IBM is the 500lb gorilla in the middleware room. The firm's sheer size, along with its experience in applications, operational systems and legacy application integration, makes it a formidable force in this space.
Big Blue has considerable experience, developing a range of legacy products that originated in the mainframe era, so it already has a rich heritage in managing application integration in high-volume, mission-critical environments. Its CICS transaction manager has been shipping since the late 1960s.
These days, everything to do with middleware at IBM revolves around its WebSphere brand. Introduced in 1998 as little more than an application server, it has expanded rapidly over the past 10 years to encompass more or less all parts of the middleware stack, from application server through to business process modelling. Some legacy products have been absorbed into WebSphere (MQ Series became Websphere MQ).
"The detail has changed, in terms of the support for newer versions of JEE and new support for OSGi technology. There are also now some higher-end versions of the application server that can be deployed over stupidly big dynamic servers. That is the detail, but at the high level, the story is still about WebSphere, Java and JEE," says Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at analyst MWD Advisors.
Recently, however, we have seen a new openness in IBM when it comes to support for other language frameworks, particularly in the area of scripting for web applications. The company launched a community-driven web development project, based around its Project Zero development environment, enabling other languages to be run atop a Java virtual machine (JVM). PHP applications are compiled to Java bytecode and then executed. This makes it possible to run PHP applications such as SugarCRM on the WebSphere platform. The system is not perfect - there were complaints about not being able to use key PHP implementations early on - but it is a step in the right direction.
While maintaining its strong relationship with developers, the company has dramatically increased its focus on technology that it can sell to CIOs. "Middleware becomes commoditised at the IT department level, but what does that have to do with driving business outcome?" asks IBM's SOA evangelist Gary Gomersall.
The company has therefore striven to expand beyond the infrastructural elements that used to form the core of the middleware market. Business process management is the point at which modern CIOs get interested in middleware, and so the firm has developed products such as WebSphere Process Server to support this market.
It has acquired a string of companies to help bolster its presence here. The most recent one was French company Ilog, which featured a business rules engine to help formalise complex rules around business processes. "We want as much as we can to externalise all of these runtime behaviours out of the IT code, out of the business process code, and into sets of policies," says Gomersall.
The company has also been focusing on the service oriented architecture (SOA) development paradigm since the concept of web services was introduced. Not only has it partnered with Microsoft on the WS-* series of web services formats for application integration, but it has evolved its product set from the hub and spoke enterprise application integration model that was popular in the late 1990s.
IBM has made efforts to engage the CIO community by structuring the SOA product and service offerings into Smart SOA, a set of guiding principles for SOA design and deployment. This is a savvy move, bolstering the firm's marketing by helping to explain the hows and whys of this complex topic to confused customers.
Now, WebSphere underpins the IBM reference architecture, which breaks down into six core service categories, revolving around an enterprise service bus: interaction, process, information, partner services, business application services, and access services.
IBM is also better positioned financially to sell these products than some others. With almost eight times the revenue of Sun, the company has a bigger marketing budget to push home what is an undeniably complex software message. It has also mirrored Sun's approach on intellectual property to a certain extent by taking the open source route, shipping a community edition of the Websphere Application Server in 2005.
IBM has proven its ability to execute in the middleware market over the past 10 years, and has built Websphere into a solid and comprehensive stack.
1998: IBM launches WebSphere
2002: Buys process automation and integration firm Crossworlds.
Buys business process modelling and monitoring firm Holosofx.
2004: Buys Trigo, an information integration company.
Buys problem determination and performance monitoring firm Cyanea.
2005: Buys Gluecode, which offers an open source application server.
Buys DataPower, which sells appliances for XML, security and integration.
2006: Buys composite business service delivery firm Webify.
2008: Buys complex event processing company Apsoft.
Canadian aerospace and transportation manufacturing company Bombardier already used IBM middleware in its operations, but found that its web presence was fragmented across different parts of the company. It chose IBM's WebSphere Portal and associated products to tie its web-based offerings together for customers, including exposing Lotus Notes documents on the web.
The New York Power Authority used IBM WebSphere Message Broker. Process Server and Adaptor for SAP Software to tie together four disparate back-end billing systems. The firm used Big Blue's Smart SOA approach to integrate the systems with its back-end SAP system.
Neil Ward-Dutton on IBM's strengths and weaknesses:
Strong technology for difficult problems in the largest companies.
Has brought in a number of very strong technologies in recent acquisition spree.
Still has a huge portfolio of products and has to continue to work to improve product integration, manageability and ease of use.