Could users find themselves locked in by enterprise application infrastructure war?

As middleware suppliers Oracle and SAP develop their plans to roll out application architectures, IT directors could be left wondering where that leaves their investment in third-party application server technologies from the likes of IBM and BEA.

As middleware suppliers Oracle and SAP develop their plans to roll out application architectures, IT directors could be left wondering where that leaves their investment in third-party application server technologies from the likes of IBM and BEA.

For all the talk of interoperability between the software suppliers, some industry analysts believe the companies' architecture strategies will continue to lock in users.

Derek Prior, research director at AMR Research, said the different suppliers' approaches are not in the user's interest. "This is nothing less than stack wars - Oracle Fusion versus IBM Websphere versus Microsoft .net versus SAP Netweaver versus BEA Weblogic - with all of them trying to fill out their stacks. It is my gang against your gang.

"Users should take their talk of openness with a pinch of salt. The suppliers would give you a long list of open standards they support, but that still leaves enough room for proprietary code. All of these have got to make a great leap from monolithic client-server applications to service oriented architecture [SOA].

"SAP's offering has got appeal to SAP customers, and the others have appeal to generic developers. Fortunately, we are right at the crossroads of some new architectures."

Prior added that it is not easy to interchange different layers of the application stack; for example, to mix and match Oracle business applications with a BEA web server and an enterprise service bus from IBM. "For BEA users, for example, it is costly and awkward to integrate .net applications. The limiting factor comes down to the availability of skills."

The suppliers themselves appear to be following a similar strategy, building their architectures based on the SOA model.

Towards the end of September, Oracle introduced its Fusion architecture. Fusion will replace the Oracle Information Architecture, and will allow middleware components to be plugged in as modular and interoperable components.

Enterprise resource planning, human resources and customer relationship management applications could be some of these modular components, as well as composite applications that adhere to an SOA, on which Fusion is built.

Oracle said it plans to enable IBM's Websphere products to link into Fusion to provide an additional runtime environment. It has not made any comments about supporting BEA or other suppliers' technologies, although it maintains that the architecture will be open.

Prior said, "In recent years, Oracle has added so many integration technologies to Oracle Application Server that it has expanded way beyond a web application server into an application platform that can compete in the generic 'applistructure' stack wars against BEA Weblogic, IBM Websphere, Microsoft .net and SAP Netweaver."

Bola Rotibi, senior analyst for software development strategy at Ovum, said, "Fusion is going to take some time to put together. It is a good strategy in trying to bring the whole product portfolio together and componentise and modularise it. The question is whether Oracle is trying to be everything to everyone. It has customers' goodwill at the moment, but we need to see product by 2006-2007. 

"To some extent, Oracle is going up against SAP. SAP is both Java- and .net-friendly, and heavily supportive of web services. And if you look at the implementers, it has a lot of support; for example, Accenture has got a SAP excellence centre."

SAP is also preparing to deliver its Enterprise Service Architecture (ESA), which will use Netweaver as a "business process platform" to serve applications. Like Project Fusion, ESA is an SOA based on application components. But unlike Oracle's platform, SAP has stated that as many as 70% of its ESA applications will still be based on its proprietary Abap code. However, it will have better component interfaces that will allow companies to modify the application flow and add logic.

SAP promises to deliver the ESA suite in 2007, and it has made considerable progress in delivering Netweaver rchitecture components and making them work with existing systems. It currently has more than 500 web services available for companies to trial.

Paul Hamerman, vice-president at Forrester Research, said, "Oracle and SAP have embarked on a spending race to gain control of next-generation architectures. If the promise of component-based, process-oriented architectures bears out, companies will be able to use the added flexibility to innovate their businesses more quickly.

"Weigh the risks and timing of adoption against the need for business agility related to strategies for new products, market expansion, acquisitions, etc."

As Oracle and SAP firm up their plans for SOA platforms, BEA users will need reassuring that their investments will continue to be protected.

Rotibi said, "Oracle will have to support other application servers apart from IBM's. It has to look elsewhere, otherwise how open is that? There are a lot of BEA users out there. I have not heard that Oracle will not support Weblogic so, as a BEA customer, I will be looking for support for it, or it will look one-sided."

Martin Percival, technology manager at BEA, said, "We have no information on any plans by Oracle to support Weblogic. However, where standards are already used by Oracle products - for example JD Edwards use of JSR 168 portlets - these products may be used directly with equivalent Weblogic products to those cited in the Websphere announcements."

In June, BEA outlined plans for the Aqualogic product line, which incorporates a platform for designing and building SOA systems. Three products have been available since June: Aqualogic Service Bus, Data Services Platform and Enterprise Security.

"BEA has committed to ensuring that the Aqualogic product family provides the best solution to the needs of customers working in a mixed SOA environment," said Percival.

The wild card in the software infrastructure pack is Microsoft, which is embarking on Project Green, part of which is to pull together its Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) applications, Great Plains, Axapta, Navision and Solomon.

The first part of the strategy (2005 to 2007) is based on bringing Microsoft Outlook and web-based collaboration features to the products via Sharepoint portal. In the second wave, targeted for 2008, MBS will deliver new releases of the current products underpinned by architectural standardisation and, eventually, code-line convergence.

Hamerman said, "Project Green has started to move forward with a convergence strategy that retains a heavy commitment to the existing product lines. The gradual transition strategy is intended to minimise customer disruption, but it pushes back delivery of a next-generation product to near the end of the decade.

"When first announced, Project Green was on the cutting edge of next-generation application strategies. Now, it is looking more like it is falling in line behind SAP and Oracle. Project Green is intriguing, but it is also still fairly vague. Monitor product roadmaps to understand the evolutionary timeframes, but be prepared for delays. Adopt new releases only when clear business value and product maturity have been demonstrated."

Microsoft's infrastructure will be based on the .net architecture, which raises some interoperability concerns with the Java-based architectures, said Rotibi. She pointed out that people talk about interoperability at the web services level, but it is an issue for the whole application stack. "Any user will have to look closely at the smal print in their software contracts," said Rotibi.

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