The application server market is often described as a two-horse race between IBM and BEA Systems. But with Oracle and SAP pushing platform suites and open source vendors rolling out new offerings, things are shaking up. Market share by usage shows a broad field of viable players, according to a survey

by The Middleware Company.

The application server market can be divided into two camps: Java (or J2EE) and Microsoft. The leaders on the Java side are IBM and BEA; other players include Oracle and SAP, as well as open-source vendor JBoss. The J2EE platforms support Java as a programming language and are available on multiple operating systems, including Windows, Linux and Unix. Microsoft, on the other hand, has its own version that uses proprietary architecture and programming languages.

“”Just because of the strength of both the Java groups that emphasize open computing and Microsoft, which is really focused on a .NET proprietary environment, both have pretty significant market momentum, so I think it would be unrealistic to say one is just going to go away in the short term,”” says John Donaldson, IBM Canada’s WebSphere executive. “”I think what you’ll find is the two can be quite compatible, particularly for those in the Java camp. .NET is just another operating system — we run on .NET equally as well as we would in any other environment.””

Ease of use issues remain

Microsoft has a huge number of developers, says Eric Stahl, director of product marketing with BEA Systems. “”They’re pushing to make Windows more scalable and more of a data centre and they have their challenges in that,”” he says. “”The challenge with Java and J2EE is that while extremely powerful, they’ve tended to be fairly difficult to use, so the entire Java community is pushing to make the products much easier to use and more productive.””

Within the J2EE world, there’s already been a great deal of vendor consolidation, says Yefim Natis, vice-president with Gartner Research. “”We used to talk about a dozen or more vendors equally competing in the application server space,”” he says. “”Today, if you leave aside Microsoft which is in a separate category by itself, there are really only two vendors that have 70 to 80 per cent of the market, which is IBM and BEA.”” JBoss is a relatively new entry, arriving on the scene after consolidation was more or less complete. “”There would have been absolutely no hope and no chance for a new entry to make any kind of notable difference and several have tried … but it worked for JBoss because it is open source. And open source commands its own attention.””

While he says IBM has overtaken BEA in terms of leadership over the past two years, BEA has the potential to grow — there’s enough space for both of them in the market. However, BEA is in transition after recently losing several of its top executives. “”They have not completed the process so at the moment they’re in my opinion hanging in the air and it can go in any direction, including the potential of being acquired,”” he says. Still, he doesn’t expect to see one dominant vendor take over the application server market; the more likely scenario is that there will be three or four leaders, including IBM, BEA, Oracle and SAP.

Because the application server market was already saturated, Oracle Corp. took a different approach, he says, which is part of a broader trend called Application Platform Suites. An APS includes an application server as well as other offerings, such as a portal product, integration suite and system management tools.

“”There are a lot of different functions that can be delivered in the middle tier, from the core J2EE environment as well as enterprise integration, Web services, enterprise portal functionality and intelligence features,”” says Rob Cheng, product marketing manager for Oracle’s application server business. “”Traditionally, most of the vendors that are in this space approach these functions with a separate technology or product, and the problem that causes to businesses is they have to then spend a lot of time and resources in-house to integrate all of that and then to maintain it over the long run.””

Oracle is also pushing the concept of grid computing. “”With grid technology, it now makes it easy for companies to use this low-cost commodity hardware and still treat it, still manage it, as if it was a single server,”” Cheng says.

According to Gartner’s Natis, Oracle’s approach, rather than trying to win in the application server space — “”They’re very late to market there, he says”” — is to attack the platform market, which includes the app server. “”Oracle is a relatively small player in application servers but in APS they are not a small player, so people who buy the whole platform often buy from Oracle — although they’re still not the leader in that area.””

SAP has done exactly the same thing, he adds. SAP came to market late with its standalone SAP Web Application Server. The company quickly realized it wasn’t going to sell because the market was already taken; today, it no longer offers a standalone product, but a suite called NetWeaver. “”That’s how they compete — they’re trying to push aside the application server vendors by way of redefining the market by saying the application server isn’t enough,”” he says. Of course, he adds, IBM and BEA aren’t sitting on their hands; they’re selling suites as well. In fact, BEA is the leading vendor in APS, he says.

“”Web services are a huge part of the application platform and will assume a huge amount of what the traditional integration vendors traditionally offer products for,”” says BEA’s Stahl. “”The value of this integrated platform suite is not just a bigger footprint, a bigger server, it’s the recognition that when you incorporate all that capability and add a single development environment, you can really bring together all of those capabilities.””

IDC believes the overall application deployment platform software market will grow almost four per cent this year. Major market drivers include the continuing popularity of heterogenous environments, the move toward more fully functional platforms by professional developers and the demand for business process automation deployment functionality.

“”The thing that’s driving it is the IT industry is beginning to deliver on all the dot com stuff we made such a hype about in 1999,”” says Dennis Byron, business process automation and deployment software analyst with IDC. “”All this stuff usually takes four or five years to go to market and that is beginning to happen — and that is a major driver.””

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