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A Look at the Application Server Market

A Look at the Application Server Market

The application server market continues to be one of the hottest areas in technology. Why? Because an application server is the central piece of software in a Web-based architecture. An application server centralizes application logic and data access, making it possible to access applications over the Internet or an intranet (see my article in the May '99 PBDJ [Vol. 6, issue 5]). Finding a standard definition for the term application server is difficult, but it can probably best be described as the software that provides an execution engine for server-side logic and provides a means for client applications to access data in a distributed application architecture.

Most companies have already started several Web-based applications and are evaluating different Web-based development tools. These companies have probably completed their prototypes and initial applications using different solutions and are now in a position where they must start committing to an application server platform to build their enterprise application architecture. Companies are finding this decision somewhat difficult due to the crowded marketplace and their varying degrees of success with different tools. The marketplace has not produced a consensus on which products make up the leading application servers. It'll probably take another year or so before it becomes clearer which companies will emerge as the leaders of the application server market.

In the article I mentioned earlier I stated that the database vendors (Sybase and Oracle) along with IBM, Sun and Microsoft would likely remain on top as vendors in the application marketplace. I still see that as holding true, although the technology these vendors offer may not be home-grown. IBM, Sybase, Oracle and Microsoft have all built their own application servers while Sun and BEA Systems, another leading software vendor, have acquired companies in order to compete in the application server market. BEA Systems entered the application server market by acquiring WebLogic. Sun has led the way in application server acquisitions. They bought NetDynamics and Forté while also forming an alliance with AOL to use Netscape software, particularly the Netscape Application Server, which is based on technology acquired when Netscape purchased Kiva Software Corp. The Sun-AOL alliance has branded the new application server - a result of the combination of these two technologies - iPlanet. However, the iPlanet Application Server won't be available until later this year and it hasn't been determined how solutions built by customers using NetDynamics, Netscape Application Server or Forté will be affected.

Part of the problem in choosing an application server comes from the numerous vendor acquisitions or alliances that are occurring. As larger companies buy up smaller application server vendors, the future of their application server technology comes into question. One of the issues that can impact application server technology after it has been purchased is how the technology will be integrated with the existing technology of the buying company. Another is whether or not solutions built on prior releases of technology from either company will be supported in later releases of the product. Finally, the application server that you choose to base your applications on today may not exist in the future, if a larger company buys and phases out the product line.

Another problem is determining a vendor's particular vision or strategy. Is the vendor dedicated to open computing and standards and will their application server continue to support the latest standards in Java, CORBA and XML? How will these be supported? Oracle has left many managers and developers trying to figure out what their product strategy is since they've provided similar functionality in both the Oracle Application Server and the newer Oracle8i database. Microsoft hasn't shown any major enhancements in MTS since version 2 nor have they shown any willingness to adopt industry standards such as CORBA, EJB or XML in their application server.

Although application servers focus on different areas or niches, all application servers must meet basic requirements such as scalability, reliability, security and manageability. They must also support various network protocols and languages. Most application servers rely on HTTP, CORBA/IIOP or both for client access, and support Java, C/C++ or both for development languages. Others have proprietary tag languages like Allaire's ColdFusion and Pervasive Software's Tango. The protocols and languages can have a major impact on a company's application server choice, since it will likely want to choose tool sets and languages their developers are already familiar with. In addition, the developer environment and ease at which applications can be built is very important. Enhanced development tools as well as CORBA ORB, transaction and J2EE/EJB support are all major areas that are being heavily invested in now, as are XML and connectivity to ERP solutions such as SAP and Peoplesoft. The race to integrate these technologies into application server products will continue to pace the application server race in 2000. For example, BEA Systems has tried to strengthen their WebLogic offering by buying Symantec's development tools, including VisualCafé. Other major acquisitions include SilverStream Software, Inc.'s, buying GemLogic for their XML Integration Server (XMLIS) and ObjectEra for its JBroker Java ORB technology, which it already incorporated into its SilverStream Application Server.

Sybase's EAServer (Jaguar CTS/PowerDynamo) continues to show strongly in the application server market with release 3.5. Sybase is committed to open solutions as evidenced by the numerous platforms, languages and protocols that EAServer supports. Sybase has continued to support industry standards by adding EJB support in the lastest release. For additional features new to release 3.5, see my article in the December '99 PBDJ (Vol. 6, issue 12). EAServer has strong development tools in PowerBuilder and PowerJ and has demonstrated scalability and performance in large Web-based applications.

According to a recent review, the new release of EAServer really pushes them to the top of the application server market. Many companies evaluating application servers have been skittish about Sybase due to their poor financial showing in recent years; however, the company has made a dramatic turn-around, regaining profitability and beating Wall Street earnings estimates, while remaining dedicated to building leading-edge open tools.

I encourage everyone interested in learning about different application server technologies to visit the Application Server Zone at www.appserver-zone.com and compare the EAServer offering to other application server technologies.

More Stories By Mike Barlotta

Background Information: Michael Barlotta is the Director of Technology at AEGIS.net Inc (www.AEGIS.net). Mike is a Sun Certified Java Programmer and is recognized as an expert on the Sybase application server EAServer (Jaguar CTS), mentoring clients and speaking at conferences on the topic. He is the author of several books including Taming Jaguar and Jaguar Development with PowerBuilder 7 (both by Manning Publications). Be sure to check out Mike’s Web site www.TamingJaguar.com.

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