WebSphere upgrade looks beyond J2EE

IBM Corp. is developing an upgrade to its WebSphere application server aimed at making it easier for companies to orchestrate transactions among groups of business applications, and to expose applications as Web services that can be used by other companies, an official said.

The WebSphere upgrade draws on a technology being developed by vendors including IBM and Microsoft Corp. called BPEL4WS (Business Process Execution Language for Web Services), as well as capabilities being prepared for the next iteration of Sun Microsystems Inc.’s J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) specification, Version 1.4, said Scott Hebner, IBM’s director of marketing for WebSphere.

The upgrade is aimed in part at making it easier for developers to build and deploy applications that can be offered as services to other businesses by integrating workflow, business rules and transaction capabilities into WebSphere. A company that has built its own retirement plan application, for example, could expose it as a Web service and make it available for use by other companies, Hebner said.

“The developer sees a collection of Web services to compose and choreograph into transactions. What’s nice is the developer is insulated form the underlying complexity, whether it’s CORBA or CICS or Java. It’s a series of business services made available to them,” he said.

Hebner pointed to what he called shortcomings in the J2EE specification that make it insufficient in itself for doing such development work. Developers today can use J2EE with standards like XML, SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) to expose applications as services. But those standards don’t provide a way to define workflows and orchestrate groups of applications, he said.

“J2EE by itself just isn’t sufficient, it’s like a heart without the lungs. Putting on a veneer of Web services progresses it, but it’s not enough for an on-demand environment. A new set of application server capabilities is needed,” he said.

Sun Microsystems Inc., which created Java and is overseeing its development, is expected to announce enhancements to the J2EE standard this month that relate to Web services. The company declined to discuss those plans.

The enhancements to WebSphere will be delivered in a release due out before the middle of the year, Hebner said.

David Senf, a senior analyst at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said IBM is including BPEL4WS because it wants to stay ahead of the curve.

“Anything that’s cool is usually on the horizon, and this certainly is. The fact that they’re even announcing it is premature insofar as the specification hasn’t yet been picked up by W3C or OASIS,” he said. “But by putting it out before it becomes an official standard they’re going to be at the forefront of peoples’ minds as being at the head of the game,” he said.

Other capabilities come from Version 1.4 of J2EE. That specification also isn’t complete, so the WebSphere update won’t be “certified” as 1.4 compliant but will include essentially all of its capabilities, Hebner said.

“The business rules are a set of EJB Java services…that allow you to expose the service in a parameterized manner. It allows me to build an application that others can easily reconfigure by changing the rules,” he said.

Hebner acknowledged that the standards for creating Web services have yet to be finalized. Indeed, BEA is backing two technologies for choreographing Web services, BPEL4WS and WSCI (Web Service Choreography Interface), which are competing for the attention of standards bodies.

IBM’s decision to include J2EE features that are not yet standards marks a shift for the company that brings it more into line with other Java vendors, said Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. In the past IBM has tended to wait until specifications are complete before including them, he said.

“J2EE has got too big and there’s no reason people should have to wait until (a standard) is ready, because that’s increasingly an arbitrary collection of features that may or may not be relevant to a customer, and which also may or may not be relevant to IBM meeting its objectives strategically to compete with other Java vendors and with Microsoft,” Gilpin said.

IBM’s larger customers tend to play around with new technologies for a year or more before deploying them anyway, and including an early version of an emerging technology allows them to become familiar with it sooner, he said.

Competition among software vendors is increasingly shifting towards tools, Gilpin said, as features in application servers become standardized. BEA, for example, has already implemented much of J2EE 1.4 in its WebLogic application server, although it hasn’t disclosed plans for including WSCI or BPEL4WS .

While the vendors compete to expand their middleware offerings, some customers have become disillusioned with the promise of XML and with the whole idea of Web services.

“Integration is working inside the enterprise. What isn’t working is where I think most businesses lie – trying to do integration with suppliers, customers and their customers’ customers, and there we need a whole lot more help because it isn’t working,” said Paul Grantham, vice-president of software development at broadband provider Covad Communications Group Inc., who spoke recently at the Object Management Group Inc.’s software engineering conference.

Covad has to link its applications to switching equipment at the central offices of seven or eight telecommunications providers for its billing and provisioning purposes.

“We get to them through a defined set of XML interfaces, but I have five people just to maintain changes in XML on those interfaces. We get 15 to 20 major changes (per month), enough that the system will die if we don’t do it,” he said, adding that he’s “pretty skeptical” of Web services.

Hebner acknowledged that XML standards are still evolving, but argued that in the mid-’90s similar concerns surrounded the use of HTML. The “market share leaders help to define what the standard (for Web services) will be,” he said, adding that IBM is prepared to make concessions where necessary to help define standards quickly.

– With files from Kristy Pryma