WebSphere users standoffish on 5.0

In the midst of a heated market-share battle with rival BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp. last week announced the 5.0 version of its WebSphere Application Server, touting enhanced support for the latest Web services and J2EE standards.

But several users were nonplussed by the news made at IBM’s DeveloperWorks Live conference, since they haven’t even moved to WebSphere Version 4 yet.

“We end up being behind the release curve chronically,” said Robert Metz, an IT architect at Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool Corp. Metz said his firm now does major development on WebSphere 3.5, but Whirlpool still has some live applications running on WebSphere 2.

Metz said the time and effort required to make a move have kept his company from making the jump to Version 4.

And Whirlpool is hardly alone. WebSphere 3.5 is currently the most popular version in terms of installations at customer sites, according to Jocelyne Attal, vice-president of WebSphere software marketing at IBM. She said many customers started with that version and continue to run it.

But WebSphere Version 4, which shipped last July, is the prime choice of newer users, Attal said. Version 4 was a major release in which IBM rearchitected and rewrote the product so that the different versions of WebSphere all use the same code base, she said.

Attal advised WebSphere 3.5 users to leapfrog to Version 5, which is expected to ship in the third quarter, rather than move first to Version 4. “The effort will be exactly the same, and they will benefit from the quality of service and more functionality,” she said.

But some users may be wary of jumping that far forward. Claudia Radasanu, senior vice-president of development services at Toronto-based TD Bank Financial Group, said that more than any new feature, “there is nothing more compelling than [round-the-clock] availability.”

“We have mission-critical applications running on [WebSphere 3.5.6] that face customers, and we cannot jeopardize their experience,” she added.

Radasanu said her firm investigated a move to Version 4.1 to take advantage of features that ease development. But moving all the way to Version 5 would require a “compelling reason” and “enough proof of stability.” Right now, she said, she doesn’t have that.

Shevin Conway, vice-president and chief technology officer at Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Melville, N.Y., said application servers are large and complicated products, and his firm typically doesn’t implement the first release of any new version.

‘Let Somebody Else Do It First’

Conway said he would rather “let somebody else do it first,” because he needs WebSphere to run mission-critical member, provider, employer and broker portal sites with the potential of 4.4 million users seeking access at any one time. He said that since existing applications aren’t designed to take advantage of any new services in the new product, “moving to that version immediately is really not that important.”

Rather than do a straight upgrade, Conway said, he built a second environment in which he does a fresh installation of a product. Then he starts migrating applications to that environment to validate that all the pieces will actually run on the new version, “because doing an upgrade doesn’t mean it’s going to work,” Conway said.

Matthew Mulrooney, an e-business developer at a major oil company that he asked not be named, said he hasn’t even thought about Version 5 because he hasn’t had time and, more important, because his firm uses a version of IBM’s Portal Server that will run only on earlier versions of WebSphere. He said his firm will soon move from WebSphere 3.5.4 to Version 4, mainly for the newer edition’s compliance with the Java 2 Enterprise Edition 1.2 specification.

“We are particularly looking forward to the streamlined deployment model in Version 4,” Mulrooney said. “It will certainly decrease our administrative burden and make application packaging much more consistent.”

Although some users may be hesitant to leap from WebSphere 3.5 to 5.0, some analysts said taking that path would make more sense than moving to Version 4.

“With IBM neck and neck with BEA, IBM is going to be acutely aware that they really have to have 5.0 ready to go. It can’t be buggy, or they’ll really start to sacrifice market share and leadership to BEA,” said Tyler McDaniel, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass.

Thomas Murphy, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc., said the vast majority of users employ Java Server Pages and servlets, and moving to WebSphere 5 would bring them the latest versions of that technology.

“There’s no real reason to stop at 4,” he said.

However, Mike Gilpin, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc., said users shouldn’t skip WebSphere 4.

“Best to migrate to a release that has more time under its belt,” he said. “This is common practice for infrastructure in IBM shops and other conservative organizations.”