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Comdex 2001: Playing Java application server favorites

As Java application servers, WebSphere, iPlanet, Dynamo and Tomcat all have pros and cons.

LAS VEGAS -- There are almost as many enterprise Java application servers today as there are flavors at Baskin Robbins.

According to a panel of experts that came together to compare and contrast several at Comdex Fall 2001 here, the only wrong choice is one that leaves you with the bitter taste of proprietary code.

"Customers don't want to be married to vendor solutions far into the future," said Steve Brennan, vice president with Boston-based Digitas Inc., who endorsed the use of Art Technology Group's Dynamo application server.

Will the app server disappear?
Bob Lytle, chief technologist at Centrifusion in Chicago and a presenter at Comdex Fall 2001, said the application server may disappear entirely during the next three to five years.

Lytle said fierce market competition and no hardware base has forced BEA to strike a deal with Intel to put its WebLogic application server on Intel's Itanium chips.

The result? Other application server vendors will be forced to follow suit, and before long the majority of application servers will be embedded in other products, making stand-alone application servers a thing of the past, said Lytle.

Independent J2EE consultant Kevin Bedell, who touted the merits of developing with iPlanet, agreed, saying the battle between Sun Microsystems' Java-based technology and Microsoft's .NET initiative will go on for several years. Regardless of the winner, if an enterprise is tied to vendor-specific code based on one of the two technologies, it may be time-consuming and costly to make necessary changes down the road.

Bedell said in today's competitive market, application server makers must find niches in which they dominate, or they face being run out of business.

Bedell said iPlanet is optimized for speed, scalability and use with large applications. It is able to partition an application between several application servers and relies heavily on a directory server to speed response times.

He said a few of iPlanet's cons include its difficulty to tune, the need for specialized technicians to do the tuning and the necessity of following Sun's documentation to the letter to avoid glitches.

The merits of Dynamo and WebSphere

Regarding Dynamo's merits, Brennan said its maturity was proven when Sun decided to license its page compilation technology. It is also widely used, and in a recent Internet search Brennan said he found resumes for 600 Dynamo developers.

Dynamo, which consists of a commerce engine, portal server, personalization engine and an application server, can run up hardware costs close to $3 million, but Brennan said Dynamo's technical support staff stands by its customers and makes the investment worthwhile.

WebSphere proponent Randy Mowen, chief executive of Surefire Solutions Inc., said IBM's technology is strong when it comes to working with legacy systems.

He said WebSphere works well with preexisting databases and transaction servers, and can be used to build connectivity gateways to PeopleSoft and SAP applications. It is also able to integrate with XML, SOAP and UDDI, and present data in HTML, XML and WML.

"It delivers what customers ask for," said Mowen, "which is portable code."

Keep an eye on open source

Panel moderator James Turner, principal software developer with Viridien Technologies in Westford, Mass., talked up the open-source Tomcat application server.

Turner said once developers get past the "veneer of illegitimacy" that comes with open source technology, its simplicity becomes alluring. Out of the box it works only with Java Server Page (JSP) servlets, though support for protocols such as Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE), Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) can be installed if needed.

It is also surprisingly stable because of the large open-source community devoted to supporting and improving the product.

"You could have thousands of people working to fix bugs," Turner said, which means a fix can be in place in time for the nightly build instead of weeks or months later with competitors' products.

Turner also reminded attendees that Tomcat is free because it is an open-source technology and also transitions well to commercial platforms should the need arise.

Will all of these application servers be around in five years? Mowen suggested that iPlanet might not make it because of its turbulent lifespan to date, but the other panelists reaffirmed that they all have strengths and established customer bases that favor them.

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