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Appliances: the future of software?

Does data integration belong in a box, safely confined and protected from the complexity of installing high-end middleware? Cast Iron Systems certainly thinks so.

The venture-backed company last week released its latest integration products, which act as an all-on-one data converter. The Application Router 3000 and a high-availability pair are designed for common integration tasks, such as changing file formats and sending data between data sources.

The company's twist on this age-old problem of getting applications to "talk" to each other is the appliance approach. The argument, used by a number of smaller companies, is that a hardware device is easier to install, configure and manage than a software product.

CEO Fred Meyer, who used to be chief marketing officer at Tibco Software, said that the long-term vision for the company is to provide many of the services that process-automation middleware provides. By the end of the year, Cast Iron will upgrade its boxes to process the data that flows through the routers, adding workflows, or "orchestrations" to integration jobs.

One of the key selling points with current customers, Meyer said, is management, particularly from remote sites. The AR 3000 allows people to administer a domain of these routers through a Web-based console.

"The thing that makes integration really hard is not the software. It's assembling stuff — the Java virtual machine, the management software, the database, the server. You need local people for that," Meyer said.

Cisco's AON products also aim to do messaging middleware functions, notably application integration, in hardware.

But Meyer said that Cast Iron isn't threatened by AON. Cast Iron's products are designed differently, with a data store and operating system on each device, and will handle more sophisticated jobs, he said.

Software delivered on a CD certainly isn't going away. But when you consider other examples of this appliance approach -- such as Netezza's data warehouse and several XML security and acceleration devices -- you have to wonder if more enterprise software won't be packaged in a rack-mounted server rather than a shrink-wrapped box.