge of the network.''

Testing processes will define how people manage their environments in the future, Ray said. While testing is currently done by QA departments, which have little connection to operations departments, testing and operations will share resources in the future, he said. ''Operations will be able to extract some of the value from the work QA people do upstream,'' Ray said. Atesto tests distributed components as well as Web services-based architectures. Its platform conducts performance tests, and it also does system and application monitoring enterprise-wide.

Testing will also have to move out of the laboratory. ''You need to mirror your global environment in your testing environment instead of testing in a clean room,'' Ray said.

Momentum's Ballard agreed. ''For us, testing is almost always based around business scenarios, so we construct sample data that matches the use cases and then run that data through the interfaces to test the system end to end,'' he said.

Further, testers will need to upgrade their skills. Simon Galbraith, marketing director at Red Gate Software, Cambridge, England, said corporations will need a ''much higher level of skill for testing'' because testers ''must understand the underlying technology more than if they were doing Web site testing.'' That is because Web services do not have a user interface.

Red Gate offers ANTS -- Advanced .NET Testing System -- a Web services testing tool that tests any SOAP-based Web service for scalability. This is important because ''if you use Web services for integration, they'll handle quite large numbers of requests,'' Galbraith said. If, for example, a corporation has a payroll system tied into its employee database, the system might make 10,000 requests to the Web service on payday. The corporation must be able to ensure that the Web service can stand up to that load.

License the people, not the seat
Atesto's Ray said the current per-seat software licensing model is not good enough in the distributed world. The location-specific licensing model used today ''doesn't make sense in the distributed world because applications and components are spread across the network,'' Ray said. Atesto uses the floating license concept. This is essentially an enterprise-wide distributed license for the people who work with Atesto's software.

''Say you have 10 people working on the system, and they're based anywhere and connected through the corporate intranet; they'll be using the same resources, software, hardware, test scripts, resource analyses. All that runs on one integrated platform,'' Ray said. If a user  leaves, that license can be transferred to the new hire. When more users are added, the client has to take out more licenses in their names.

The new face of reuse
The frenzy about reuse has died down, and Momentum's Ballard said this is because the concept of reuse has been misrepresented. ''Components, beyond GUI widget-type components, were never about reuse; they were about defining interfaces on your systems and constructing those systems in such a way that they're well defined, bite-sized, attackable projects that you can integrate together to form your computing architecture,'' Ballard said.

To Greg Coticchia, CEO at LogicLibrary Inc., Pittsburgh, corporate interest in reuse has fizzled because companies took the wrong approach to building reusable components. ''These things are iterative,'' Coticchia said. ''You have to start with some essential applications; you're not going to try to boil the ocean because, if you do, you'll fail.'' When corporations try to make ''every possible application under the sun'' reusable, they will fail, Coticchia said, adding that ''you have to tackle applications you can handle first and get some wins.''

LogicLibrary lets user companies create a catalog of essential software assets, including both executable code and supporting architectures, use cases and process models. The companies then use LogicLibrary Logidex, a component discovery engine, to view their components within these contexts and identify those that best fit a given application's technical and business requirements. Logidex logs and registers queries to save developers from reinventing the wheel.

''You can find out who asked a particular question when, and what the answer to it was,'' Coticchia said. ''That makes a great starting point for building a Web services initiative.''

Andre den Haan, vice president of product strategy at Seagull Software in Atlanta, said attempts at reuse failed for two reasons: Some were tied to a specific platform, such as DCOM, and others were too difficult to use.

Seagull offers Transidiom, a bridging technology that supports ''all platforms and environments,'' including J2EE, .NET and WSDL, den Haan said. Transidiom extracts critical business processes, and users can reuse these in Java or .NET infrastructures or as Web services by wrapping an additional layer around them. This approach minimizes what den Haan calls skills separation.

''Traditionally, when you try to integrate something old with something new, the project goes over budget or fails because people underestimate the number and types of skills required -- they need to understand old and new technologies and gobbledygook like low-level APIs to make the whole thing work,'' he said. Transidiom '''ets domain experts leverage their skills without being dependent on them, and [lets them] gradually grow into the new technologies,'' he explained.

Adam Wallace, vice president of R&D at Flashline Inc. in Cleveland, contends that reuse has not fizzled out, but that corporations are redefining the meaning of the term ''reuse,'' expanding it instead of focusing just on reusable software objects or components. Flashline's clients are increasingly looking at reusing assets other than components, he said, adding that ''there's a good body of other types of assets such as process-based or knowledge-based assets, even best practices documents, and we realized that our customers are looking to not just reuse components for the sake of programmatic reuse, but also [to] reuse knowledge or expertise that's been packaged as a best practices document or architecture.''

Flashline offers the CMEE meta data repository that integrates with source control management (SCM) packages such as ClearCase or PVCS. It acts as an extension or enhancement of the meta data held in UDDI, providing a dynamic link to that data so that, when changes are made, it does not re-create the UDDI functionality, Wallace said. Flashline wrote a UDDI browser to enable the functionality, and ''that turned out to be one of the things our customers liked,'' he said.

Extending the meta data in UDDI gets around UDDI's lack of capabilities such as dynamic binding, Wallace said. CMEE can also be used as a trusted repository, sitting on top of customers' localized Web services to let customers control access to and information about Web services, Wallace said. Flashline also lets users have multiple UDDI directories distributed around one organization or multiple organizations all fronted by CMEE to provide one central point of access.

For Simon Peel, vice president of marketing at Mainsoft Corp., San Jose, Calif., reuse failed because components ''were built and reused by people who just built and used procedural code.'' Once larger teams or business partners of a corporation were given access to the component, they would have to adapt it or even change the component ''because inheriting it and building on it isn't good enough,'' he said. Other issues that stymied the reuse of components revolved around ownership of the code. ''Who has the responsibility to code and share components? And if I give you access to my components, who's responsible for them?'' Peel said.

Mainsoft's product, Visual MainWin 5, solves those problems by letting users take components they built centrally in the Windows environment and reuse them on Unix systems. Mainsoft has ported the Microsoft XML engine, MSXML, to Unix, so developers can  write their components to MSXML, and the components can be reused in Unix. ''Typically, people think about reusability on the same operating system; Mainsoft gives you reusability on multiple platforms,'' Peel said.

Visual MainWin 5 lets users plug into Visual Studio .NET. After they build unmanaged C++ applications on Windows and are satisfied that they have the logic and syntax right, they press the ''build'' button and that sends a message to the Visual MainWin server and the Unix compilers on the server compile the application in Unix. ''That way, developers have a copy of the native application and they own the source base, which is in Windows,'' Peel said.

Web services
Web services are, by definition, distributed component technology, and some say Web services themselves can be considered distributed components. ''In the loosely coupled component architecture, which is XML and Web services, the key focus is on code reuse at a bigger-grained level than the traditional object component-type of code reuse,'' said John Montgomery, group product manager for the .NET developer platform at Microsoft.

''In that sense, Web services are either a specific subset or a superset of components, depending on whom you talk to,'' he added.

Demand for Web services will grow, said Stefan van Overtveldt, director for WebSphere technical marketing at IBM Software Group, Somers, N.Y., because, with Web services, ''we have a way to take the core apps the central IT shop provides and make them easily accessible to lines of business.'' While the concept of Web services is ''extremely simple,'' standards are right now ''far from complete,'' van Overtveldt said.

Security is one of the glaring omissions in Web services. Earlier this year, IBM, Microsoft and VeriSign announced Web Services Security, which is designed to provide a highly applicable way of securing XML Web services, Microsoft's Montgomery said. Web Services Security gives users a common way of authenticating and providing access authorization across various systems that support Web services.

Several features are missing from that standard, IBM's van Overtveldt said. ''There are no solid mechanisms to do logging of access, analyze who's accessing what, and there's no mechanism to construct these access requests on the fly so as to give two companies that want to do business a way to negotiate the contract immediately and get access to it,'' he said.

Web services requires other capabilities: ''There are other scenarios we need to enable, like reliable messaging and being able to run a long-lived transaction across multiple organizations,'' Microsoft's Montgomery said.

Still, the core services -- WSDL, UDDI and SOAP -- provide enough value that ''a lot of companies have started to implement Web services internally,'' IBM's van Overtveldt said. For authentication, IBM offers the IBM Web Services Gateway, a gateway server that is implemented in a corporate DMZ between firewalls to create a secure and managed connection between internal and external Web services-based applications. Its function for Web services is similar to that of a proxy server for HTTP traffic: When an external Web services request comes in, the gateway will perform authentication, authorization and event logging before submitting the request to the internal Web services provider. Alternatively, an internal Web services request can access an external Web services provider application through the gateway, provided the management authorizations are in place.

Van Overtveldt said that, in the future, the Web may move away from HTTP. ''HTTP has no acknowledgements and no guaranteed delivery, which is a problem if you're trying to build apps with real-time transactions,'' he said. IBM is working on two solutions. One is HTTPR, or Reliable HTTP. This gets acknowledgements and gives guaranteed one-time delivery. It is built on HTTP/1.1. Work on HTTPR is being done with the open-source community.

The other solution is a Web services gateway that takes incoming requests over HTTP and puts them on MQSeries, which is ''an extremely reliable protocol,'' van Overtveldt said. Companies doing this typically already have an MQSeries infrastructure in place so they can leverage that for Web services communications. For example, within an application they could use Java Messaging Services or they could use RMS/IIOP in CORBA.

However components are defined, the fact is that the distributed component approach to computing is here to stay. It will become refined over time, as technologies always are.

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