For all the various types of application server technology that vendors now offer--to the considerable confusion of many customers--the market offerings roughly divide into two major categories.
This market split means that customers must
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Application server software giants regroup
The first category is the "basic"--that is, low-end--type of application server. The offerings in this segment are relatively low in cost and are designed for high-productivity deployment. They include many open-source application servers, such as Apache Tomcat and Jboss, as well as lower-end offerings from the major application server vendors such as BEA Systems' WebLogic Express and the iPlanet Web Server.
The second category comprises the "platform" (high-end) application servers, which offer high quality of service and more advanced features at a commensurately higher cost. Examples include IBM's WebSphere Advanced and Enterprise Editions; BEA's WebLogic Server; and iPlanet Enterprise and Enterprise Pro.
Gartner has predicted this split in the application server market for some time, starting with our definition of the concept of "opportunistic" and "systematic" application projects in the late 1990s. Opportunistic projects respond to immediate opportunities or immediate threats and value quick application delivery, ease of use, shorter learning curves, and competitive modern features as the key product attributes.
Systematic projects, on the other hand, are implemented in concert with a company's long-term strategy. These projects--typically staffed with the company's top software engineers and allotted major budgets--value high-end scalability, availability, systems management, and other mainframe-style quality-of-service attributes as the top priorities that the application server product must deliver.
Evolving in different directions
Vendors responded to this dual nature of the application server market by offering two application server types--basic and platform--which correspond to the nature of opportunistic and systematic projects, respectively. Simply put, companies purchasing the basic, or "portal," application server are seeking to address more immediate problems. While those purchasing platform application servers want to meet long-term application infrastructure requirements.
During the next two years, Gartner believes these two categories of application servers will evolve in very different directions. The basic application servers will increasingly be bundled with tools, packaged applications and operating systems, while the major revenue in this market shifts toward that derived from development platforms, portal platforms and packaged applications. By 2004, the basic application servers will become ubiquitous, and nearly--if not entirely--free.
The high-end platform application servers, meanwhile, will become increasingly nonstandard as vendors extend the core Java technology to differentiate themselves--adding such new functionality as application integration, legacy enablement, business process management, and Web services--to get ahead of the slow standards-setting process. Most of this new functionality will be only partially standardized.
Eventually, the high-end platform application servers will evolve into broader-scope application platforms--that is, e-business platforms--and will remain highly differentiated among vendors--bringing the inevitable risk to customers of becoming "locked" into the selected platform and its vendor.
Meanwhile, today's market split has left consumers with the urgent need to understand the features and capabilities of different types of application servers, so they can make informed decisions and deploy the right type for the right situation. Confused by the various options in application server technology, customers often deploy a platform application server where a basic application server is more appropriate--and suffer unnecessary overspending and delays. Inappropriate use of a basic application server for a highly demanding application project can result in major financial losses as well, due to project failure and squandered opportunities.
Unfortunately, some degree of complexity is inevitable, and informed decision-making is the only "right" answer. For most large companies, the safe path will be a dual-topology, "use the right tool in the right place" approach. This means using both types of application servers--platform and basic--in different projects within the company as opportunistic and systematic needs dictate.
(For a related commentary on Hewlett-Packard's recent application server offering, see Gartner.com.)
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