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Vendor Strategies Evolve With App Servers

Since its beginnings, the application server and the market surrounding it have evolved. So, too, have the strategies of the companies making the software.

Java 2, Enterprise Edition version 1.4 is the latest step in the evolution of the application server, and vendors have been scrambling to get this version of the popular programming platform up and running for developers and the companies they support.

Featuring interoperability with the Web Services - Interoperability (WS-I) standard that makes applications and platforms compatible with each other and Java Specification Request 109 (JSR-109) for Web services architecture implementation, J2EE 1.4 has been dubbed the "Web services" version of J2EE.

But to get their brand of application server using J2EE 1.4 on the market, software vendors are taking different approaches in their strategies. They fall roughly into three camps: the application platform, components and pure play.

BEA Systems and Oracle , the second and third most popular app server providers, respectively, favor the application platform. The application platform, they say, is the natural evolution of the application server within the enterprise, integrating nearly every piece of software running on the network.

Erik Frieberg, BEA senior director of product marketing, said when app servers first came out, 90 percent of the data functionality came from J2EE. Now, that figure is probably less than 15 percent. He went so far as to say company needs has moved beyond the need for the stand-alone application server itself.

"What they want is integration broker capabilities; they want portal capabilities, they want a lot more than the software foundation they are buying," he told internetnews.com. "Vendors who provide only a J2EE 1.3 or 1.4 application server and that's the only functionality they provide, are becoming minimized, or trivialized because the market is saying 'we want far more than just implementation of the specification."

BEA plans to release its J2EE 1.4-certified application server on the WebLogic platform "sometime in 2004," Frieberg said.

Oracle, too, is a proponent of the application platform and plans to release Oracle 10g Application Server with J2EE 1.4 in the first part of 2004. The company has had a test version of the app server since September, before J2EE 1.4 was even released, with "substantially" everything found in the released version, officials said.

Vijay Tella, chief strategy officer for Oracle Application Server, said the app platform is like the operating system on a computer. Customers don't want to stitch together their applications and middleware, he said, and like the computer you want the application server to be cohesive from the ground up.

"What we see is that if a customer wants to do a portal project, to make the portal useful you need to tie a bunch of back-ends together," he told internetnews.com. "So what originally began as a portal project would involve enterprise application integration (EAI) work, B2B work and so on. Regardless of where you start from (in a project), things are very inter-related, to the point where it makes a lot of sense to have tools across an integrated application suite."

Sun's application server is part of the company's overall Enterprise System, integrating every aspect into one, cohesive package. As the license holder for the Java language, officials were able to release their Application Server 8 with J2EE 1.4 at the same time as its public release of the J2EE 1.4 standard in November 2003.

Not everyone is sanguine about the concept of an application platform, namely the most popular application server vendor in the world, IBM . With a J2EE 1.4 preview version available for developers, and a full version expected in the second half of 2004, officials are confident selling the app server as one component in a suite of enterprise middleware components is the right way to garner customers.

"You have to be very concerned with issues of things like footprint," Bob Sutor, IBM director of WebSphere, told internetnews.com. "It would be possible to create this great big goliath of an application that is so big that hardly anybody can use, so you always have to think how you can componen-tize the work you're doing."

Making an application server that can work with other third-party components, like enterprise portals or customer relationship management or supply chain management, makes IBM a more likely choice for customers across different industries, he said.

Sutor said the application platform is "BEA's independent strategy that they're now trying to make believe is what everyone else in the universe should be doing," he said. "What customers want is the right to be able to pick and choose components they want to install.

But there's a growing belief that the application server, sans a component or platform hook, is just fine the way it is. In fact, with the increases in functionality, the app server can run many of the automated functions that are found in some of the larger enterprise suites.

IDC published a report last month with results that show a growing number of companies are using the standalone application server to conduct more and more functions within the workplace.

Bob Bickel, vice president of strategy and corporate development at the JBoss Group, a services company formed around the open-source application server JBoss, said many customers are being turned off by the increasing integration of the application server.

"What we're seeing, actually, is an uptake in our usage," he told internetnews.com. "We're doing fine, mainly because BEA and IBM are just kind of ignoring the basic application server needs of their customers. They're focused more on trying to sell things for lots and lots of money; we're focused on solving what the customers want."

Bickel also said JBoss is gaining more acceptance from independent software vendors (ISVs), who just want a vanilla app server to wrap their products around. JBoss developers are currently working on a J2EE 1.4 certified product and expect to update their current version in the summertime of 2004.

The need for more pure-play applications servers might have been the reasoning behind the Apache Software Foundation's planned Apache Geronimo, an application server developed by the all-volunteer community that makes the immensely popular Apache Web Server , used in many corporate environments.

"The financial services love Java and they love middleware. But they're tied to the big companies. This is potentially an alternative that gets them out of bed with the big companies," Mitchell said in an interview with internetnews.com when Apache Geronimo was first announced in August 2003.

A working version of the app server isn't expected until the end of the year, at the earliest.