Upstart JBoss Group will on Monday debut a new release of its popular open-source application server software amid a growing dispute with Sun Microsystems over Java standard compliance.
The company will release JBoss version 4.0, which introduces new tools based on an "aspect-oriented" programming method that the company says significantly speeds up the process of building complex Java-based business applications. The company derives its revenue from providing support for the software.
JBoss software has enjoyed growing popularity with Java developers and is garnering interest with information technology executives as an alternative for commercial software based on the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) specification.
Executives at JBoss say that its freely available software is being used by cost-conscious companies looking to move existing Java applications written using commercial J2EE products such as Sun ONE (Open Network Environment) products or BEA Systems' WebLogic to JBoss with little modification.
But the new release may be more notable for legal, rather than technological, reasons. Growing rancor between JBoss and Sun over J2EE compatibility could spill over into a legal battle, according to company executives.
Sun, which controls the Java specifications and trademarks and administers compliance testing, says JBoss is misleading the marketplace by using the J2EE label in conjunction with its software, which Sun says is not fully compliant with the J2EE specification.
Sun is considering legal action against JBoss for its use of the term J2EE, according to Rick Saletta, Sun's group marketing manager for J2EE licensing, although he said the company would prefer resolving the ongoing spat between the two parties out of court.
Although JBoss says its latest software "supports the J2EE 1.3 specification," the company cannot claim that it is J2EE-compatible, because it has not passed software tests that certify adherence.
Enforcing J2EE compliance is important, because IT buyers care about being able to move Java applications to different systems, said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research. But compliance is generally seen more as a buyer's "check-list item" as opposed to a technological necessity, he said.
"I think the portability question is more important on paper than it is in reality," Schadler said. But "the brand is worth something. If any Tom, Dick or Harry can say that they are J2EE-compliant, that's a problem."
Letter of the law
The issue of compliance testing is at the heart of the dispute. For vendors to legally claim that their software is J2EE-compatible, their products must undergo a series of tests to ensure that a Java application written for one J2EE application server will run on other J2EE-compatible application servers.
In March, Sun extended an offer to JBoss to license the testing suites. But since that time, the two have not managed to negotiate acceptable terms for JBoss to purchase a license and begin the J2EE compliance process.
JBoss president and founder Marc Fleury on Thursday said that Sun is "stonewalling" JBoss' efforts to gain J2EE compliance by not returning phone calls made to Sun.
But Sun's Saletta said JBoss executives are not sincere in their pursuit of official J2EE compliance. JBoss executives have complained that the cost of performing the coding required to gain J2EE compliance would be very expensive. Saying that the licensing terms for the test suite were "generous," Saletta pointed out that other small companies have paid similar fees.
"They're buying time. The longer (JBoss) can get away with this, the more developers move to JBoss," Saletta said. But "developers are getting led down a road where they'll find they're working with a proprietary platform."
Fleury said the company ultimately expects to gain official J2EE compliance, because some corporations value the J2EE brand and the application portability. However, he said the "technical value of compliance is zero," and that the brand is losing its cachet as well.
Fleury also said that once programmers make full use of the features in JBoss software, they will be "stuck" with code that is not as portable as J2EE-compliant software.
"We will take this certification, and we will pass it, because it has become such an issue with Sun that, at some point, we need to take it," he said. "The other reason we will take it is that I do acknowledge that JBoss has gotten a free ride on the (J2EE) brand itself."
Apart from the price of the J2EE compliance testing software, Fleury said that doing the work to gain full compliance will be more expensive because of the programming required. That extra development time is particularly costly, because many of the features that Java application servers build into J2EE products are rarely, if ever, used, he said.
In JBoss 4.0, only about 20 percent of the code base is actually based on J2EE, Fleury said. Under the company's strategy "Beyond J2EE," JBoss Group has built server software that it says shields Java programmers from learning the complexity of the full J2EE specification.
JBoss 4.0 uses aspect-oriented programming to provide the same capabilities of commercial J2EE application servers in a simpler way, according to the company. Typically, programmers need to code to the application programming interfaces of Java application servers to tap into their services, such as transaction management or caching.
Fleury said JBoss 4.0 allows programmers who are not proficient in the most advanced Java specifications to build server applications. Developers also can use JBoss 4 to build their own "aspects," or services, provided by the Java server software.