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Gluecode acquisition gives IBM more than code

Is IBM's purchase of open-source software company Gluecode a bold strategic shift or simply a way to snare a few more low-end customers?

According to IBM, the reasoning behind the deal was to fill out its WebSphere portfolio with products best suited for developers and small companies.

More significantly, the acquisition gives IBM a business already structured around open-source infrastructure software, one which plays into its strength in services to boot. Gluecode gives IBM Software a subscription-based business model that's taking hold among open-source software companies. Rather than pay for licenses, customers pay for ongoing updates and support.

Gluecode's Java server suite called Joe is based on the Apache Geronimo J2EE application server and, as such, is an alternative to WebSphere, at least for simple tasks.

But IBM wouldn't be buying the company if it were just for the product. Clearly, it wants the people behind the product who are active members of the open-source community. Geir Magnusson Jr., for example, is employed at Gluecode but is also a member of the Apache Foundation. (Magnusson is also one of the movers and shakers behind the Project Harmony to create an open-source desktop Java.)

"We see a market opportunity to bring forward a new business model that is really driven around support and service, which is something we do extremely well," said Robert LeBlanc, the general manager of IBM's WebSphere application server and integration software.

IBM considered creating its own project by releasing part of the WebSphere code base, but didn't want to "fracture" the community, he said.

The move also recognizes something that people have been saying for a while—the business of plain-vanilla Java application servers is being overcome by open-source products. JBoss is far out ahead in business development, but the Jonas product from ObjectWeb is already available and Geronimo is close to gaining J2EE certification.

With IBM's backing, Geronimo becomes a more viable open-source application server—and potentially more competition for entrenched Java server products, including WebSphere.

If the line between "low end" and "high end" remains clear, then other entrenched providers, such as BEA Systems and Oracle, will not see much direct competition from Gluecode. But then again, Gluecode's business model at the beginning was to undercut those very companies, including IBM's WebSphere, with cheaper, standards-based products.

LeBlanc said he isn't too worried about Geronimo cannibalizing WebSphere sales. In fact, IBM could conceivably use Geronimo instead of the base WebSphere application server down the road. "I suspect over time, we'll share technology between the products," he said.