The wedding between the two key object software models - Microsoft's Component Object Model and the Object Management Group's Corba - has at last taken place, after a long engagement.
The software giant has announced plans to open up Com to enable it to link to third party systems, with a particular eye on the back end transaction systems that will be key to Microsoft's ambitions in the enterprise. This will involve close links between the new generation of Com, Com+, and Corba.
The alliance has been a long time coming. Negotiations started way back in 1994, when, with Digital Equipment and Candle, Microsoft proposed to the OMG a scheme for platform interoperability in which Corba would be made to comply with Microsoft's architecture, Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) - of which Com forms part - rather than making OLE compliant with Corba. This was not acceptable to the OMG.
Microsoft went on to invent Dcom, a distributed version of Com, claiming at its analysts' meeting in July 1997 that "Dcom is not a Windows only spec".
At that time, Microsoft was also saying that, as far as Corba and Com were concerned, "there's going to have to be some level of interoperability between them". More recently, Microsoft decreed that Dcom should be called Com again - though the 'C' now stands for 'component' not 'common'.
Microsoft previously regarded Com as being in direct competition with Corba, but potential enterprise customers soon told Microsoft that major systems developments require a heterogeneous environment rather than just Windows; frameworks rather than just interoperability at the binary level; multiple inheritance; and persistent rather than transient objects.
Although Microsoft had evidently accepted that it would have to work with Unix and mainframe applications, and that Corba was the way to do this, its concern had always been to find a way of controlling mainframe standards. It saw Com as a way to provide the leverage for legacy systems - or systems that work, as they are now being called to an increasing extent.
An early move in this direction was when Microsoft arranged for Hewlett Packard, Digital and Software AG to port Com to Unix platforms.
In its march on the enterprise market, an important strategic requirement for Microsoft is to control the server for new applications - especially in transaction based systems. This requires more dexterity in the two-way transfer of data than Microsoft has previously exhibited: a heterogeneous environment is mandatory, with two-way interoperability between Corba and Com.
Microsoft's approach to the enterprise market is to partner with the industry leaders that are already accepted as reliable suppliers. Microsoft is more and more becoming an integrator rather than a developer of technology, leaving the technical details of the integration in the non-Windows world to partners. Microsoft needed to make it possible for Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) to interoperate with the non-Microsoft world.
The OMG has developed interworking specifications for OLE2, Com, Dcom, ActiveX, and Com+ over the past three years, but Microsoft's concern has been to lock in developers, claim some analyst. In this recent move, Microsoft is persuading companies to license Com and MTS, rather than use the Corba specifications.
But Microsoft evidently finally decided that Com and Corba must coexist earlier this year. Richard Soley, CEO of the OMG, told 'VNU Newswire': "We are delighted at Microsoft's recognition that Corba is the de facto standard for distributed application integration in the enterprise."
Microsoft has been a reluctant member of the OMG, and initially preferred to avoid working with Corba specifications, instead keeping tight proprietary control by licensing Com to a number of vendors, including Digital, HP, Iona, Siemens Nixdorf, and Silicon Graphics.
In a series of recent announcements, Iona, Visual Edge, and Digital - the bridesmaids of the wedding - have expanded on how they are working with Microsoft to provide the middleware to link the Windows and non-Windows worlds for the enterprise.
Iona, the Dublin based developer of object middleware, has had its Orbix Object Transaction Monitor (OTM) endorsed by Microsoft. This will be integrated in MTS, but Microsoft has said that its arrangement with Iona is non-exclusive.
Annrai O'Toole, Iona's chief technology officer, said: "We have a new friend in Microsoft" and went on say that MTS had "improved dramatically" since its introduction. Microsoft faces fierce competition in the transaction server market.
Iona sees an OTM as a super-Orb having transaction, security, systems management and directory services capability with Orbix, which Iona claims is the world's best selling Orb. Iona also says it is the only shipping OTM, and the only Corba conformant transaction server that can communicate with Microsoft's Com+.
Iona licensed Microsoft's technology in January for its Orbix Comet, a bridge that links Com objects into a Corba environment. Paul Hickey, Iona's VP of product alliances, confirmed to 'Newswire' that Iona had found it easier to work with Microsoft than to understand Com and convert it to the Inter-Orb Protocol IIOP. For this reason it agreed to license Microsoft's sourcecode.
Hickey would not say which way the money flowed - whether Iona paid for access to the Com code, or whether Microsoft was so keen to push its way into the enterprise world that it was willing to pay Iona to help with this. One industry source with some involvement in such negotiations suggested that no money changed hands.
An Iona spokeswoman said that Iona's customers were less concerned about the religious wars than in getting interoperability, and that most of its customers were closer to Com. Nevertheless, "Iona was still 100 per cent behind the OMG," she said.
Visual Edge Software, with Quebec based development and marketing in Cupertino, California, is an enterprise applications integrator and developer of Object Bridge for Com-Corba. Visual Edge's approach with Object Bridge is to map between Com and Corba at the object level. The advantage of this approach is that it is faster and does not need sourcecode licensing, it claims.
Visual Edge characterises Iona's middleware approach as being like Esperanto acting as a common language, whereas its Object Bridge technology is more like simultaneous translation. Object Bridge allows bidirectional interoperability between Corba, Com, Dcom, Java, SNMP and SAP R/3 applications.
In similar vein, Microsoft also said that Digital had announced plans to provide additional interoperability between MTS and Digital's ACMS, Digital's transaction management software for OpenVMS that had its origins in the mid-1980s.
One day after the Com-Corba betrothal at Microsoft's Teched meeting, Bea Systems, a middleware provider, announced the late July availability of Project Iceberg, now called BEA M3. This is an Object Transaction Monitor and said to be a "scalable mission critical application platform" for deploying objects in the enterprise, offering Corba Enterprise Java Beans, ActiveX/Com clients, TP frameworks, and design patterns. There had been a nine-month early adopter programme, with some 20 enterprise customers endorsing the product.
Bea has much of the high end of the market, whereas Iona dominates the low end. It will be interesting to watch the movement of the barrier between the low end Microsoft camp and that of Bea, the established leader, as Microsoft ploughs resolutely on in quest of the enterprise market.
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