IBM plans bus technology ride

Emerging technology called an enterprise service bus is part of streamlining plan to move customers to cheaper, easier integration options.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
An IBM plan kicking off later this year will raise the profile of an emerging technology called an enterprise service bus to help the company take advantage of the hot integration software market.

Integration software, which transports data between business applications, is a key component of IBM's multibillion-dollar infrastructure software business. The company indicated last year that it was working on ESB capabilities to complement its integration line.


What's new:
Integration is a hot category--practically the only one--in enterprise software, and IBM is taking aim.

Bottom line:
With enterprise service bus technology, IBM is planning a ride to a streamlined group of integration products that do the job easier and cheaper.

More stories on ESBs

The technology, code-named Jetstream, will introduce new messaging software to IBM's WebSphere 6 Java application server. The product will be further detailed this fall and ship in the fourth quarter. A second step in IBM's plan, which will include new development tools, is slated for completion by the first quarter of next year, according to Bob Sutor, IBM's director of WebSphere infrastructure.

While companies are hesitant to shell out money for business applications, they have been spending for integration tools. The theory is that by forging tighter links between their existing systems, companies can become more efficient and make better use of software they already own.

Forrester Research predicts that spending on application servers and integration and database management software will grow by 8 percent this year.

The ESB message
The term ESB covers a loosely defined set of capabilities. ESBs are meant to lower the cost of sharing information in corporations--a perennial and expensive headache for many firms. Integration of business applications is the top challenge for companies hoping to improve their efficiency, according to a recent survey of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies conducted by MIT's Sloan School of Management.

An airline, for instance, might need to move customer data from mainframe systems to a company Web site. It would usually have to rely on proprietary integration servers to wire business applications together and shuttle data around. An ESB, by contrast, is built around industry standards and tools, including Java and Web services protocols.

"Not only is an ESB cheaper, but it has less risk associated with it from being locked in to one vendor."
--Mike Gilpin, Forrester analyst

That standards-based approach translates to lower cost, said Forrester analyst Mike Gilpin. "Not only is an ESB cheaper, but it has less risk associated with it from being locked in to one vendor."

Research firm Gartner predicts that ESBs will supersede traditional communications middleware by 2007. However, the capabilities of ESBs right now are limited, compared to more mature integration products, analysts note. For example, ESBs can convert customer record formats between two packaged applications but cannot automate complex business workflows.

Common goal
IBM's overall strategy is to introduce more commonality across its integration products, notably its widely used WebSphere MQ and WebSphere Business Integration products, which it gained through the acquisition of CrossWorlds Software in 2001. By converging its existing products, IBM can lower its internal development costs and simplify the computing environments of its customers, analysts said.

"Our goal is to not always have more and more products," IBM's Sutor said. "It's to have the right set of products with well-defined roles that fit together."

Rather than create a separate ESB product that only supports Java and Web services protocols, as originally planned, IBM will augment its existing products with support for newer standards, such as Web services transactions and reliable messaging. This evolutionary approach will allow customers to continue using what they have while moving toward newer, more cost-effective ESB features, Sutor said.

"Individual products gain new capabilities over time," he said. "They gain standards that are appropriate to the type of products that they are, and they should all work better together over time."

IBM will base the new ESB-oriented tools on its WebSphere Studio line, which is built on the Eclipse open-source development platform, he said. The new programming tools will accommodate existing communication protocols, such as those used by WebSphere MQ, and those used by wireless and embedded devices.

Cheap and easy
IBM's move reflects the entire integration software market's emphasis on simpler, cheaper options. Established infrastructure software providers are working on stripped-down alternatives to their existing integration servers, and a number of start-ups are already selling messaging software using the ESB label.

The growing adoption of ESBs is encroaching on the traditional integration market primarily because of the cost advantage, Gilpin said.

Hop on the bus?
ESBs can help companies meet basic
integration requirements, but there
are limits to what can be done
without custom-built extensions.

"Customers want a more flexible way of licensing these run-time (integration) services so they can have just the right amount of capabilities that's needed rather than purchasing a full application server or EAI (enterprise application integration) product," he said. A network of lightweight messaging servers is simpler to scale up incrementally than more comprehensive, traditional integration servers, he added.

BEA Systems, IBM's largest competitor for Java server software, next year intends to introduce its own ESB, code-named Quicksilver, which will allow customers to convert proprietary integration protocols into Web services and XML-based data formats. Indigo, a core component of Microsoft's next Windows upgrade, will be an overhaul of its communications system that will comply with XML and Web services protocols.

Traditional integration software companies, such as WebMethods and SeeBeyond, and several niche software companies, including Sonic Software, Cape Clear and SpiritSoft, already have ESB products on the market.

Processing in the network
Analysts note that the idea of a consistent method to wire together applications is an important component to a services oriented architecture, a more flexible, modular approach to system design. Typically, an SOA requires messaging software to shuttle information between applications.

"There's a significant need to move data between applications, control those interactions and administer interactions," said Gordon Van Huizen, chief technology officer at Sonic.

Going with an ESB, rather than an application server, to integrate applications can simplify the process of making changes, such as connecting two existing applications. Integration servers can be configured, while an application server typically requires custom coding, which can be time-consuming and costly.

"As services oriented architectures become more prevalent, and become the infrastructure that everything plugs into," Van Huizen said, "it's extremely important that interactions between applications can be configured and not coded."

One of the changes IBM intends to introduce through its ESB initiative is to make it easier to build applications that can process, rather than simply transport, data on the network, Sutor said. Typically, corporate programmers write code that runs on an application server to do tasks, such as database look-ups or changing data formats between packaged applications. IBM plans to have its integration server usurp some of that functionality. It will, for instance, be able to change data formats from a Siebel application to an SAP application.

"The way ESBs will evolve," Sutor said, "is that more and more of the logic in the application server will be able to move onto the bus, onto the connectivity point."