Only two years ago, Web servers came in one flavor: plain old HTTP servers that faithfully dished up Web pages to browser clients.
Now, as server software vendors look to differentiate themselves in an increasingly cluttered market, specialty Web "application" servers are sprouting like mushrooms.
New categories of Web servers, such as transaction and e-commerce servers, host access servers, proxy or caching servers, messaging servers, directory servers, development environment application servers, and an evolving category called "knowledge" servers, are flooding the market, according to a new report from Zona Research.
The report found that although roughly half of the 92 information technology buyers surveyed have already deployed basic HTTP Web servers, there is a movement underway toward adding specialized Web servers.
Application server software is becoming one of the hottest new areas for server software companies.
At the most basic level, the software is used to link client applications with data and applications on host systems. But market analysts also claim the software is particularly valuable for e-commerce applications, which typically link into existing databases and need an intermediary layer of software to translate information and manage client access to legacy systems.
The software also can simplify the task of linking incompatible systems and systems located in disparate locations.
The three most popular application servers, according to the Zona report, include: messaging servers, which handle email and other connectivity; proxy servers, which cache Web server content to boost application performance; and host application access servers, which connect Web browser clients to legacy systems and host-based business applications.
Also, the report found that software vendors are scrambling to address a new area called "knowledge" servers, said Martin Marshall, an analyst at Zona. "IT managers really want something that lets them index and consolidate information that exists in their own corporations," Marshall said.
"Now, that information is spread like peanut butter all over different systems," he said.
Knowledge servers would make data in multiple formats easy to index and find. Right now, information crammed into corporate relational databases is easy to index. But, "what about information in spreadsheets, word documents, and on the mainframe? IT organizations need some sort of crawling and searching mechanism to explore and index the internal corporation," Marshall said.
Currently, no single vendor has a complete answer to that definition, Marshall said. Microsoft has developed an application programming interface technology, called OLE DB, for accessing data in multiple formats. IBM has various searching and indexing technology. And Digital Equipment's AltaVista subsidiary has intranet search tools. But no vendor is offering an integrated package-- yet.
Marshall expects that to change soon. A number of software makers, including Oracle, Sybase, Inprise (formerly known as Borland), Netscape Communications, and Microsoft, currently offer, or plan to offer, application server software, and new vendors are sprouting up at a rapid pace.
So rapidly, that market researchers expect the application server market will quickly double in size. International Data Corporation pegs the current application server market as a $400 million per year business. By 2001, total application server sales are expected to reach more than $1 billion.