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IBM retools software for utility push

Big Blue plans to revamp its WebSphere software to work with the company's "on-demand" computing initiative, in which it will sell computing resources as if they were utilities.

IBM will fill in key pieces of its "on-demand" computing initiative--in which it will sell computing resources as if they were utilities like electricity or telephone service--with upgraded server software due to ship later this year.

The computing giant said an update to its WebSphere application server software will include features to make the software more compatible with its e-business on-demand initiative, announced last year. The on-demand plan will let companies purchase computing power, storage or applications on an as-needed basis and receive monthly statements.

IBM claims the initiative will help companies save money and more easily deploy new systems. The strategy has been closely associated with Big Blue's consulting and outsourcing services for hosting business applications, but the company is also hoping to drive more software and hardware sales by retooling its products to conform to the plan.

Many other large information technology providers, including Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, have also seized upon the utility computing concept to help pump up sales. So far, few customers have signed up for such services, but most offerings are still in the early stages.

A key part of IBM's vision is WebSphere, the company's Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE)-compliant application server for building and using custom business applications, said IBM representatives.

During the first half of this year, the company will revamp WebSphere to make it more suitable for running applications that conform to a services-oriented architecture, a style of application design that is a requirement for on-demand computing, said Scott Hebner, director of WebSphere at IBM.

"There's a fundamentally different architecture needed for the application developer and the IT administrator," Hebner said.

A services-oriented architecture makes applications and data available across a network in a simpler and more flexible way than traditional methods do. By using technologies such as XML (Extensible Markup Language) and Web services, businesses can exchange data between systems regardless of the underlying operating system or programming method.

Specifically, Big Blue will update its WebSphere application server with tools designed to help companies better automate complicated business processes and more easily modify existing applications. IBM will add a Web services-based business process work flow, or choreography, tool to the program, as well as a "business rules engine" intended to have the ability to quickly reconfigure applications to meet changing needs.

Converting WebSphere to a services-oriented architecture is only one piece of IBM's on-demand strategy, which also includes professional services and a plan to incorporate Web services, grid and autonomic computing technologies throughout its product line. As such, WebSphere will acquire some features that are "precursors" to IBM's ongoing and autonomic, or "self-healing," computing initiatives, Hebner said.

Dancing to architecture
One IBM customer, shipping and logistics company Con-Way, claims it has reaped significant benefits from using WebSphere and a modular software-development approach, along with heavy use of XML to exchange data, said Jackie Barretta, vice president of information services at Con-Way. The company is making the changes to its software architecture, but has no immediate plans to use on-demand computing services.

"With the older architecture, every time you made a change to the database, you had to make modifications to all the applications that used that database. The beauty of things now is that you can make modifications so much more easily," said Barretta.

Con-Way provides some of its logistics and shipping services--such as giving rate quotes or tracking a shipment's status--to its customers via its business-to-business Web site. The company uses WebSphere to take and process data from its mainframe and offers its online services to outside partners using XML.

"A lot of the transactions were not even possible before, like submitting a pick-up request, because they were done in a batch mode," or at regularly scheduled intervals, said Barretta. "What we're doing with XML is a lot more dynamic, a lot more real-time."

With growing interest among customers in flexible and cost-effective IT systems, Big Blue will face mounting competition for on-demand products and services.

Hewlett-Packard has a set of utility computing products. Database software maker Oracle claims that its existing clustered database technology achieves the same goal of efficient computing resource use.

Sun Microsystems purchased utility computing start-ups Terraspring and Pirus Networks last year and is expected to roll out revamped software, tied to its grid initiative, during the first quarter this year.

Not surprisingly, Sun takes issue with IBM's contention that layering an "XML veneer" on the Java programming model is insufficient for a services-oriented architecture. The forthcoming J2EE 1.4 standard, due to be finalized in the first half of this year, will incorporate Web services protocols, and many Web services-based applications are written with Java, noted Ralph Galantine, Sun's group marketing manager Java Web services.

"J2EE was designed for building services in a services-oriented architecture, and it has been Sun's direction," said Galantine. "Web services aren't something weird added on the side. They're a natural growth from J2EE and are now deeply integrated."

Thomas Murphy, an analyst at market researcher Meta Group, said that businesses can use Java to build a services-oriented architecture, which is something that is slowly catching on. But Java is geared toward application programmers with relatively high skills. Web services let IT and business executives view their information systems in a more abstract way.

"Web services moves the conversation to a different level," said Murphy. "You're talking about having business people take a Web service and set up a business work flow that should require no programming. You could do it in Java, but it wouldn't be very efficient."