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Commentary: An app server winner? Not yet

If BEA, IBM and Oracle don't buy development help soon, they risk losing application server customers to Sun, Microsoft and the open-source community.

Commentary: An app server winner? Not yet
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
November 25, 2002, 2:30PM PT

By Joshua Walker, Research Director

Application server vendors are claiming victory in a market they haven't won. In fact, if BEA Systems, IBM and Oracle don't buy development help soon, they risk losing customers to Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and the open-source community.

Read any of the marketing collateral that BEA, IBM and Oracle pump out, and you might start thinking that the application infrastructure market is a three-horse race.

• BEA and IBM see each other as their only competition. Take a look at BEA's array of press releases over the past six months. The headlines read "more productive than IBM," "BEA welcomes IBM to the year 2000" and "The true cost of IBM." Big Blue is no better. It dedicates a whole section of its Web site to chronicling industry analysts' commentary and providing an array of statistics that show WebSphere's increasing margin of victory over BEA's WebLogic. WebSphere leads by 5 percent! No, wait, it's grown market share this year to 34 percent.

• Oracle says that it's surpassed IBM and BEA in market share. In a June 2002 press release, Oracle, backed up by several analyst companies and third-party sources, claimed that it attracted 3,000 portal customers over the past year. According to Oracle, this statistic means it has five times the number of customers that BEA and IBM have in the application infrastructure market.

Is IBM at 34 percent? Is BEA winning back Europe? Is Oracle really No. 1 already? Maybe. But what are these thousands of customers doing with the application servers they bought? To answer this question, Forrester spoke with close to 30 of these vendors' top reference customers and reviewed dozens of their public customer case studies. This subset of customers indicates that these vendors don't have a strong foothold in their accounts because their products are acting as glorified Web servers and legacy links.

• IBM deployments are dominated by legacy middleware. IBM's customers may have bought and even deployed the WebSphere application server, but the applications they are building still rely primarily on products like the AS/400 and WebSphere MQ. In most cases, the application server is used simply to build the presentation layer, and it does not serve as the transaction engine.

• BEA customers are focused largely on lightweight development. Software vendors, systems integrators and customers that have lots of Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) skills have done some sophisticated work with BEA's application server. But most of BEA's customers don't have these skills. Many of the ones we spoke with use WebLogic simply as a "servlet" engine. There was little cross-application or process development.

• Oracle customers haven't strayed far from the database. The recent OracleWorld hosted a lot of impressive software partners building applications on Oracle 9i. The event also showcased improvements to its bundled application server, integration server and portal solution. But there were few customers using these combined products. In fact, most customers that Forrester spoke with were interested in reducing licensing costs by doing their development on JBoss, an open-source product.

A productivity crisis
If this small subset of leading customers is an indication of how companies are using these application servers, these vendors have a big problem. Why? Because customers are telling Forrester that until they are productive with the application server products they've purchased, switching costs remain very low. This means the following:

• Sun's commodity strategy will grab the disenchanted. Sun's start-and-stop application server strategy has left it trailing the market it helped to create. But recently, the company has begun bundling a reference implementation of its application server for free with the Solaris operating system. This move received little attention because most have counted Sun out. But failure by others has left the door open to a company that still commands the attention of thousands of Java developers each year at its developer conference.

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• Microsoft's .Net will further undermine Java zealots. If enterprise development in the J2EE world is this limited, expect Microsoft's new software effort to gain even more support among developers as it gets its enterprise development platform out to the market. At several big-name customers, Microsoft has demonstrated that BizTalk and Visual Studio developers are productive working with Java application servers. This initial success has fueled Microsoft's marketing campaign to pit J2EE performance against .Net's. As companies make do with smaller IT budgets, this debate is gaining enterprise-level attention and consideration.

• Open source will erode licensing fees. Open-source application servers like JBoss and Resin are missing sophisticated deployment and performance features, such as two-phase commit and robust messaging, but developers continue to put energy into these initiatives; these products will gain these advanced features in time. And application servers like JBoss are mature enough to be embedded in commercial applications. Forrester expects more cash-strapped software vendors to ditch expensive licensing deals with companies like BEA to gain access to source code and save money.

Don't build--buy
J2EE software vendors are well aware of this productivity challenge, and as a result, they are improving their development environments. For example, IBM is championing an open tools integration effort called Eclipse, BEA is building powerful new tools, and Oracle is driving a standard tool API (application programming interface) through the Java Community Process. But these efforts don't give any one company the boost it needs. Here's how to nab momentum:

• Someone should buy Borland. A couple years ago, BEA acquired Java tool VisualCaf? but did little with the product. At that point, Borland grabbed a healthy share of the Java development community. Its tools now give J2EE developers an easy way to bridge J2EE and .Net development, and although all the application servers on the market integrate with Borland's tools, vendors don't optimize its tools for their platforms.

• Someone should buy Macromedia. After Macromedia acquired ColdFusion's creator, Allaire, it was able to fuse Java, Flash and Dreamweaver development environments. This combination provides a productive development suite for most companies with Java Server Pages and design skills and an obvious way for a large application server vendor to increase its footprint in IT shops.

• Everyone should look at tools for business process management. IBM made the first move by acquiring integration and process experts CrossWorlds and Holosofx. The combination of products like these will elevate the application development process above editor-level programming. BEA, Oracle and Sun need to make similar strides and pick up a business process management tool from vendors like HandySoft or Savvion--vendors whose products already run on J2EE application servers.

© 2002, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.