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Microsoft targets app server software market

The company takes steps to plant its flag in the booming market for application server software.

Microsoft knows a hot market when it sees one.

The company today took steps to plant its flag in the booming market for application server software.

Microsoft also announced that it has signed deals with Compaq, CSC Consulting, Ontos and other companies to support various technologies in its Windows NT operating system that the company is now referring to as its application server.

Analysts and competitors have long referred to various Microsoft technologies, such as Microsoft Transaction Server, Message Queuing Services, Active Server Pages, Internet Information Server, and the company's Component Object Model (COM), as its application server offering. But Microsoft has not used the term itself until recently. Those technologies has also been grouped under the "COM+" moniker.

By adopting the application server label, Microsoft has finally succumbed to competitive pressures, said Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research. " We knew Microsoft had one [application server]--they finally fessed up and said 'yes we do'. This is a late and long coming decision from Microsoft," he said.

Brown argues that Microsoft's real application server is Windows NT itself, since the company does not sell a standalone application server product. "All five COM+ products are free -- there's no separate product on the SKU list. NT is the application server that you pay for," said Brown.

Brown said every major infrastructure software company in the market today must have application server product to survive. Application server software sits behind a Web server and handles users' browser-based requests for dynamic Web pages or information coming from back-end databases. The software has become hugely popular--at least in the marketing departments at software makers--as the number of Web-based applications being deployed by corporations grows.

By Brown's estimates, there were more than 50 application server makers in the market last fall, which he considered the peak of application server mania. That list has since been winnowed down through acquisitions and partnerships, he said.

Joe Maloney, a marketing manager at Microsoft, said competitors, including Netscape Communications, Oracle, and IBM, sell separate products called application servers, which offer the same features as Microsoft's collection of technologies, which are being bundled into Windows 2000, due later this year.

Maloney also points to a recent survey by Forrester Research as proof that Microsoft already owns a sizable chunk of the application server software market. Forrester polled Fortune 1,000 companies and asked them which application server they were currently using. Forty-six percent said they were using Microsoft's Transaction Server, even though the software has not been specifically marketed as an application server.

To drive it even further into the application server space, Microsoft has signed up Compaq to provide consulting services to help customers install Windows-based applications. The company will devote 200 engineers and six development centers to Microsoft applications, said Maloney. CSC will also dedicate a service to installing Microsoft technology. Ontos will provide consulting services.

Also, XtremeSoft, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based software developer, has announced COMitor, a performance monitoring tool for Microsoft Transaction Server and COM+ applications.

Microsoft's application server package is limited to Windows-only applications, but can pull data from Unix-based and mainframe systems. Competitors products run on both Windows NT and Unix, and favor Enterprise Java Beans over Microsoft's COM technology.

Steven Robins, an analyst with the Yankee Group, said that Microsoft's Windows bias may not be issue to application server buyers. "It's still limted to Windows, yes. But they can work with other object models, and they can certainly pull information from various sources."