WebSphere 5 finally ships

IBM Corp. caught up to its competition with the delayed release of a new version of its WebSphere application server that features support for Web services technologies and the latest version of Java 2 Enterprise Edition.

But the delay isn’t expected to bother IT shops that are already using WebSphere. When IBM announced Version 5 in May, several customers said they were still using Version 3.5 and were in no great hurry to jump to WebSphere 5.0 because of the time and testing required to move mission-critical applications to a new platform.

“Customers are still trying to digest the last release they got,” said Susan Aldrich, an analyst at Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group Inc. “They’re not in a hurry for more releases sooner.”

Analysts said WebSphere 5, which was due in the third quarter, will bring IBM up to par in terms of J2EE and Web services support and in line with BEA Systems Inc.’s WebLogic 7.0, which shipped in late June. IBM and San Jose-based BEA are the market leaders in the application server market.

But Stefan Van Overtveldt, program director of WebSphere technical marketing, said IBM not only complies with J2EE 1.3, but also supports a majority of the J2EE 1.4 features that are due to be finalized next year. He said IBM also added support for Web services technologies that it donated to the open-source community.

Explaining the WebSphere delay, Van Overtveldt said top customers told IBM they wanted to get the WebSphere Studio developer tool, which had been due in November, prior to the application server. So IBM flipped the product schedules and finished the tool first, which is integrated to work with the application server, he said.

“The delay really only matters to the most cutting-edge of developers, and that’s [IBM’s independent software vendor] partners,” said Josh Walker, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. He said IT managers “could care less.”

Randy Mowen, director of data management and e-business architecture at the San Clemente, Calif., office of The Bekins Co., said his company is testing a beta version of WebSphere 5.0 in a development environment but sees no urgency for deploying it in production.

“Nothing is broken that this [new] release is going to fix,” Mowen said.

Bekins has one server running WebSphere 4 and two servers running WebSphere 3.5 to support its homegrown browser-based applications for registration and order, inventory and transportation management systems, Mowen noted.

But Mowen said Bekins will consider moving quickly to WebSphere 5.0 if it delivers on its promises of performance boosts, administration improvements and tool integration that could help developers code and test applications faster and set up and deploy Enterprise JavaBeans and Web services more easily.

Walker said IT shops have been clamoring for improved tools to make it easier to deploy application servers. The major application server vendors have reached a level of parity, “where there’s no longer this feature/function race,” he said. “It’s now about making your customers productive.”

Not to be ignored in Version 5 is the expanded attention paid in the suite to grid computing, said John Donaldson, WebSphere business unit executive for Canada in Toronto. “As we look at e-business on demand and the availability to automatically access information, we’re building capability into WebSphere application server 5 to do a lot of self diagnostics or autonomic computing,” he said.

Over the past year, Donaldson said that in Canada, IBM has experienced a 19 per cent growth rate from its WebSphere application portfolio. Globally, the numbers were around 35 per cent for the large enterprise. Yet, in Canada, and likely in the U.S. and around the globe, the small- and medium-sized businesses continue to frustrate vendors by refusing to join the e-business party.

Even though the prevailing hype around e-business continues to circulate in a misty grey cloud, it remains a section of IT that continues to under-perform.

Really, all IBM has done with its latest announcement is signal that it has followed rivals Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. in offering more integration within its own products. It’s not a move that will propel e-business into the IT limelight anytime soon, one analyst said.

“It’s an indication that the market for tools supporting e-business may be maturing to a certain extent, but it’s not an indication that the market for e-business itself is maturing (but) these offerings could lead the e-business market to grow,” said Warren Shiau, software analyst at IDC in Toronto.

Big Blue’s and its two above-mentioned rivals all share one distinct advantage over their nearest competition, BEA. They all have their own database built in-house, making it infinitely easier to integrate and bundle their software offerings onto their databases.

“It just makes things easier for the user, and they don’t have to aggregate product lines from different vendors,” Shiau said.

IBM also built in a Web Services Gateway to allow companies to take internal Web services applications and securely publish them to the Internet; a private Universal Description, Discovery and Integration repository; and the proprietary Flow Definition Markup Language (FDML) to allow users to visually draw workflows, Van Overtveldt said.

Van Overtveldt said FDML is a subset of the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services announced in August by IBM, BEA and Microsoft Corp.

WebSphere prices start at US$8,000 for a single-server configuration and at US$12,000 with support for network features such as clustering and fail-over.

    With files by Albert Leonardo

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