Open source app servers make headway

Enterprises shopping for a Java application server will soon have more reasons to look at open source software, with no less than three open source projects expected to be certified compatible with Sun Microsystems Inc.’s enterprise Java standard by the end of the year.

Geronimo, a project of the Apache Software Foundation, and Jonas, overseen by Europe’s ObjectWeb consortium, both announced recently that they have begun testing their products against Sun’s Java 2, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) 1.4 test suites. Geronimo said it hopes to be certified as J2EE-compliant by August, while Jonas is aiming for the second half of the year.

JBoss Inc., whose application server is already widely used, is being cagey about when it expects to complete Sun’s compatibility tests, but the company is likely to announce certification as early as next month, according to John Rymer, a vice-president and industry analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

While Geronimo is still quite immature — the project was launched just nine months ago — all three offerings aim to provide businesses with a low-cost alternative to commercial application servers from the likes of BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. At the very least, customers should be able to use the open source products as leverage to negotiate better pricing deals from their primary vendors, Rymer said.

“Open source application servers are a bona fide competitive force in the market for J2EE application servers,” he wrote in a research note published last month.

J2EE certification is not a prerequisite for enterprise use, as shown by JBoss, which already has thousands of paying customers. But it can lend added credibility to open source projects, particularly for IT executives still skittish about the open source model. The specification also ensures a degree of interoperability between products from the various Java vendors. If a customer writes to one application server and decides later to switch to a different platform, if both are J2EE-certified, the amount of porting work should be relatively light.

That was important for travel company National Leisure Group Inc., which began developing a new application 18 months ago that lets consumers book flights, hotels and car rentals over the Web. There was no Java-certified open source application server available at the time, but the company picked JBoss partly because it knew it adhered closely to the J2EE standard, said Jamie Cash, director of technical architecture at NLG.

“We wanted to stay as close to the J2EE spec as we could, so if we had to do a last minute port it wouldn’t be a huge amount of work,” he said. J2EE certification will likely make other companies more comfortable using open source products, Cash said, “not so much down in the trenches, but at the boardroom level.”

The rush of open-source Java projects isn’t coincidental. Last year, Sun altered the licensing terms for its compatibility test suites, allowing open source software to become certified for the first time. It also provided free licenses for the test suites for nonprofit groups like the Apache Software Foundation and ObjectWeb. JBoss was required to pay for its test suites, leading to a lengthy dispute with Sun that has likely delayed its certification.

Analysts don’t see customers deserting their commercial vendors in droves any time soon. Aside from having existing software investments with them, many IT executives remain wary of open source because of concerns about the availability of support, and about the long term viability of software not backed by a large, established vendor, analysts said.

Products from IBM, BEA and their ilk also are more battle-tested and mature, said Shawn Willett, a principal analyst with Current Analysis Inc. And the established vendors have moved to differentiate themselves by offering more complete platform offerings which include easy-to-use development tools and software for building portals and integrating applications. “They’re not just coming up with things like clustering now, they’ve been hammering away at these things for years,” Willett noted.

Project Geronimo, by contrast, released its first code for developers only last month — a J2EE container integrated with four existing open source Java server components. The release is intended to give developers a feel for how the finished product will look, but Geronimo is not yet ready for production use, said Geir Magnusson, a member of Geronimo’s core development team.

Still, the potential for cost savings is a powerful lure. NLG picked JBoss for its travel application because BEA’s software would have been “prohibitively expensive” for the application it was building, Cash said. It needed to run the application on several processors to keep up with its transaction volumes, and JBoss was the only cost-effective way to do that, Cash said.

JBoss is the leading player among the open source application servers and is likely to enjoy substantial growth, Rymer wrote in his research note. On Monday, the company announced that Intel Corp. was among the investors in a recently closed round of funding that netted US$10 million for the Atlanta-based company.

Rymer put Jonas in second place, and listed Geronimo as “the wild card,” in part because the project is still so young. All three projects have attracted talented and seasoned programmers, including Geronimo, which should also benefit from having the respected Apache name behind it, he said.

Organizations most receptive to using open source application servers tend to be those with skilled Java programmers and that are in control of their own Web architecture, Rymer said. Some organizations choose a vendor and then follow the direction that vendor gives them, while others decide on their Web architecture and then “map the appropriate products onto it,” he said.

“Those people tend to love open source because the products are so narrowly defined. They’re really components, whereas if you bring in a WebLogic or WebSphere application server, you get a lot of extra stuff that you may or may not want. I even hear people talking about ‘bloatware’ now for IBM and BEA,” Rymer said.

Willett of Current Analysis concurred. “The type of corporate user who’s interested in open source is someone who wants to save money and who has the technical know-how to deal with these products, because none of the ones I have seen are particularly geared towards ease of use,” he said.

It remains to be seen when the three open source projects will complete their J2EE certification, which involves running thousands of tests. Meanwhile, commercial vendors are taking steps to mitigate the competitive threat. Sun recently released a free, no-frills version of its application server that is proving popular among developers.

Whatever the outcome, organizations who look seriously at the open-source offerings, and who can show their vendor that they are serious about deploying them, should use that to their advantage and push for better pricing deals, Rymer said.

“At the end of the day it keeps the pressure on price, and that may be the biggest impact that BEA and IBM see,” he said.

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