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Middleware vendors scramble for recognition

SAN FRANCISCO -- The fragmented middleware market is bound to consolidate soon, but the diversity of products and vendor competencies will make decision-making difficult for IT organizations for some time to come, according to Gartner Inc. research.

Rapid changes in the market and increased bundling of middleware tools by applications software vendors means most organizations will wind up with a variety of middleware products, whether they like it or not, Gartner analysts said. They advised users to pick a small number of products that match their architectural goals and plan to stick with them for the long term.

Analysts unveiled the popular Gartner quadrant ranking of middleware vendors at Gartner's Application Integration conference here last week. The quadrant ranks vendors on two axes according to completeness of vision and ability to execute, with the upper right corner being the most coveted spot.

Attendees who were looking for a clear winner to emerge were disappointed. The 36 vendors clustered mostly around the middle of the chart, with only Tibco Inc., IBM, WebMethods Inc., Vitria Technology Inc. and SeeBeyond Technology Corp. squeaking into the upper right corner. The rankings reflect the lack of a clear market leader, analysts said.

"Right now 'other' is 35% of market share and the largest market share for ny one vendor is only 12%," said Ross Altman, a Gartner research fellow. However, he predicted that consolidation would quickly pare market leadership to about five large vendors, with the rest being acquired or slimming down into niches. "We'll see a lot of distance between the top five in the market and next five," he said.

One reason for the lack of leadership clarity is the amorphous nature of the application integration market, analysts said. Most vendors excel at one or two tasks -- for example, application servers or legacy gateways -- but no one does everything well.

That means users should pick products that address their most fundamental problems and push the vendors to add the features they need.

That's what semiconductor maker Xilinx Inc. is doing with Tibco, a leading vendor of messaging middleware. Xilinx originally brought Tibco in house to bridge internal applications but now is expanding its use of the middleware into business-to-business applications, said Shawn Bulen, a Xilinx IS manager. While dozens of vendors have arrived on the scene in recent years, Xilinx has stuck with Tibco.

"We beat up on them all the time" to stay current with Xilinx's needs, Bulen said. "But Tibco is expanding their toolset appropriately and meeting our needs. We're pretty stuck on them."

Among the highlights of the Gartner research is the following:

  • Microsoft Inc. and Oracle Corp. have come on strong in the last six months, with Microsoft's XML-based BizTalk Server 2000 finally making it to market. Both vendors have a proven ability to execute on a strategy but it's too early to judge their performance, said Roy Schulte, a Gartner research fellow. However, sheer market mass will make Oracle and Microsoft major forces to be dealt with. "Many of you will wind up with BizTalk Server as your primary broker because of sheer pervasiveness," Schulte told the audience. But he added that Microsoft's reliance on third parties to produce industry- and application-specific adapters could make integration challenging for customers.

  • The analysts rate IBM highest overall in ability to execute and Tibco strongest in overall vision, but each by a narrow margin. IBM's installed base of more than 1,000 MQSeries message queuing users is a big asset, said Altman. But the new version of the MQSeries Integrator is the first written entirely by IBM and its robustness is not proven in the field.

  • SeeBeyond has done a remarkable job of shifting from a health care focus to a broad middleware vision, has built an impressive architecture and should be a major player, despite its vertical industry origins, analysts said.

  • Tibco has leveraged its late start in the application integration market to avoid others' mistakes and build a robust enterprise suite. Gartner rates Tibco tops for vision.

  • Vitria has done the best job of building business process management into its integration suite, a clear differentiator for that vendor.

  • The largest number of vendors are building from niche market competencies, including Fujitsu Software Corp., Sterling Commerce, Vignette Corp. and Optio Software Inc. Analysts cautioned against dismissing these vendors just because they lack a broad product line and market experience. "They may understand your domain the best and have the vocabulary, expertise and adapters for your industry," Altman said. Some of the better known residents of this quadrant, such as iWay Software, Siemens Corp., Candle Corp. and WRQ Inc., are there because they are transitioning from being successful providers in other niches to broader middleware vendors and their success is still uncertain, analysts said.

  • Strong visionaries such as New Era of Networks Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., CrossWorlds Software Inc., Iona Technologies PLC, Mercator Software Ltd. and Software AG are highly successful in other middleware markets and are now broadening their product suites substantially to include integration brokers and related tools. These vendors have good vision but an uncertain ability to execute, the analysts said. Some, like CrossWorlds and Mercator, are trying to recover momentum lost due to a business slowdown or management changes.

  • The current scramble for market leadership is good news for users on the contract front, at least. Vendors are "very aggressive on price" at the moment, Altman said. However, vendor financial stability is a question mark in the current downturn and users should be careful not to bet on a company that's running out of cash.


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