Sun Microsystems Inc. is attempting to crown Java as king of distributed network application technologies, ignoring rival claims to the crown by Microsoft Corp.
Sun is using its Java Business Conference to make the formal introduction of the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) specification, designed to optimize Java for use across servers.
More importantly, Sun is also providing a forum for a slew of third-party software companies, including IBM and Sybase, that are using the J2EE programming interfaces and services in their products.
“Every single one of the application server vendors has jumped on board,” said Joshua Walker, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. “There is tremendous momentum around the adoption of, and compliance with, the J2EE specification.”
J2EE includes definitions, programming, interfaces and code for building and running server-side Java applications. New features include Enterprise Java Beans, which describe how to build Java software components, and the Java Messaging Service, which describes how these components can interact across networks.
According to users and analysts, J2EE support by third-party vendors should speed the already rapid pace of Java adoption for enterprise-class applications, notably in the e-commerce field.
Forrester surveyed 50 large companies last July and found that twice as many of them were adopting the combination of J2EE’s Enterprise Java Beans model and Common Object Request Broker Architecture-based (CORBA) middleware as were embracing Microsoft’s Common Object Model+ (COM+) for building distributed applications.
“J2EE is the bedrock of our global business-to-business application” for investment banks, said Duncan Johnston-Watt, head of development for the fixed-income group at Instinet, a brokerage service in the U.K.
Despite such examples, rolling out Java applications across enterprise networks remains complex, and many users are skeptical about how much of the J2EE promise Sun and its adherents can deliver…and when.
“If J2EE materializes in products, it will be really important,” said William Barnett, manager of distributed object integration for First Union National Bank in Charlotte, N.C., which is fully committed to server-based Java. “But that’s the same reason we got into CORBA – CORBA services were supposed to give us all the distributed object features we needed. But they didn’t. So I’m skeptical.”
Barnett says many application servers, which manage software objects and their interactions, either lack features or force users to rely on proprietary features and sacrifice the ability to move Java objects among different brands of servers.
Despite its very public wrangling over Java with Sun in recent years, Microsoft is almost invisible in the Java applications market. This failure to penetrate the market is at least in part because Microsoft has been hamstrung by Sun’s lawsuit that charges Microsoft with violating the terms of its Java licensing agreement.
Microsoft’s Visual J++ development tool set has been, at least by some users, relegated strictly to Windows NT-based development, which remains very popular for departmental projects and corporate intranets. Microsoft’s object model, COM+, has not yet achieved wide use in the corporate backbone, according to observers.
“For First Union as a whole, Microsoft remains very important,” Barnett said. “But I’d never use Visual J++ for anything except applications running on NT. You just don’t know what it will do to you on any other platform.”
“We use NT as a Web/application server when we deploy our application on Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS),” said Rick Bullota, chief technology officer for LightHammer Software Development, which markets a Java portal for manufacturing information. “The Microsoft software is a viable and cost-effective solution, particularly for intranet applications.”
But when deploying on NT, LightHammer has to add third-party software to compensate for the fact that Microsoft doesn’t support key parts of Java. Nor does LightHammer use COM+ for object-to-object interactions.
But Microsoft is far from surrendering. Instead, the company has seized on the burgeoning popularity of XML as a way to shift corporate attention to perhaps an even simpler way to exchange data among different applications over the Internet.
Forrester’s Walker said Microsoft’s distributed application strategy is now based on NT (and the upcoming Windows 2000 Server), IIS and BizTalk Framework, which is an XML project announced earlier this year. BizTalk has two elements. One is a software server, now in beta testing, that will process data in XML documents. The second is an effort by Microsoft to work with users to draft an XML-based vocabulary that will let them share business and transaction data specific to a given industry or market (www.biztalk.org).
Java’s crown is far from secure, and Microsoft’s strategy far from mature. For the foreseeable future, large-scale applications on the Internet will be as complex, if not more so, than their predecessors on the corporate backbone.