App servers: Up from middleware
- By John K. Waters
Application servers emerged just a few years ago to provide a standardized
middle tier in client/server systems. But in a relatively short time, this basic
piece of technology has evolved significantly. By adding an expanding range of
functionality to their offerings, a handful of market-dominating vendors are
doing more than just fattening a hunk of middleware with features. They are,
some analysts believe, spawning a new species of app server.
Today's leading application servers include a basic system combined with
integration and portal technologies to form what analysts at Gartner call an
''application platform suite,'' or APS. But the vendors are reaching even further
by packaging app servers with tightly integrated development, testing and
deployment tools; frameworks for defining and translating data definitions
between companies; tools for managing workflow, versioning and publishing;
configuration management features; and/or personalization capabilities.
''No application server is an island,'' said Eshesh Badani, Sun Microsystems
product line manager. ''At least not these days. More and more people are
thinking of it as a core component of an enterprise system. They want an app
server with management tools that can become an integral part of a
service-oriented architecture. And by the way, how well does it talk to the
portal server, the director server and the identity server? What about
development tools? Is it easy for me to develop and deploy my applications
quickly and easily? How will this piece fit as my architecture evolves?''
''A lot of people are looking at the app server market today and asking, is
the app server getting bigger, or evolving into something else?'' said Eric
Stahl, director of product marketing at BEA Systems. ''We see it as an evolution,
but either way, it's clear that the app server market has matured, and that the
app server itself has become a mainstream part of the enterprise
It is also clear that changes in this increasingly key piece of enterprise
software lie at the heart of the growing complexity and heterogeneity of the IT
environment. The app server has become a kind of cornerstone of next generation
e-business. IT managers need to understand the current slate of product
offerings, as well as the path ahead for this technology. The question they must
answer today is not whether to include an app server as part of their strategy,
but which one.
Recent consolidations in the application server market
should make that decision a little easier. Back in 1999, there were somewhere
between 40 and 60 different application servers. Companies like Gemstone,
Persistence, SilverStream and a host of others gave buyers a lot to choose from.
The market quickly consolidated as Bluestone was acquired by Hewlett-Packard,
Allaire by Macromedia, NetDynamics by Sun, and Kiva by Netscape.
Today, although some smaller purveyors still populate the app server space, a
few vendors now dominate. Most market watchers give Java 2 Enterprise Edition
(J2EE) players BEA and IBM the lion's share of the market. Microsoft continues
to be a factor with .NET. Oracle and SAP control significant numbers among
their database and application customers. And two vendors, for various
reasons, might be considered wildcards: Sun Microsystems and The JBoss
Analysts agree that the surviving app server vendors are adding features and
functionality primarily to differentiate themselves in a competitive
marketplace. But Bob Sutor, director of IBM's WebSphere software group,
said the changing role of the application server is also inextricably linked to
the advent of Web services and the rise of service-oriented architectures.
''The app server has, to a large extent, risen to become the key piece of
software driving Web services,'' Sutor said. ''It has become the nucleus of where
you are actually building and deploying the services, and how you are making
abstract all the gritty details. In many ways, it is becoming the engine that
drives the service-oriented architecture. It's blurring the lines between what
we thought about, say, integration.''
The app server has come to play a critical role in IBM's own enterprise
software offerings, as Big Blue employs it as core technology underlying several
product strategies. ''Right now the app server is part of tens of [IBM]
products,'' Sutor said.
The latest version of IBM's WebSphere Application Server, Version 5.0.2, is a
good example of this new breed of app server. The product includes extensive
support for the essential Web services standards, and it is designed to
transform and integrate business designs and business processes,, while helping
to ensure business continuity for better integration with key partners,
suppliers and customers, the company said.
WebSphere Application Server also comes in a stripped down Express version, a
Network Deployment version for deploying enterprise Web services solutions, and
a fully loaded Enterprise version. WebSphere is also closely integrated with the
IBM WebSphere Studio Application Developer IDE.
Meanwhile, the company recently began ''teasing apart'' major components of its
app server, in what IBM sees as the componentization of the app server. In
November 2002, Big Blue outlined plans for a componentized version of its
WebSphere application server, code-named ''Vela.''
Sutor said that IT managers should expect to see more of this kind of
componentization of application server technologies. ''We no longer think of the
application server as one big monolithic application,'' he said. ''It is being
pulled apart into the major areas that we think of as functions.''
Components vs. commodities
''Componentization'' should not be
confused with ''commoditization,'' said BEA's Stahl. ''People often fail to
recognize the difference,'' he said. ''I hear people consistently trying to make
the argument that, because all app servers -- except Microsoft -- are based on
J2EE, they're based on open standards and are, therefore, all the same. If
they're all they same, they must be commodities. But a commodity is something
that you can switch, one for another, with no costs and no difference in the
actual behavior or functionality. You just can't say that about app
BEA is in a neck-and-neck race with IBM for market domination. BEA says its
WebLogic Server (the 8.1 version at press time) is designed to enable IT
organizations to reduce the cost and complexity of their application
WebLogic Server supports the latest standards, including certified J2EE 1.3
compliance and WS-Security. The app server is tightly integrated with BEA's
development framework, WebLogic Workshop, and BEA bundles it with, among other
tools and features, EJBGen, which is designed to simplify and speed up EJB
development from within WebLogic Workshop; the WebLogic Builder Graphical
application assembly and deployment tool; a WebLogic edition of the JBuilder IDE
from Borland; tools that expose application functions as standards-based Web
services; integrated messaging; the BEA WebLogic/Tuxedo Connector; database
drivers; a dynamic role mapping and authorization rules engine; a policy editor
for administrators; a pluggable security framework called Open Service Provider
Interface; the ability to interoperate with external security products; and
support for Security as a Service, which allows for the separation of security
code from business logic.
BEA WebLogic Server also implements the current roster of Web services
technologies, including SOAP, WSDL, UDDI and XMLBeans, Stahl said.
''I don't see the current set of players going away,''
said Neil Macehiter, an analyst with London-based market research firm Ovum.
''BEA, IBM and Microsoft, because they are so dominant; Oracle and SAP because
they have the customer base. The one unknown is Sun.''
Sun Microsystems came late to the app server market, Macehiter said, and
''missed the Java opportunity'' by not exploiting Java and their unique place as
its creator and steward in the application sever space. ''They could have
leveraged their ownership of that brand much more than they did,'' Macehiter
said. ''The vast majority of organizations today -- while they may be aware that
Sun invented Java -- if you ask them who are the leading J2EE application server
providers, Sun is not a name that will come up.''
Sun's success in the app server space depends on the effectiveness of the
company's new overall software strategy, Macehiter said. The company's new
approach centers on the Java Enterprise System, which gives customers a stack of
Sun software that is entirely integrated out of the box, and upgraded on a
In October 2002, Sun's application server team re-architected that product's
entire code base, said Sun's Badani. ''It was a brave decision,'' he said. ''It
came at a time when we were already facing some challenges in terms of market
share. But we decided that we had to make sure we did things right from the
According to Badani, the Java System Application Server 7 (the re-branded Sun
ONE app server) is an entirely new architecture based on the J2EE Reference
Implementation, along with the Java Web Services Developer Pack. The product
comes in three editions: the Platform Edition, which is a free J2EE
1.3-compatible app server platform; the Standard Edition, which combines
Platform edition functionality with operations management and monitoring tools;
and an Enterprise Edition, which adds Sun's Always On technology to the Standard
At press time, Sun was preparing to ship Java 2 Enterprise Edition 1.4, which
is designed to enable the use of Web services in Java applications and, along
with it, an application server based on the new platform. ''The 1.4 reference
implementation will, in fact, be our [basic-level] application server,'' Jonathan
Schwartz, Sun's EVP of software, revealed last November.
Version 8 of Sun's app server is designed to be a fusion of Web services with
the Java platform. It would be the industry's first Web services-compliant
platform, featuring the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Organization's
Basic Profile for utilizing Web services, Schwartz said.
Sun's status as a wildcard in this market was underscored late last year,
when rumors began circulating that the company was planning to offer versions of
its application server under an open-source license. In November, Schwartz
confirmed that such a plan existed at the annual Comdex computer trade show in
Las Vegas, but would disclose few details. However, Schwartz did say that the
strategy was a by-product of his company's efforts to move its Linux-based Java
Desktop System into the nascent market for system software in the People's
Republic of China.
Sun's desktop system is a bundle of open-source software products that
includes Linux and Sun's StarOffice productivity suite. Sun is pushing the
system as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft's desktop software. According to
Sun CEO Scott McNealy, speaking at Comdex, Sun agreed to work with the China
Standard Software Co. Ltd. to develop desktop computers based on the Java
Desktop System, potentially for hundreds of millions of computers.
The other wildcard in the app server space is JBoss, a popular open-source
implementation of J2EE, which is available free under the LGPL license. This
application server is supported commercially by The JBoss Group, which provides
consulting and implementation services to users. The company was founded in 1999
by some of the core developers of JBoss, and is, in the words of its CEO, Marc
Fleury, ''dedicated to the professional servicing of JBoss technology.''
''For organizations that are looking for a pure application server in the
traditional sense, JBoss will become more and more common,'' said Ovum's
Macehiter, ''particularly as other vendors continue to integrate the JBoss
solution into their stacks -- companies like webMethods, which provides JBoss as
the app server runtime within their integration suite.''
According to the JBoss Web site, 50,000 copies of the app server are
downloaded each month. The product includes the JBossServer, which is the basic
EJB container and Java Management eXtension (JMX) infrastructure; JBossMQ for
JMS messaging; JBossMX for mail; JBossTX for Java Transaction API and Java
Transaction Service (JTA/JTS) transactions; JBossSX for security; JBossCX for
Java Connector Architecture (JCA) connectivity; and JBossCMP for
One very useful role that The JBoss Group and others may play in the
evolution of the app server market, said John Rymer, vice president at Forrester
Research, is as hedge against vendor lock-in.
''I get concerned that companies are putting too many eggs in one basket,''
Rymer said. ''If you commit to a particular app server vendor, you can become so
deeply committed that you may be subject to abuse, and everyone knows how
abusive these captive vendor relationships can become. You need a competitive
hedge against that, a way to keep the vendors from gouging you down the road. A
lot of people are going to use JBoss for that. There's no cost and it's a good
product. People could also use the Pramati server for that, and they could
[also] use Sun.''
Late last year, The JBoss Group settled a dispute with Sun Microsystems over
the means by which its products would become officially certified as
J2EE-compatible. That certification was critical to the future of the app
server, Bob Bickel, JBoss Group's VP of strategy and corporate development, said
at the time. ''Large organizations are using [JBoss] in deployment situations,''
Bickel said, ''so IT managers care more about the official certification mark.
According to Sun officials, JBoss would license the J2EE 1.4 specification and
accompanying software development kit.''
J2EE vs. .NET?
The current application server market is a .NET
vs. J2EE world -- or so the top vendors would like us to think. According Ovum's
Macehiter, religious considerations may not be as important as they once were
when it comes to sizing up the modern app server.
''The vendor community is saying that it's J2EE vs. .NET,'' Macehiter said,
''but the reality is that, more often than not, the two co-exist in an
organization, so that becomes less of a real issue. The decision here is much
more about the skills an organization has in-house in terms of application
development, and its investment in application development solutions, rather
than whether it's J2EE or .NET.''
Forrester's Rymer agrees: ''In our customer base, the majority of folks have
both Microsoft and J2EE. The reality is that the two will exist in an
organization, so the decision point moves toward the question of what skills you
have in-house or from [the ability of] your trusted systems integration and
consulting partners to actually deploy apps using Java and/or .NET.''
The key to managing a dual platform strategy, Rymer said, is to assign
specific and well-defined roles to each platform in the application
architecture, and to stick to those assignments. ''If you don't, you'll end up
with horrendous fights, a lot of overlap, and you're going to dissipate your
resources developing the skills you need to use these products,'' Rymer said.
''It'll be VB vs. C++ all over again.''
Conflicts between standards-based and proprietary offerings still do matter
to customers, Rymer said, it is just that the source of those conflicts has
shifted a bit. Beyond considerations of the fundamental heterogeneity of modern
enterprise environments that are the result of acquisitions or product-buying
decisions, many of the bells and whistles now being offered by otherwise
agnostic app server vendors are not exactly standards-compliant. As these
products push the envelope to meet customer requirements and respond to
competitive pressures, they are also loading up on proprietary code.
''The amount of functions provided in the new generation of app servers that
is truly portable is shrinking,'' Rymer said. ''There are usually proposals that
the companies will submit to the Java Community Process to try to get them
standardized, but when the product is released, the standards aren't there.''
''J2EE code is portable between app servers,'' added BEA's Stahl, ''but the more
customers use the value-added functionality around app servers ... the less pure
portability exists. That's another reason this whole notion that you can pull
one out and put in the other is a grossly oversimplified point of view.''
When Con-Way Transportation Services set out to find an app server four years
ago, many of the features and functions that are morphing today's products were
not part of the market's offerings -- no one was talking about SOA or Web
services -- but even then, standards-based vendors were stretching their
products into proprietary territory.
''We could see it happening even back then,'' said Jerry Hilts, systems analyst
for Con-Way Transportation Services. ''And we did have some fear when we saw
[IBM] moving away from the J2EE spec and getting into proprietary features. But
one of the reasons we like the IBM model is that the company is innovative, but
it is also very much a part of pushing those standards into the Java spec.''
Hilts cited as an example the once-proprietary enterprise information systems
(EIS) connector architecture in IBM's WebSphere app server. ''When we first
started getting involved with WebSphere,'' he said, ''IBM was developing these
connectors that helped to link your middle tier components running on the app
server to various back-end systems. But at the time, there were no
specifications for Java that provided connectivity between application servers
and EISs, so it was proprietary stuff. But the company was also pushing it
through the Java Community Process to get it accepted as a standard.'' Today, the
J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA) is part of the Java standard.
Con-Way, which is a $2.2 billion transportation and logistics firm in Ann
Arbor, Mich., employs IBM's WebSphere application server in a distributed
architecture that provides both employees and customers with services such as
order tracking, bills-of-lading submissions, pick-up requests, claims, manifest
reports and shipment activity reports. Between 65,000 and 75,000 registered
external users and 6,600 employees account for millions of transactions on the
company's system each day.
Performance, scalability and platform-independence were important issues in
the company's evaluation of app servers. But in the final analysis, Hilts said,
it was the tight integration of the vendor's development tools that finally
tipped the scales. ''It just made testing and debugging so much easier for the
developers,'' he said.
Perhaps more important today than the smoldering
Java-Microsoft platform wars, said Forrester's Rymer, is the issue of
complexity. Many modern app servers present highly complex environments to work
in, he said, from the standpoint of both development and deployment operations,
particularly for large-scale applications.
''You have to think about this issue in terms of the average developer,'' he
said. ''They're not incompetent, they're just average. They're the people who
know how to build an application that's going to process orders for an
average-sized manufacturer. But if you're doing a lot of integration, and you're
trying to introduce a high degree of automation into that environment, you're
going to run into some pretty complex stuff. And that's not what those people
That growing complexity is a result of what might be seen as the good
intentions of the vendors, who are striving to provide technology that does more
than simply store and serve up content. The challenge for buyers of these
expanding products, said Ovum's Macehiter, is to stay focused on their own
organization's needs and to evaluate them in light of their overall
''Don't start by comparing products on the basis of features and
functionality, rather than on the basis of what you actually need from the core
technology,'' Macehiter said. ''As the vendors add more functionality to their app
servers, you're in danger of getting into a tick-box feature comparison, when in
reality you should be looking for a subset of those features. You have to put
the application server in the context of a broader set of requirements around
things like integration and portal functionality. You have to understand how
this piece of technology fits into your overall infrastructure vision.''
Forrester's Rymer sees a ray of hope on the complexity front coming from BEA.
According to BEA's Stahl, his company has been focusing on this issue as a way
of separating itself from the competition. ''There's no question that there is
tremendous complexity,'' he said. ''Along with the breadth of new functionality
being added to the app server, we're asking, how do we make all of this stuff
easier to use? How do we make apps easier to develop and, once they are
developed, how do we make them easier to deploy and manage and monitor?''
The answer BEA has come up with, Stahl said, has ''added an entirely new
category of functionality on the development side,'' in the form of the WebLogic
WorkShop app framework. Designed to sit across the entire WebLogic platform,
WorkShop not only provides access to all of the app server's functionality, but
the integration and portal functionality. The idea is to provide one dev
environment that looks across the entire app platform suite, providing what
Stahl calls ''a single, rationalized view for the developer.''
All of these factors -- platform-independence, complexity, in-house skill
sets -- figured in the decision of New Orleans-based International Matex Tank
Terminals (IMTT) to go with BEA's WebLogic Server. A few years ago, the company
began to develop a set of custom applications to run its bulk-liquid storage
operation. IMTT operates storage facilities in harbors for a wide range of
liquid products, from crude oil to corn oil. The company wanted to build the
apps around an app server, and to open up the company to selected external Web
users, who would have access to the same functionality as its internal
''We were after pretty basic app server functionality,'' explained Mike
Gauthier, IMTT's director of IT. ''We wanted to separate the business logic from
the presentation layer in a three-tier architecture. And we wanted that business
logic to be reusable by our in-house information workers, [as well as] to our
casual Web users, both customers and executives.''
Gauthier agrees that the expanding application server products are
complicating the decision-making process for buyers. The ''tick-box'' problem is
one pitfall to watch out for, he said, but so is what he calls ''performance
''Performance is important, and the vendors all talk about performance
benchmarks, but the reality is, they're just benchmarks and don't bear too much
resemblance to reality,'' he said. ''You have to be clear on the development
you're planning to do on top of the application server. Finding the right app
server is about understanding what you're really looking for from this
When IMTT began looking for an app server, the company had considered not
only the planned Web-browser interface, but also the fact that it was going to
have to support a mission-critical application. The app server would be running
a new custom application, the Bulk Liquid Information System, better known in
the company as ''BLIS.''
''The products that we store don't move in discrete quantities, like boxes or
cases or pallets,'' Gauthier said. ''It moves in bulk. And the amount of product
you end up with is subject to environmental conditions; it expands and contracts
with the temperature, so the density of the product changes. It has to be
measured during, before and after the movement process. All of those factors go
into the writing of an order, the scheduling of work at a terminal, the
completion of an order, and the tracking of the materials that are stored in the
Interestingly, Con-Way built BLIS, which has now been up and running, 24x7
for about six months, with Borland's JBuilder IDE, rather than BEA's dev tool.
That kind of flexibility was one of the reasons his company chose the product,
IMTT's Gauthier said.
A Giga Information Group report published last year noted that the app server
market had declined a bit (from between $2.3 billion and $3.1 billion in 2001 to
between $2 billion and $2.8 billion in 2002), but Giga (now Forrester) and most
analysts expect the market to grow over the next few years. Ovum has estimated
that the app server market will be worth $17 billion worldwide by 2004.
The app server market was one of the few sectors to experience notable growth
since the tech downturn and so, even though the vendor numbers have fallen, IT
managers still have a range of choices beyond the market leaders. The list of
third-tier app server vendors includes, among others, Pramati; Hewlett-Packard,
using the acquired Bluestone technology; Macromedia, with its Allaire
acquisition; Borland; Fujitsu; Iona; Novell; and the open-source Apache
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