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Who's On Board With IBM's Service Bus?

IBM's announcement to offer new forms of messaging exchange software sparked mixed reactions from analysts after a press conference.

Some experts praised the vendor for joining the party while others questioned the positioning of the products.

The talk Tuesday began after IBM Senior Vice President and Group Executive Group Steve Mills introduced the company's first true enterprise service bus (ESB) .

Called WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus, the ESB connects and integrates Web services-based applications and services, providing the communication to integrate disparate pieces of software, Mills said.

The Armonk, N.Y., company also introduced new version of its WebSphere Message Broker containing advanced ESB functionality, and the WebSphere Process Server, which is powered by the WebSphere ESB and aims to ease the movement of data from application to application.

While ZapThink analyst Jason Bloomberg applauded IBM for its comprehensive SOA lifecycle of products and services, he said the ESB products are a "me too" effort on the part of IBM, "taking the older message broker and relabeling it ESB, and then stripping out some of its functionality to come up with the low-end ESB product."

"These products are basically not service-oriented in the sense that they still enforce the "connect A to B" metaphor of integration -- they both look like older integration middleware warmed over with some talk about services, without any real service-oriented integration capabilities that rely on the architecture to provide for more flexible integration," Bloomberg said.

Journalists peppered Mills and WebSphere Software General Manager Robert LeBlanc with similar questions. But LeBlanc explained how the ESB differentiates from the company's longstanding messaging broker during the call.

"It's a product of itself based on Web services standards, built on top of WebSphere Application Server," LeBlanc said. "We've always viewed ESB as a set of patterns and we still do. What we are hearing from the customers is there are certain patterns they like to see brought together and the WebSphere ESB handles that Web services open pattern."

LeBlanc continued: "We believe over time, customers will move to more function and higher scale sets of infrastructures. Customers needed an entry point to do SOA based on Web services."

Forrester Research analyst Mike Gilpin sifted through this statement, noting that customers can buy WebSphere ESB by itself, or in combination with Process Server, which is built on the same stack. Or, they can use the advanced Message Broker, which can also work with Process Server but not as tightly integrated.

Gilpin said the first road would be best for someone wanting more of a "pure ESB approach, although it's still a messaging-based implementation (unlike some ESBs that don't implement a messaging server, and just exist at the Web services layer)."

Meanwhile, he said the Message Broker would be more for a company that has investments in a lot of pre-Web-services assets, like messaging or mainframes.

"Over time I expect WebSphere ESB to grow to encompass an increasing part of the "multi-protocol" market, but at the moment Message Broker is the product that is best suited to those kinds of high-end requirements (from IBM, anyway)," Gilpin said.

But how does the Process Server fit in?

For starters, it will integrate applications for larger businesses just as well as smaller enterprises. LeBlanc said the Process Server is a superset of the ESB or message broker in that it enables the integration of Java with other runtime environments customers may be driving.

"Most broker products are just doing basic Web services connectivity," LeBlanc said. "The Process Server goes beyond that and provides a lot more capability. In fact, inside the Process Server is the ESB. The ESB is just an enabler for the whole environment."

Meanwhile, Bloomberg said IBM risks falling into the same trap that SeeBeyond, webMethods, and IONA fell into when they jumped into the ESB pool with older technology. The trick, he said, is to differentiate from the competition with services.

"We believe that the biggest opportunity that SOA brings is in professional services, so it makes sense for IBM to take this tack, as their services arm has very solid SOA capabilities," he said.

On that note, do any rivals concern IBM in the SOA department? Not really. Mills explained how he thinks IBM's ESB and SOA offerings differ from rival Microsoft's SOA offering.

"They're [Microsoft] offering a relatively simple point-to-point connection set of offerings that is clearly not a preferred style for enterprise-class integration," Mills said. "Can it be used at the departmental level? Sure. But it's not going to be the enterprise integration architecture running hundreds, if not thousands, concurrent applications."

To wit, the timing of IBM's launch was interesting, coming as Bill Gates and Microsoft are grabbing headlines by showing the public bits of its forthcoming operating system, code-named Vista, at its Professional Developers Conference this week.