App servers: Up from middleware

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 architecture.''

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.

Top dogs
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 Group.

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 servers.''

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 infrastructure.

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.

Wild cards
''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 quarterly cycle.

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 ground up.''

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 Edition.

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 container-managed persistence.

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 do.''

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 infrastructure requirements.

''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 users.

''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 debates.''

''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 technology.''

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 tanks.''

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 Tomcat.

Please see the following related stories:
''Rivals IBM, BEA set to reveal Java specs'' by John K. Waters

''Oracle compares evolution of app server, database'' by John K. Waters


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