App server free-for-all?

The free application server writing is on the wall as Sun Microsystems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Macromedia Inc. seek to downplay the value of specialized application servers and spur debate over the technology’s strategic future within the enterprise.

At the same time, many industry observers assert that application servers will remain critical to IT infrastructure, even if commoditization does take place in low-end deployments.

As more application server vendors adopt open-source code, application servers are becoming more alike, particularly in the publishing and consumption of Web services. In turn, vendors are working to differentiate themselves higher up the stack, such as with integration and portal servers.

Following a similar path that saw Web servers become a commodity, Macromedia is fuelling the argument with Apache Axis, a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) toolkit that is the next generation of Apache SOAP.

“Axis enables you to take Java classes or EJBs (Enterprise Java Beans) and make them available for calling as SOAP,” said Glen Daniels, one of the original designers of Axis and a technical lead at Macromedia in San Francisco.

Daniels said Axis’ modular architecture for processing messages makes it feasible to implement and reuse any type of application piece, such as EJBs.

Macromedia and IBM are among companies adopting open-source code and integrating it into their app servers. Macromedia, for instance, embedded Axis into the JRun app server it acquired from Allaire.

“IBM is the big one. They’re in the process of integrating with WebSphere,” Daniels said.

Websphere Application Server Version 4 currently ships with Axis, or Apache SOAP, and a number of development tools, IBM reports.

“The next layer on top of SOAP, the higher levels such as security, is where customers will still need toolkits to be able make changes without relying on the vendors,” Daniels said. “There is one more piece in the puzzle right now. App servers still do the same, act as containers.”

Macromedia, for instance, has released its Flash Communication Server MX, formerly code-named Tin Can, which pulls together support for streaming media, collaboration, text messaging, video, and audio, to allow developers to create richer Web sites and applications.

Macromedia’s efforts followed a move by Sun, which – after initial denials in 2001 – announced in May its plan to bundle its application server into the Solaris operating system.

Sun’s move threw a wrench into its relationship with application server partner BEA Systems. It also raised questions about why anyone would buy an application server if you could get one for free.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has positioned the integration of Windows 2000 Server, .Net Framework, and Visual Studio.Net as the “new breed of application server,” even though the company does not offer a specific product identified as an application server.

Compounding the debate, many analysts predict that fewer application server vendors will exist in the future. “We currently follow something like 23 separate vendors and that’s far too many,” said analyst Rob Hailstone, director of software infrastructure research in Europe for International Data Corp. in London.

Consensus suggests that high-volume Web applications requiring technologies such as clustering will continue to be deployed on high-end application servers. But for less-demanding applications, lower-end application servers such as Sun’s bundling plan may suffice.

“Right now, the low end is where you don’t need clustering; you don’t need automatic fail-over,” Hailstone said. “I think as time goes on, some of that will commoditize as well but there’s always going to be a high end that won’t.”

Officials at Oracle, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., noted that application servers are critical for Web services environments.

Application servers are still needed to support enterprise applications and form a foundation for delivering Web services, said Oracle’s Thomas Kurian, senior vice-president of Oracle 9i Application Server. “All of these services to us represent the shift of the computing model for applications off of the desktop to the Internet, and the infrastructure that supports this new computing model is the application server,” he said.

A BEA Systems Inc. official concurred that high-level services such as security, clustering, and management require a specialized application server, but disagreed with the notion that app servers are being commoditized.

“This notion of a free application server from Sun is actually a false one. They’re going to provide a stripped-down [product],” said Eric Stahl, director of product marketing for WebLogic Server at BEA.

IDC’s Hailstone sees irony in Sun moving toward the “Microsoft model” of not distinguishing between the operating platform and the application platform. “I guess the application server exists because operating systems failed to evolve quickly enough,” he said.

“[Our] customers continue to look for differentiation in terms of management and monitoring capabilities as well as high availability, load balancing, and clustering to ensure that as they expose their applications to millions of users over the Net, they will be able to provide a highly reliable service,” said Sun’s Patrick Dorsey, group product marketing manager of application services products in Santa Clara, Calif.

Joe Anthony, IBM’s director of marketing strategy of WebSphere in Raleigh, N.C., said the debate all points to a merger of functionality.

“When you look at the functionality of what was in there a few years ago, those [functions] are getting commoditized,” Anthony said.