Since the latest version of IBM's e-business software Websphere Application Server was launched last spring, the technology has gone from strength to strength, winning the hearts, minds and wallets of users, analysts and third-party suppliers alike. Echoing its glory days of some 15 years ago when Big Blue dominated the IT world as a supplier, the company is pumping cash into its research and development and marketing bandwagon for its latest wunderkind technology, determined to knock the opposition - in Websphere's case, BEA's Web Logic - into the ditch. Its determination is such that even the Harvard School of Business is using Websphere as a case study on how to build a successful brand strategy.
But defeating the opposition is actually a tougher challenge than it appears to be for IBM, not because the opposition is so much better, but because application servers are becoming a commodity. Analysts reckon the real battle to define the application server market will rest on the associated tools and services that mushroom around the technology.
IBM knows this, which is why its promotion of Websphere version 5 has gone into overdrive in the area of Web services provision and integration. IBM claims that Websphere can cut integration costs by 50%. Based on Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) 1.3, this version of Websphere supports asynchronous connections - the ability to hold messages in a queue if a component is not available until it comes back online. Dynamic interaction between applications allows developers to expose Java applications, Web services and legacy applications as reusable services which can then be arranged in a logical flow.
"The prime business paradigm we are focusing on now is Web services - the ability to provide interactions between applications using open standard technology so you can effectively and efficiently link together applications, whether they run in your own company or within multiple partner companies," says Stefan Van Overtveldt, programme director for Websphere technical marketing worldwide. "We are focusing on the creation of a secure Web services infrastructure. With Websphere and Web services, we are aiming to take cost out of the IT infrastructure, make firms more agile, nimble and responsive to business needs, and also reduce the skills demands on the organisation."
Great stuff, but Websphere is a complex suite of technologies which makes it inherently difficult to map onto business needs. So what strategy should IT managers adopt when evaluating this technology?
"If I were an IT manager with a business plan, I would want to know from IBM how long its technology will take to implement that plan, what the implementation pains are, and what the integration costs and timing would be if I chose to implement a specific tool," says Mike Thompson, principal analyst at Butler Group.
"The message I am getting is that this is not an easy technology to implement because of the complexity of the tools surrounding the technology. There are so many tools it is a bit of a minefield. Because Websphere is based on the open J2EE standard then tools should be available, but the indications are that there is still a certain level of integration required."
One solution could be for users to test their planned Websphere implementation in a controlled environment such as the newly extended Websphere Innovation Centre (WIC) run by systems integrator, Strategic Thought. The centre has the capability to show combinations of products working together that can help users to raise the overall business case for their individual use. For example, Strategic Thought has created demos of process and workflow integration, and showcased a virtual "WIC on the Web".
In recent months the centre has played host to a highly respected financial institution and a high-profile government agency, among other users. Six months ago, most companies approaching the centre wanted help and advice on tackling specific technology problems. Today, the greatest need is for advice on blue-sky technology projects, according to Richard Higgs, Strategic Thought's managing director. Typically, users want to explore the best Websphere architecture to connect and integrate various systems based around the world, or they want to reassure themselves that they could convert from Web Logic to Websphere in the future if they have to. Companies are also increasingly exploring how Websphere can support more sophisticated and personalised ways of interacting and engaging with their users.
"People are also questioning which part of the IBM technology set they should use - they are aware that all technologies have a limited lifecycle," says Higgs. "As the different components of Websphere come together, the challenge and risk to users is that they'll buy something that in 12 months time takes them off course. They have to carefully choose the right Websphere technologies for their company and not put all their money into just one part of it."
Higgs says Websphere's greatest strength is the fact that all of its components are now Web-enabled, so users can pass on the job of running all their systems to a service provider - something that was not possible even six months ago.
A further development is that Websphere is becoming increasingly popular with more than just enterprise users. A growing number of UK users are deploying Websphere on IBM's AS/400 midrange servers, recently reborn as the iSeries.
Admiral Insurance's Internet-only brand, www.elephant. co.uk, has seen revenue grow from £12m a year in 2000 to more than £80m in 2002 since implementing Websphere on the iSeries.
This success is partly because Websphere has made the site faster and easier to use, while also providing a scalable and stable platform to support its future growth, according to Andrew Probert, IT director of The Admiral Group.
"We did not have the stability when we launched Elephant as we started with some crude HTML applications," he says. "We were a big user of the AS/400 platform [now iSeries] so Websphere was a natural progression."
The Admiral Group now conducts about one-third of its business over the Internet compared to about 5% for the industry as a whole.
IBM has targeted small to medium-sized users with the October launch of a new version of its portal software, Websphere-Express, designed to be easy to install and use, and affordable to buy and maintain.
For the future, IBM's acknowledged greatest challenge with Websphere is to bury users' perceptions that the company tends to deliver over-engineered software and caters mainly for enterprise users.
"Our challenge is to get the market to recognise that Websphere is not just for big users with complex projects but it can also deliver quickly on the business needs of smaller users with simpler projects," concludes Van Overtveldt. "One size technology no longer fits all."
What analysts say
The foundation of the Websphere software platform is the Websphere Application Server, which provides a comprehensive set of e-business application deployment and integration services. Analysts agree that the technology is moving to the front of the application server market and growing faster than its competition. Here is what they say:
Wintergreen Research - February 2002
Websphere moved to the front of the application server market in 2001 with a 29% market share, leading BEA's Web Logic by 4% and its next closest competitors by more than 20%. Websphere is well positioned to extend its application server leadership in 2002
AMR - May 2002
AMR ranks IBM as the overall leader of eight suppliers in the $3bn application server market when rated across five categories: functionality, technology, quality, cost, and market significance. It predicts Websphere will take the lead for application server market share in 2002 with 31% of the market against BEA's 26%
Giga - March 2002
After showing Websphere at 5% off the lead in 2000, Giga says IBM has caught BEA to tie for first place in application servers with 34% of the market in 2001
Gartner Dataquest - May 2002
Gartner Dataquest pronounces that IBM is the undisputed market leader in application server suites (application servers bundled with products such as portals and integration products) and is "the leader with vision". With a 33% market share placing it 8% ahead of its closest competitor, Websphere Application Server has easily maintained its segment superiority from 2000 to 2001
IDC - May 2002
IDC says IBM "seems to be firing on all cylinders", making a strong move in 2001 to pull nearly even with BEA in the application server market. Narrowing BEA's lead from 2.6% in 2000 to only 1.8% in 2001, IDC judges that Websphere Application Server captured 23% of the market on revenue growth of 50%.
Case study: Royal Dutch/Shell Group deploys Web services
In determining its business direction over the next five years, oil and gas giant, Shell, has decided to focus on enhancing its internal as well as external business processes. Accordingly, it has embarked on a mission to digitise all major business processes of the Shell company.
Shell has partnered with IBM on many technology areas. One of these is the rapid evolution of new standards for Web services. The e-business teams at Shell see Web services as key to automating the huge manual effort involved when the company has to exchange essential documents and data with its operating units, joint venture partners and governments worldwide.
As the standards around Web services develop, IBM is implementing the respective technologies in IBM Websphere and other middleware products, and Shell has adopted these in a global partnership programme. Shell, the UK Department of Trade and Industry and Petrotechnical Open Software Corporation, Houston are sponsoring a project to identify the best use of the Simple Object Access Protocol communication protocol for data exchange and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration as a standard for a business registry.
Deployed via Websphere, Web services will eventually be a natural extension of the software product set deployed all over Shell, playing a vital role in its future.