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Actional sees dual opportunity for SOAPswitch Web services tool

Application integration firm Actional, led by a former Tibco executive, sees a prominent role for itself in the red hot Web services management space, and according to the451 its new SOAPswitch tool for supporting and managing Web services is more than a new twist on its legacy adapters.

After about four years at Tibco, Frank Bergandi (who had half of Tibco reporting to him, including all of the staff in customer-facing elements) began looking for a new challenge and found "an 18-year-old restart" in Actional. For Bergandi, the attraction was that Actional uses Web services to do application integration, and without the complex and proprietary software stacks offered by his former company and its competitors.

In January, Actional pocketed $26 million in a third round of funding and was well on its way to launching its first Web services product, two factors that helped Bergandi make up his mind to join as president and CEO in June.

Actional is targeting the heart of the early Web services market, application integration, with the slightly tongue-in-cheek but no less accurate premise that applications are not designed to work together. Its twist is that it can integrate existing legacy applications just as simply as it can newly developed Web services.

Customers: Actional's legacy technology, called Actional Control Broker (ACB), is an integration layer that transforms requests from one application to another in a single-step process, presenting each application as native to the other to obviate the need for the apps to transform their data prior to exchanging requests.

Since April, the company has been shipping its new Web services product, SOAPswitch. It reports that it has about 15 pilot and early customers for the product, of which roughly one-third are existing ACB customers, and the rest are new to the company. Existing customer Sabre is testing SOAPswitch, while new customer Manpower has already purchased and deployed it. Vigilance, an event notification software firm, is another new customer.

Products: As the451 has detailed previously, SOAPswitch has five layers: a Web services layer, which listens for requests on multiple protocols; a security layer to transform and propagate security information; a management layer to handle auditing, monitoring, troubleshooting and reporting on Web services activities; a composite execution layer that creates templates for composite Web services; and a system adaptation layer, which is based on ACB.

SOAPswitch provides adapters for applications such as SAP, PeopleSoft, Siebel, Oracle, Microsoft BizTalk Server, JD Edwards, BroadVision, Intershop Enfinity and Commerce One. It also supports custom applications via support for WebLogic and WebSphere, Microsoft COM and DCOM, Corba, XML, IBM CICS and MQ Series, among others.

SOAPswitch does not handle the composition of the Web services themselves, as that's best left to specialists in the area. Instead, it does things like tracking calls to the composite Web services and handling the necessary mapping changes in the WSDL files to enable the Web services to talk with each other.

That's essentially what ACB does with technology such as Corba and Java. With ACB, the integration is often built right into the development tools to provide for unified interfaces. In the loosely coupled world of Web services, although the applications all understand SOAP and WSDL, they still have their own security schema and other things that are peculiar to them that need to be managed. In other words, SOAPswitch is not only an integration tool, but also a Web services management tool.

Marketing: So far, that message has not been strongly communicated to the outside world. But that's about to change, as the company has realized that the concept of Web services management is now better understood. There are a slew of startups that have entered the management space – such as AmberPoint, Infravio and Talking Blocks, to name a few – but Actional believes its customer base, history and legacy connectors will make differentiating itself from them pretty easy.

To better elucidate its message, Actional now talks about the different uses of SOAPswitch. Until now, the product has been marketed as a 'SOAP dispenser,' a way for SAP applications, for example, to present a SOAP interface to another application. But another way to look at it is as a way to manage new Web services not necessarily connected to legacy applications – a true SOAP switch, as it were. For Actional, management means auditing, message logging and alerting, as well as intelligent message routing, including failover, load balancing and versioning. Then there is interoperability with the existing infrastructure, such as the security schema and LDAP directories and so on.

Sales: On the sales front, Bergandi intends to beef up the company's small direct sales force and to put more effort into it than it had in the past. Initially, the financial sector will be the main focus of the direct efforts. Actional is not profitable at the moment, but it obviously has been during its history.

Competition: SOAPswitch opens up Actional to a slew of new competitors. When its only product line was ACB, it was a fairly straight fight between itself, IBM, webMethods, SeeBeyond, Tibco, Vitria and some smaller integration players. Now that it's in the business of Web services integration, it will be up against most of the above firms as well as the likes of AmberPoint, Cape Clear, Infravio, Talking Blocks, The Mind Electric and Systinet, among many others.

The451 Assessment: The challenge for Actional is to get the word out about its valuable legacy adapter technology and not get lost in noise being generated by the management players, which between them probably don't have Actional's 200-plus customer base, but with their clean slates can do a better job of articulating their messages.

the451 is an analyst firm that provides timely, detailed and independent analysis of news in technology, communications and media. To evaluate the service, click here.

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