Seconds away - Round 1 of the heavyweight title fight between IBM in the blue corner and BEA Systems in the red corner, or is it? While Big Blue has wheeled out its chief executive Lou Gerstner with a billion dollars stuffed into his gloves, is the real target Weblogic? Or is the Nabisco Kid about to launch a nuclear strike at Bill Gates?
On paper the real enemy in the middle tier is BEA Weblogic with IBM's WebSphere as the contender; but recent announcements from Big Blue strongly suggest that at last they have found the killer punch to take on the upstarts from Redmont.
The aim of both these Java based logical servers is an honest attempt to resolve the messy question of how can presentation, data, and logic be best separated out.
Because Java was designed to be a highly portable language which was written once and compiled many times on different platforms, developers have been able to free themselves at last from the constraints of hardware and other proprietary lock-in techniques beloved of the traditional suppliers.
This means that Java can run on anything to anywhere, as it creates its own logical server. There is nothing new about logical or philosophical implementations. After all, Dec had it on the old System 10 mainframes in the early 1970s.
IBM's Websphere was originally conceived internally as a means of taking its flagship TP monitor Cics forward into the open systems age. Therefore, most of the focus to date has been on implementing it across all four platforms.
This has a big advantage for sites who want to collapse all their disparate boxes onto a single platform (the latest OS/400 upgrade makes the iSeries the strongest contender in the IBM range to clean up).
Like BEA, IBM is desperately trying to court software suppliers and the major consultancies as business partners because both manufacturers know that unless they have solid applications to back their servers, they can't hope to make too much impact on this growing market.
Many software suppliers and consultancies offer both; they tend to sell the best server for the job in hand. On paper BEA has the slight edge; but if IBM's recent announcements are anything to go by Big Blue intends to lead this market.
So what do the third parties think? Robin Carmichael, industry consultant for Camberley, Surrey based Candle, sees the internet as driving the demand for web based applications.
He adds: 'Web application servers are products that serve web pages, but also provide environments in which mid-tier application logic can execute. They also provide direct connectivity to database products, but normally don't provide connectivity to other application environments, such as those used by legacy servers.
'By integrating middleware products with application servers it is possible to provide legacy access and to applications in other domains. Typically application server suppliers do not supply this function, but rely on third parties to provide it.
'Both the IBM WebSphere and BEA Weblogic families of products provide support for comprehensive e-business providing XML, Java, EJB, workflow covering a number of different platforms (IBM provides TX Series and Encina, while BEA provides Tuxedo).
'Functionally they provide similar capabilities, except that BEA supports more platforms than IBM (especially in the Compaq arena), but IBM supports industry standard MQ Series, while BEA provides a gateway from its own BEA Message Q. IBM supports Tivoli while BEA provides a mechanism to provide SNMP traps.
'Both families require work to integrate with existing legacy applications, particularly in order to provide the robust, loosely-coupled service-oriented approach sought by many sites. IBM may have the edge because of its support for MQ Series, usually the transport of choice,' Carmichael says.
Guildford based e-biz integrator Differentis believes that Weblogic has the slight edge, because it has purposely supported more open standards (IBM is seen as largely supporting its own tools) while BEA leads the way with its clustering technology and its support for the J2EE standard.
Differentis' development team leader Hadyn Haynes adds: 'While Weblogic leads with its support of J2EE, Enterprise Java Beans (EJB), Java Mail, JTA, JSP, clustering and failover services, it is not the fastest on the market. The EJB deployment tools are a little clunky and slow, and it is limited in dynamic redeployment of components.
'WebSphere integrates with Visual Age for Java extremely well, and has good integration paths with most IBM products. However, it is behind with J2EE and EJB support, is heavy in CPU usage, has limited clustering and failover services, and does not scale as well in multi-machine clusters.
'BEA prices Weblogic at about $10K per CPU and local development versions are available, and full production versions can be IP-bound, connection restricted, or expiry based. IBM's pricing is similar, but it does a developer version for $755. Websphere has a number of upgrade paths for its software, but it has not been designed for use with third party IDE tool sets - forcing users to buy Visual Age licences costing about $142 per seat.
'Weblogic runs on NT, Solaris, HP-UX, Aix, Tru64, Win2K, Open VMS, Sequent, OS/400, Linux, SGI Irix, SNI Reliant, Unisys, Burroughs and OS/390. WebSphere supports NT, Win2K, Solaris, Aix, HP-UX and Netware (IBM has just implemented it on OS/400 and OS3/90 - Ed),' he adds.
This appears to give BEA the edge, particularly for supporting multi-platform environments - although IBM boss Lou Gerstner is investing $1bn to allow IBM to overtake BEA. While Big Blue has a 47 per cent market share, compared with 22 per cent for BEA, the latter has the lead in full J2EE deployments.
Steve Rees, e-business consultant at Geac/JBA believes that IBM's ability to offer 'one stop shopping' for both hardware and software will help it win more J2EE business. Both EJB and Visual Age for Java support will give Big Blue the edge for seamless development and deployment. This is also where BEA's strategy is a little weak.
Leading software house Walker International, based in Aylesbury, supports both technologies. Peter Willson, vice-president of R&D, says he is happy to supply either implementations of his software but to date only one site has asked for the Weblogic version.
He adds: 'IBM is catching up with technologies like Deployment Descriptors for EJB. This allows sites to mix and match machines and are now defined in XML. Initially suppliers had to do extra work, but the latest release is very close to EJB. WebSphere 3.5 is now J2EE-compliant.
'IBM is trying hard to recruit quality business partners. I believe support for the likes of Domino, Visual Age for Java, and Apache will win hearts and minds,' Willson says.
BEA Systems itself is being cool over IBM's attempts to seem hip. Senior architect Mark Prichard adds: 'Most analysts agree we are in the lead where J2EE is being deployed, and IBM is the main competitor for no other reason than it is the only other supplier to offer end-to-end solutions.
'NT has its place, but the weakness in Microsoft's strategy is its failure to exploit the advantages of other operating systems, such as Unix. It is so difficult to move on from NT.
'IBM also has issues with channel and partner conflict. Most of the major channels it wants to recruit also compete against IBM Global Services. We don't get involved in such conflicts - and we have over 100 applications per month for partnerships,' he points out.
IBM was unusually reticent about being seen to go for BEA directly. Software strategist Kevin Malone says: 'Our main aim is to help our customers take their legacy Cobol and RPG forward. We believe that because WebSphere splits the presentation layer neatly from the logic and data, this is the best way to go.
'We are positioning WebSphere for the middle tier between the presentation layer and the heritage code and data. This allows you to use anything from a Palm Pilot or phone to a mainframe.
'IBM sees Java, which is re-useable and co-exists with all the popular 3GL languages and databases, as the key to taking these highly stable applications into the web age. Microsoft is trying to fill this gap with Visual Basic,' he concludes.
This still leaves the original question open: Is IBM's real target BEA or Microsoft? If one adds in the recent announcements for OS/400 V5R1 from Rochester, one couldn't be blamed for believing that Big Blue is really pointing its nuclear missiles at Bill Gates. Assuming that Gerstner can deliver all his promises, then this could be the beginning of the end for Microsoft.
The BEA challenge
While everyone expected IBM to be big in the Java server market, the emergence of BEA Systems has caught most pundits on the hop. Its recent user conference confirmed that BEA would stick to being server-centric, as opposed to application-centric like IBM, Oracle, etc. So how does leading independent consultants Bloor Research see Weblogic? According to its latest paper, BEA wants to be a platform for anyone and everyone. However, to pose a major threat to IBM and Oracle would be a formidable challenge that could probably only be met through acquisition. Bloor Research believes that BEA's main problem is that it is perceived as a purely infrastructure provider - so will find it difficult to win hearts and minds. Therefore BEA needs to diversify in order to grow. The first step is to merge the respected Bell Labs' TP monitor Tuxedo with Weblogic. Support for worthy standards such as Soap, UDDI, ebXML and Corba have followed, but Bloor does not think that this is enough. To survive it needs more visibility - particularly with respect to application software. The introduction of Campaign Manager to provide building blocks for constructing applications (without actually providing any) is seen as a step in the right direction. Bloor concludes that BEA should either go all out for applications, or focus its energies wholly on infrastructure.
IBM and BEA are leading the way with logical servers for the middle tier of systems. While they may appear to be deadly rivals, the real loser is likely to be Microsoft, as it is failing to keep up with standards for Java in this key market.