In its role as the manager of all application operations between users and backend business applications or databases, application server software has become a linchpin technology for almost every organisation. Although most application server products draw on an established set of standards, organisations are only now rationalising their application server choices around a single, or at most two, vendors’ products. And the vendors – IBM, BEA, Oracle, Sun, Borland, and others – know it is only a matter of time before a clear divide emerges between the winners and losers.
That has set the sector’s two biggest suppliers, BEA Systems and IBM, at each other’s throats. Over the past month, the usually respectful companies have been hurling vitriol at the capabilities of
each other’s latest products – BEA WebLogic 7.0 and IBM WebSphere 5.0.
BEA has been particularly proactive here, issuing statements that deride the claims IBM makes for WebSphere and highlighting supposed shortcomings. But the attacks hint at some shortcomings of its own.
Back in 2000, BEA had an unchallenged 33% share of the application server market, more than 10 points ahead of IBM, according to IT industry researcher Gartner. But by the end of 2001, IBM had grown its share by 71% to come within striking distance of BEA. If even a fraction of that surge has been repeated in 2002, then BEA will be trailing. Moreover, there is a new force in application servers, Microsoft and its proprietary .Net technology.
Firmly on the defensive, BEA realises that unless it dents the rise of IBM in the application server market, it may end up on the sidelines of a two horse race.
“We are living in the middle of an application server war,” declares Marko Saarinin, BEA’s director of product marketing for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). “We have heard exaggerated claims from our competitors and we felt that it was time to get our message across.” BEA delivered that message loud and clear in November month, publishing a document that poured scorn on WebSphere 5.0 (see box) – a move that drew an equally withering response from IBM.
Henrik Hedegaard, IBM’s vice president of WebSphere for EMEA, believes the move was designed to deflect attention away from what he sees as BEA’s “disappointing” financial performance in 2002. “We invest $1 billion a year in WebSphere. That’s more than their total revenues.”
But it is how that money is spent that is behind the current spat. BEA says the R&D has been wasted on broadening WebSphere’s functionality for functionality’s sake – instead of tightening the integration between existing parts of the platform. “Ask IBM how a portfolio of 344 (and counting) products – a family in name only – can possibly be integrated or unified,” queries the document. “IBM’s products are incompatible, not tested together and use radically different architectures.”
The cost of integrating the expanding number of proprietary technologies that underpin the WebSphere platform leaves customers facing massive consulting bills – usually invoiced by IBM’s Global Services unit, according to BEA. “No wonder so much of IBM’s revenue is services-based,” it says.
It is not only BEA, however, that has questioned the wisdom of rolling out increasingly wide-ranging and complex application server functionality. A recent survey by Forrester Research found that few customers actually use the full range of functions built into the big vendors’ products. “[The findings] indicate that vendors don’t have a strong foothold in customers’ accounts, because their products are acting as glorified web servers and legacy [application] links,” says Forrester research director Joshua Walker.
In IBM’s case, he says, “the application server is [often] used simply to build the presentation layer, and it does not serve as the transaction engine.” IBM’s Hedegaard accepts there may be “some truth” in that assessment. “A lot of our clients have spent a long time getting used to Java and there is a high percentage that make relatively simple use of the technology,” he says. “But over the last four or five quarters we have seen WebSphere put to more sophisticated uses.”
Meanwhile, customers of BEA’s ‘WebLogic’ application server software are “focused largely on lightweight development,” argues Forrester’s Walker. “Many of the ones we spoke with use WebLogic simply as a servlet engine. There was little cross-application or process development.” But BEA refutes such suggestions. Many of its larger corporate customers – its cites several airlines and credit card company Visa, are applying WebLogic to “heavyweight” uses, such as building transaction engines capable of handling huge numbers of transactions, says Saarinen.
Ultimately, say observers, BEA and IBM risk overlooking the real challenges to their dominance – Microsoft’s proprietary .Net environment and, indeed, open source alternatives. “Application server vendors are claiming victory in a market they haven’t won yet,” says Walker. If all out war continues between these mutual supporters of open systems, neither may be able to claim anything but a Phyrric victory.