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App server reliability is key, say users

Application server makers need to prove that their software will keep e-commerce Web sites up and running, said users.

SAN FRANCISCO--Application server software makers, attempting to hook software buyers with new Java-based features, need to instead convince companies that their software will keep e-commerce Web sites up and running, said technology buyers.

At the JavaOne conference here this week, major application server makers have pledged to support the latest and greatest Java features, including better applications integration, messaging, and Web page technology, in future releases. But the key feature attracting buyers appears to be reliability, not Java bells and whistles.

Tony Curwen, vice president of core technology at Ingram Micro, a computer distributor, tested half a dozen app servers and said he ended up using GemStone's technology for his firm's auction Web site because he felt it was the most dependable.

Curwen said Ingram's site is visited by 600 resellers and receives more than 1 million hits a day.

While GemStone didn't have the easy-to-use drag and drop interfaces or debugging software that Sun's NetDynamics and others had, Curwen said he settled on GemStone because it worked.

"They didn't have the fluffy tools," he said. "But they have the most scalable core services--load balancing, persistent cache architecture."

Analysts said the competition between application server makers over a long list of me-too features-- reminiscent of past desktop software wars between Microsoft and Lotus Development--won't help technology buyers handle their most critical needs.

Application server software sits behind a Web server and handles users' browser-based requests for dynamic Web pages or information coming from back-end databases. The software has become popular as the number of Web-based applications being deployed by corporations grows.

"App server vendors want to be ahead, implementing features that haven't matured enough yet. It's almost like a pointless race for them to say they're first," said analyst Jeetu Patel, of Doculabs. "The biggest issue for corporations is scalability for their online businesses. Can it handle the performance of thousands of simultaneous users?"

This week at JavaOne, Sun Microsystems unveiled Java 2 Enterprise Edition, a blueprint for Java developers to write business software, which includes the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) programming model and Java Server Pages (JSP), which allows Web pages to include Java applications.

Even though parts of the technology, including a more mature version of JSP, won't be completed until early next year, application server vendors, such as IBM, Bluestone and GemStone, have thrown their support for Java 2 EE.

IBM and BEA Systems have also announced they will soon release products that support Java Message Service (JMS), an application programming interface for business messaging. For example, using JMS to link server-based systems, a car maker can immediately fire off orders to a supplier for headlights every time a person buys a car.

But while the new technologies are important and proof that Java and application servers are maturing, businesses' main priority now is to ensure their e-commerce Web sites don't go down, so they don't have to face the wrath of angry online buyers and sellers, Patel said.

Businesses just want reliable software that can also grow for the long haul, he said. "There's a big dissonance between what vendors market and what the corporate marketplace is able to implement. The majority of users just want to know, 'Am I going to get screwed?' They can't screw up because once it goes bad, they have to go through a re-branding exercise."

Java developers and systems integrators interviewed at JavaOne agreed, saying their No. 1 priority is having reliable software.

One developer said his business is using BEA's WebLogic and the Oracle Application Server because of their clustering features. Clustering links application servers together so information is copied and no data is lost if one server goes down.

"Look at eBay when they have high hit ratios and the server goes down," said Adam LaFaye, senior technical analyst of Tradex Technologies, a company that uses application servers as part of procurement software it sells to Fortune 500 companies. "The biggest issue in the enterprise marketplace is scalability. It really is the backbone of the whole system."

Patel said app server vendors should focus on improving performance. According to his lab tests, Bluestone, Netscape, Microsoft offer the best reliability and fastest speeds, he said.

Nevertheless, analysts say Java developers are excited about the future with Java 2 EE and JMS--and expect them to start using them late this year or early next year when products supporting the technologies begin to roll out.

JMS will allow different messaging software to communicate, and as a result, help different app servers become compatible, said analyst Mike Gilpin, of Giga Information Group.

"Historically, you couldn't cross over between projects if part of a Wall Street company uses [IBM's] MQSeries and another part of the company uses Tibco," Gilpin said. "JMS represents a maturing of what an application server is by expanding the range of applications that can be built."

Gilpin said Java programmers he's talked to are excited about JMS, which is expected to be added to the EJB specification later this year. That will define how an EJB component can be built with JMS.

"Instead of hard-coding to a messaging API that IBM has historically provided, you have a vendor independent API. It's better for the customer. They can change messaging [software]. The applications are more portable," he said.

Curwen, of Ingram Micro, agreed, saying he's looking forward to deploying JMS products in the future. His company currently uses MQSeries, but he's exploring whether to use other vendors' products. "We wouldn't feel dependent on any one vendor," he said.

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