WebSphere lives up to expectations

For Steinback, Man.-based Loewen, selling windows and doors got one step easier with the help of IBM Corp.’s application server, WebSphere 5.0.

The manufacturer is in the process of rolling out DealerNet – a two-way, transactional Web site designed to improve the business process between Loewen and its dealers. Queries for ordering windows and doors travel via the Web site through the application server and access, in real-time, Loewen’s main back-end systems, which include IBM’s DB2 database and a suite of enterprise resource planning software.

“WebSphere has helped with ease-of-time in doing database queries and managing the information that goes back and forth between our DB2 database and [our Web site],” said Stephen Segal, CIO of Loewen.

It’s been about a year since IBM unleashed WebSphere 5.0 onto the market. The release put the software on par with competitive Web services and J2EE offerings from rival BEA Systems Inc. At the time, some customers had signalled that they were content to stick with their earlier versions, and some industry observers predicted a slow take-up for Version 5.0.

But Warren Shiau, software analyst at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said IBM has done well with WebSphere 5.0 in the past year. Version 5.0 offers Web services capabilities, as well as self-healing and self-managing computing, said John Donaldson, business unit executive with WebSphere at IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont.

Together with its WebSphere Studio Version 5.0 development environment, WebSphere 5 helps enterprises integrate business processes and make transactions among vendors, suppliers and customers more fluid. Version 5.0 also includes support for Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) 1.3.

At Loewen, with the new Web site and the help of WebSphere, dealers have online interactive functionality for checking the status of orders, invoicing, account management, service requests and trade show bookings. They can also access a parts catalogue with photos and pricing of over 10,000 components of windows and doors. Since the windows and doors are made to order with over 4.3 trillion combinations of sizes, options and accessories, the Web site has eliminated a lot of confusion. But because internal processing is more streamlined, it also allows Loewen’s dealers and sales people to be more productive now that phone calls, e-mails and fax request for orders have been phased out, Segal explained.

IBM was slow getting the application server to the market about a year ago. Close rival BEA Systems Inc. had a jump on IBM when it released its WebLogic platform well in advance of WebSphere, but IBM’s Donaldson said WebSphere has made up for lost time.

“IBM was in a bit of catch-up mode and then within the past year we have surpassed [BEA] and we are holding the worldwide market share for application servers,” Donaldson said. “By and large, developers like to take an integrated set of tooling and then be able to deploy or run right on the application server, which is what we provide.”

Shiau said the fact that customers, specifically developers, can have access to a unified development environment is key to the success of such platforms in the future.

“It just makes sense from a productivity standpoint of the user to be moving towards unified development environment purchases,” he said. “The big thing with .Net and with WebSphere from a tools perspective has been to get that install base to move over [for IBM to WebSphere and for Microsoft Corp. to .Net] without losing them to the other guy.”

Shiau explained that the battle between the big players in the market is not specifically focussed on either the application servers or the tools, but is a larger strategic battle over the platforms.

“It’s also whether or not the Unix and the Linux guys will be able to move into the Windows space, or the relative ease they have compared to how hard or easily it will be to move Windows into the Linux space,” he said.

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