REALITY CHECK: The middle of the (open) road

REALITY CHECK: The middle of the (open) road

Over the past several months, I've written about the clash of the titans for dominance in the middleware platform space. Looking at the market, we have BEA Systems and IBM as market leaders, with Microsoft, Oracle and SAP in the second tier. But I got to wondering if there was anything missing from this picture I've created, so I placed a few phone calls to savvy people for a different take on things.

A partner at venture capital company Apax Partners, Evangelos Simoudis, told me the enterprise wants more choice with regards to vendors - especially, he said, as they move toward best of breed.

Let's focus on BEA and IBM for the moment: two companies that evolved from offering straight-up application servers to providing the full enterprise middleware stack, including business process definition tools, development environments, integration environments and adapters. Adopt either company's platform and, in addition to risk aversion, you'll get all the features you could ever need. But did somebody say lock-in? I thought I heard Simoudis say it, but he was more diplomatic, saying only that these offerings might give CIOs the perception of being locked into a single system.

ISVs also fear knives at their backs if they rely too heavily on one platform vendor. According to Simoudis, this is why open source is emerging as an alternative. Today you can replicate an entire middleware platform using open source software.

In the past, you would have had to work with several different open source communities to accomplish this, but that situation is changing. When I spoke with vice-president of strategy and corporate development at JBoss, Bob Bickel, a well-known open source application server vendor, he did not beat around the bush.

"We are going to build out an entire middleware platform over the next one to two years," he said.

Bickel's list of planned projects included an enterprise service bus and an integration platform, and only last week the company launched a BPM solution that will be integrated into Nukes, its portal project.

The BPM environment will even include a set of visual design tools for developers. So although JBoss does not have the complete offerings of BEA or IBM, they are obviously putting the pieces together.

And JBoss isn't alone; look to Red Hat as another open source vendor building a middleware stack that goes all the way up to the application server.

Because standards are not yet fully baked, Bickel said that lock-in was unavoidable to a certain extent.

"In order to have an offering, IBM and BEA need to create some things that are not standard. JBoss does, as well." he said.

But the difference is that JBoss is open source. The inner workings of everything it does are visible, in contrast to closed, proprietary code.

Vice-president of systems software research at IDC, Dan Kusnetsky, predicted open source will have an impact on companies such as BEA and IBM.

"They will need to continue to innovate with better features, a more powerful environment, more scalability, reliability, and manageability to distinguish themselves," he said.

In other words, open source may be a catalyst that forces the titans to head in a more open and customer friendly direction, or it may offer a competitive alternative. Either way, itis bound to be good for the enterprise customer.

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