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Actional gets in on the SOAP action

Add another name to the list of contenders for de facto industry standard Web services platform. It's Actional, a former software broker shop that has retooled its translation tools for the new age of SOAP.

Add another name to the list of contenders for de facto industry standard Web services platform. It's Actional, a former software broker shop that has retooled its translation tools for the new age of SOAP.

Context The success of SOAP as a standard ? primarily due to the fact that industry titans Microsoft and IBM are pushing it ? has created a new market in which dozens of vendors from heterogeneous markets are trying to stake their claims. Some, like Iona, are seeking to resurrect the high growth rates they enjoyed in previous boom times. Others, like SilverStream, are looking for new opportunities for the tools and application servers they have already written. Actional belongs in the second category.

Technology The Actional Control Broker (ACB) brokers transaction requests directly between applications in a synchronous way. It was written to make any application appear to a second application as a native module. For example, SAP's R/3 might use ACB to view a third-party CRM application as if it were an R/3 module. At the same time, the CRM application believes the R/3 back-office system is its own.

Actional argues that the technology differs from middleware in not requiring administrators to set up channels of communication between applications or implement common interfaces with which applications must comply. Instead, with ACB, direct integration between packages and touch points should be direct, native and bidirectional. ACB offers single hop latency and single translation conversion, both of which should help optimize resources.

The SoapSwitch Web Services Gateway builds on this heritage. It consists of five primary functional blocks. There's a Web services layer, which listens for requests on multiple protocols (SOAP over HTTP, HTTPS or SMTP) then routes them to the business logic. Behind it is a security layer able to transform and propagate security information from an inbound SOAP request to the security model of the system that has implemented the business logic.

Behind the security layer is a management layer that handles auditing, monitoring, troubleshooting and reporting on Web services activities. Behind it is a composite execution layer that automatically creates templates for composite Web services. Finally, there's a system adaptation layer. As Actional points out, to get maximum benefit from Web services without breaking the bank, enterprises have to reuse their existing software resources.

That's where the ACB technology fits in. SoapSwitch uses it in the form of adapters for SAP, PeopleSoft, Siebel, Oracle CRM and Financials, Microsoft BizTalk Server, JD Edwards, BroadVision, Intershop Enfinity and Commerce One Buy Site. As far as custom applications are concerned, SoapSwitch supports Java programs for WebLogic and WebSphere, Microsoft COM and DCOM, CORBA VisiBroker and Orbix, XML, IBM CICS and MQ Series, Neon and flat file transfer via ftp or SMTP.

Competition VP of product management and product marketing James Phillips argues that SoapSwitch's advantage is its inherent vendor-neutrality, inherited from ACB. At heart, it is still a broker. By contrast, he says, Systinet and the Mind Electric, to whose WASP and GLUE products SoapSwitch is sometimes compared, offer just the SOAP engine and no connectors.

Meanwhile, over in value-added network land, Grand Central and Flamenco are offering similar capabilities in a hosted model. Phillips insists that: "For customers looking for solutions now, this is too mission-critical to be a service model. We are providing that capability in-house."

Conclusion It is still far from clear how the Web services application platform market will play itself out. On the one hand, the number of small vendors like Avinon, the Mind Electric, PolarLake and Systinet is increasing every day. Actional closed a $26m third round in January 2002, but that kind of money pretty much just keeps it in the game. Systinet scored $21m in March.

On the other hand are the industry titans, not only the SOAP standards-setters Microsoft and IBM, but Sun Microsystems, BEA, Bowstreet, Iona and even SAP. The window for opportunity for the SOAP-specific platform vendors begins the second that Web services hit mainstream IT shops ? which hasn't happened yet ? and ends the second such services become a must-have in enterprise software packages like WebLogic. It will be a brief race, if it happens at all. Actional, like the other players, is still jockeying for pole position.

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