With its supercomputer Deep Blue conquering chess grand master Gary Kasparov, IBM was on a high as it kicked off its Technical Interchange developers' conference last week.
This year's event was held in St Louis, Missouri. In the 1800s, St Louis' Grand Union station connected the East and West coasts of America and the region subsequently became known as the gateway to the West. It was therefore as appropriate a setting as any for an event showcasing IBM connectivity products.
"Connectors are about bringing things together," said Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's software solutions business, evidently not one to miss a pun as he introduced new IBM middleware technology called Component Broker Connector (CBConnector).
CBConnector is essentially middleware server technology which receives and manages application services from client applications. It forms the basis of IBM's strategy for deploying and administering components across networks. The aim is to provide developers with a simple way to connect legacy systems together and to be able to call upon some of the functionality encapsulated within these applications for new development projects.
"There is an enormous investment in software that cannot be thrown away," noted Mills, in underscoring the significance of CBConnector. IBM estimates the value of this software to be in the region of $5 trillion.
Mills believes this need to preserve existing technological investment was the reason client-server computing failed to establish itself in the enterprise. The industry did not move over to client-server computing, he said, because it would have meant throwing away existing systems.
By exploiting CBConnector, IBM claims that companies will be able to extend the lifespan of this $5 trillion software investment. "We think that CBConnector will change the way enterprise applications are built," Mills commented.
As well as connecting legacy applications, CBConnector also serves as a mechanism for bringing together middleware, such as IBM's own CICS transaction processing environment. This, according to IBM, is a "key strength" of its new middleware technology. By way of an example, IBM said it would be possible to link an existing CICS environment to a database and groupware applications.
Mills said while mission critical systems are very successful at running corporations, "you can't easily glue such software together". Step in CBConnector.
CBConnector provides a framework for suites of applications that can be customised through application services available via CBConnector.
The applications are glued together using CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), the industry standard for heterogeneous, distributed objects from the Object Management Group (OMG). In CBConnector, IBM has implemented what it claims is the first full implementation of an Object Request Broker (ORB) with COS (Common Object Services) and Internet Inter-ORB Protocol (IIOP) for sharing information between objects. The COS element of CBConnector offers a set of services defined by the OMG which an application can call upon while it is running. These include services for naming conventions, security and transaction processing.
IBM plans to make CBConnector technology open by allowing third-party developers to plug in their own middleware technology into the CBConnector architecture. In fact, CBConnector can be extended by using what IBM describes as Application Adapters which allow CBConnector applications to access back-end systems.
IBM is developing Application Adapters for its own middleware technology including CICS, IMS, DB2, MQSeries and Encina. The company is planning to offer connections to all types of disparate middleware systems and has formed alliances with several third-party companies through a new initiative called the Component Broker Solution Developer Program.
Companies collaborating with IBM in the programme include Andersen Consulting, Liant Software, Logic Works, Rational Software, Texas Instruments and Tibco Software.
The last of these, Tibco, provides Internet push multicast technology which the company claims is capable of disseminating information to thousands of subscribers simultaneously. Tibco is currently working on an Application Adapter which will bring this facility to CBConnector applications. The Tibco adaptor is due to ship in the fourth quarter of the year.
CBConnector runs as server software on departmental and enterprise servers.
When it becomes generally available in September 1997, the software will be available on NT and AIX. Interestingly, it won't be extended to IBM's own OS/2 Warp Server platform until later in the year. Versions for Sun's Solaris, and IBM's OS/390 and OS/400 are due for delivery in the first half of 1998.
On the client side, IBM said CBConnector will support fat, thin and web clients. The San Francisco project, which IBM announced last summer, will also be supported. The project aims to provide a standard way to build and use high-level business objects written in Java and has won endorsements from numerous third-party developers, including Lawson Software.
In addition to CBConnector, IBM also announced CBToolkit (Component Broker Toolkit). This has been designed to extend the company's VisualAge visual application development tools family. It will initially be integrated with VisualAge for C++ and VisualAge for Java. Effectively, this means initially Java and C++ will be the supported languages for developing the CBConnector server-side applications.
VisualAge will be able to generate both JavaBeans and ActiveX components on the client side. Language support will extend to Smalltalk in the last quarter of the year. Cobol support will be available in 1998.
IBM claims CBToolkit is the first complete visual programming environment designed specifically to develop, integrate and manage enterprise-level, component-based applications. It later plans to extend VisualAge so that developers can generate or create CBConnector applications automatically.
Other than middleware IBM had plenty to talk about. Lotus, the company's PC application software arm, is planning to roll out a full set of server tools and clients for collaborative computing.
In April 1997 Lotus announced a new line of servers. These are due to go into beta in June, starting with Lotus Go, a basic http web server for static web publishing. Following Go will be Domino Mail, a basic mail client which supports LDAP, IMAP4, POP3 and Chat Internet protocols. Lotus said it will provide an application programming interface, available across its entire family of servers.
Lotus also plans to separate the Notes 4.6 Designer for Domino development tool from Domino and sell it as a packaged product. This will be available in the summer and include new menu options for selecting whether applications are deployed on Notes or the web.
Further down the road is the Lotus Bean machine, designed to simplify Java application development by offering a point-and-click, interactive development environment.
According to Lotus, version 5 of Lotus Domino (Notes 5) will offer a full implementation of IIOP which will allow Notes to be used for distributed computing. The product is expected to be released in the first quarter of 1998.
At last week's event IBM, together with Lotus, pieced together an infrastructure which will allow their existing product families to support open standards.
Furthermore, IBM's embrace of CORBA in CBConnector and its planned support of IIOP in Lotus Domino 5 should give the OMG/CORBA standard a real boost in the corporate computing world.
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