All about app servers

All about app servers

It was supposed to be a showdown between application server camps, a shooting off at the mouth between those supporting Sun's J2EE (Java Enterprise Edition) standard and those who choose Microsoft's .Net. In the end, a round table organised by Borland, consisting of representatives from vendors, developers, analysts and the press, determined that choosing an application server platform was far from being the only important choice users have to make when investing in such technology.

Application servers are middleware code, often referred to as the "plumbing" that developers can use to fast-track the deployment of complex enterprise applications. As one speaker noted, application servers are to applications what databases are to data.

The decision that developers must then make, before worrying about .Net or J2EE, is whether to build or buy. Often developers decide to build the initial infrastructure themselves to ensure they have complete control over the architecture of the application. Ten years ago, as another developer at the round table pointed out, developers wrote the functionality of what we now call the application server into every application they wrote.

What developers lose when going it alone is productivity and the ability to scale their applications to the kinds of performance most enterprise systems demand. "Applications have a habit of being either complete failures or being wildly successful beyond your dreams," said Peter Diggins, a consultant for Object Consulting (formerly OOPL), explaining the need for the head-start a platform provides.

Susanne Stenberg, business developer for Nokia, said that in her former project roles, she often led development teams who began writing the code for such infrastructure. But halfway through the project they would realise it would be cheaper and easier to buy an application server and focus purely on the business logic that sits above it.

Once a development team or a company has chosen to buy rather than build the infrastructure, the next choice is what to buy. It is clear that price, not just the platform, is becoming an important factor in such a decision. In the near future, users will be at odds about spending a lot of money on a true enterprise application server. There is a lot of downward pressure on the price of such software, and some would go so far as to say it is becoming "commoditised".

Hewlett-Packard recently retired its line of middleware, while Sun Microsystems decided to bundle it free with other software products. There are also open-source products freely available such as JBoss, which match the proprietary vendors on most accounts, except for scalability and reliability.

Meta Group analyst Kevin McIsaac believes the application server is becoming a "commodity", but by that he doesn't mean purely in relation to price. "What I mean by commodity is, can it be substituted and can it be differentiated?"

McIsaac pointed out that Java application developers can test their applications with Sun's J2EE validating service and can now ensure their applications comply with the standard. Subsequently, any application server can be substituted for another. The vendors that will suffer the most either have expensive products or no alternative revenue streams to their application server products, he said.

Charles Sterling, a developer evangelist for Microsoft, believes that application server vendors have to add value to their products just as other hardware and software vendors have been forced to in the past. The days of easy sells and high margins are over. "The open-source guys will take away our business in a heartbeat if we don't show value," he said. "All application servers have to climb the food chain and deliver more to business."

BEA Systems' Saul Cunningham said that his own company has had to move up the food chain in such a way as to ensure its long-term viability. BEA has done this by adding additional features such as messaging, personalisation and portal technology, as well as development and integration tools.

McIsaac said that most of the J2EE application server vendors to date have been focusing on updating their products to keep up to date with the rapidly evolving J2EE standard. Now that the standard has matured and updates have slowed, vendors such as BEA are spending more of their engineering on ease of management, ease of use and productivity tools on top of the server. Such value-adds are necessary to keep customers paying top dollar.

The round table concluded that buyers are now holding the cards and app server vendors have to focus on ensuring their technology is differentiated enough through value-added features if they are to win a greater share of the market.

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