You know a purchasing decision is going to be difficult when no one can define the product you are trying to buy. And so it is with application servers.
From the Sun Microsystems/Netscape alliance, through Vignette, Allaire, and on to the open source movement, every vendor is selling the application server message to all businesses desperate to connect their information systems to the web. But according to Jean-Christophe Cimetiere, chief executive of Boston-based TechMetrix Research, both vendors and buyers have been getting their messages wrong.
Cimetiere says many vendors thought they could profit from application servers the way they profited from client/server systems - by selling server software licences. However, he says there's more money to be made from selling licences for application server development tools than there is from selling packaged application servers.
His reasoning is complex, but the evidence he produces says a lot about the way the application server market is shaping up. It's no longer IT people whose ears have to be pinned back for the application server sales pitch; it's the ears of business managers and marketing departments. They want to hear about short time-to-market, quick return on investment and great integration with existing information systems. They also want to hear that the application server offers quick database connection tools, not Corba commitments, but they also want to hear that they can leave their IT department to handle the integration issues.
No quick integration
Cimetiere says it is the inability to offer quick integration that has held back some of the biggest application server vendors, and most experienced client/server integration vendors, in the application server market. For example, the strategy from one of the best-known application server vendors, Sun, is far from clear, he says. "With three products now in its catalogue [NetDynamics, Netscape Application Server and Forte], it's still hard to say which one will last," says Cimetiere.
By contrast, companies such as Oracle may offer a single, well-respected product, but their development tools are limited to items such as Developer 2000 - an ageing product that was designed to do a different job. Even Microsoft is still not there, despite throwing a mountain of cash at the application server market. The Redmond giant's development products are tied to DCOM, and therefore to Windows, in a world where most customers run back-end systems on a variety of operating systems.
Script-based application servers
By contrast, Cimetiere points to Haht Software. HahtSite's integration with SAP is the closest any company has come to giving IT departments the means to integrate an off-the-shelf software package with traditional enterprise resources. SilverStream has achieved similar integration with publishing systems. But what Haht's success emphasises is that the market for application servers is segmented and that it is relatively easy to make a success of application server sales by specialising in just one segment that's not too far from the stuff you already did.
It is much harder to be successful, assuming you define successful as 'meeting customers' needs', in the segment most application server vendors have their eyes on - ebusiness. This is the sector where the marketing department really does rule and where time-to-market is as significant as integration.
Cimetiere argues that this is why you see more and more application servers based on ready-to-use, customisable components with a development platform that lets the IT department develop its own components. That is also why Java and scripting-based application servers have suddenly become much more significant, he says. Java application servers offer marketing departments a trendy technology, but they also hold out the opportunity to use Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB).
It's a happy side-effect that they offer IT staff the chance to play with a technology that most have been desperate to get on their CV for the last two years. Scripting-based application servers, however, are an even brighter blip on everyone's radar screen. They not only offer marketing departments speed-to-market and ease of integration, they offer IT departments the ability to use skills they already have, or skills that are easy to acquire.
Familiarity breeds consent
To understand why application server development skills have become so important to businesses, you have to appreciate what programming skills companies are using to build their ecommerce business.
"The worst situations are when the development skill level is low," says Cimetiere. "For example, when most of the development team are Cobol programmers and the company invests in a 100 per cent Java application server to be trendy."
The emergence of scripting as a key component of application servers is most visible in the number of open source application servers that have sprung up in the last few months. Leading the way is the Python-based Zope, but there are many others - Manila, Midgard, Extropia (based on a suite of Perl scripts), to name but a few.
There is even an open source Java application server, Osas, but it lacks that key selling point that has brought so many script-based application servers out of the woodwork - familiarity.
Until the web came along, familiarity really did breed contempt: contempt for scripting languages and their slow compilation times. The IT world's appreciation of their utility for application servers has been transformed by three factors: Perl's five-year track record at running most of the interactive web; the power of modern processors (which cuts compilation and run time); and the fact that many scripting languages excel at handling the string datatypes that characterise web transactions.
Sophisticated string handling is less important for application servers that are designed only to provide financial transactions online. Strings become critical when you expect to process extended and unpredictable text input from visitors. It is precisely this that many new web businesses want to do.
Scripting has even made its way into some proprietary application servers. Vignette's Storyserver, one of the longer-established application servers and one aimed at online publishers, uses TCL - a non-standard version of TCL, but close enough for most established TCL users to pick up easily.
Finding programmers that can work with TCL, Perl or even Python is relatively easy. By contrast, finding programmers that can work with C/C++ or Java is hard.
The difficulty is actually part of the problem - C/C++ and Java are easier to sell to directors and marketing suits who spent no time on computer science courses and who have little understanding of how powerful scripting and interpreted languages are. Instead, they understand that C/C++ and Java are difficult, what everyone who knows about IT is talking about, and therefore better than anything else. They are sitting ducks for a well-aimed marketing campaign.
Open source developers and IT staff, on the other hand, know that scripting languages allow developers to build prototypes - and even finished applications - quickly. What they also know, but may not say, is that an application server built from components lashed together by scripting languages will also let IT staff quickly make changes. This is vital as that the marketing department will inevitably come up with revisions just when the company's ecommerce project is almost finished.
They also know that scripting languages allow them a bigger say in how companies put together their interactive websites. They know that scripted, componentalised application servers allow them to learn on the job and improve their CVs. So the application server market is becoming a battleground not between the open source componentalised culture and proprietary packaged culture - but between two different sets of expectations.
Proprietary vs open source
Not that any of the exponents see it that way. For Phil Greenspun, the outspoken teacher of software engineering for web applications at MIT and founder of Massachusetts-based web products vendor ArsDigita, the application server battle is between eight contenders: reliability and unreliability; usability and unusability; resource users and resource savers; together with simplicity and complexity. Which, for ArsDigita, means you might mix an open source web server with a proprietary database, whatever is best for the job.
Greenspun is a geek's geek. He has spent the last few years shaking the elbows of IT professionals and pointing them to the problems of proprietary application servers.
The people who advise chief executives on which technology to buy listen to what he says, and it isn't pretty. He suggests application server purchasers pose two scenarios to vendors:
1. The president of my client company, a large publisher, is going before US Congress at 2pm tomorrow to testify about what her company is doing to protect children from seeing indecent content. She wants to be able to say: "We are writing a PICS header on every one of our pages that says 'parental discretion advised'."
The website has 40,000 pages, some of them static HTML, some CGI scripts and some application program interface scripts.
How much code is required to add a PICS output header to each request?
2. I've learned that Altavista hasn't been indexing our dynamically-served content because it doesn't look like static .html URLs.
How much code is required to program the server to deliver a tree of dynamically generated .html URLs to search engines?
"Expensive and allegedly powerful 'application servers' and web publishing systems usually will require you to rewrite every page on your site," says Greenspun. "By contrast, open source products such as AOLserver, or even Apache extensions, require, respectively, a few lines of TCL code or a day's worth of C programming."
This is partly why he thinks that open source software has the edge over proprietary packages. The web moves too fast for packaged software, he says. "The grand $50,000 package ends up being a straitjacket because the authors didn't anticipate the sorts of sites that you'd want to build," he says. That speed of web development also means proprietary application servers are badly coded, he adds. Not because they were rolled out too quickly, but because no developer can anticipate what kind of stress a varied mix of web users will throw at their web front ends.
This brings us to the resource issue, that websites so visibly, so publicly, and so embarrassingly fail under the impact of their popularity.
Greenspun's view is that many application servers contribute to an excessively high resource load on their operating system and their hardware. A well-designed web server should reduce the resource loads that currently have to be handed off to the application server, by handling many of these loads itself.
He cites AOL's open source web-cum-application server AOLserver, pointing out that AOL's website handles 50 million web hits per day and, therefore, has no time for "bogus scalable application servers".
Instead, AOLserver achieves speed through multi-threading, and by using its own, built-in database connectivity routines. It also boasts the ability to cache multiple database connections, a built-in TCL interpreter, and offers caching of static and dynamically-generated page objects.
Strengths and weaknesses
For proof of his theories, Greenspun points to Netscape, the creator of one of the best-known application servers. Telnet into webcenters.netscape.com, issue a HEAD request and guess what it turns out the people who wrote Netscape application server are running? "AOLserver," he says.
Of course, few IT department staff will be able to convince company boards - or even marketing suits - to buy a different product just because a guy from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said Netscape uses AOLserver.
However, that other guy from Massachusetts, Cimetiere, may be able to help. TechMetrix is building its business running tests of both proprietary and open source application servers. You don't have to spend long reading its results so far to see that each package has its strengths and weaknesses. But the relevance of each strength and weakness depends utterly on what you want to do and what skills you have available to do it.
Cimetiere hopes he can give the facts and figures to help IT managers argue their case, but he has no illusions about how hard that position will be to argue.
Vendors know that buzzwords catch the buyer's eye, he said, and they focus their marketing on the suits that ultimately control the corporate purse strings. The IT manager's job is to cut through the sales hype.
Guardian Unlimited was launched in January 1999 by The Guardian Media Group, which publishes The Observer and The Guardian. The company claims to be "among the pioneers of web-based publishing" and formed its New Media Lab in 1997 "to test the potential of the internet as a new channel for delivering content outside the traditional print-based publications".
An obvious defensive dimension was the concern shared by most major newspaper publishers about the threat of the internet to their core business. According to the then Guardian head of new media Justin Walters, "many newspapers are experiencing falling circulation figures, which has adversely affected classified advertising and overall profits.
"The internet offers the first major channel for editorial and communications developments since the introduction of television, and it provides a tremendous opportunity to build exciting new publishing models and generate further revenue streams."
"We made a decision to go for it and take an original approach to publishing. This vision has produced a network of linked internet sites that are distinctly different and avoid the usual mistake of just replicating print products online."
Simon Waldman, head of Guardian Unlimited, admits that adding such an element to an established publishing enterprise is "easy to say, but difficult to do. The content of traditional printed newspapers tends to be broad but relatively shallow - it's news today and gone tomorrow. We wanted to present our audiences with the opportunity to dig deeper on the subjects they wanted, but we didn't want technology to constrain the day-to-day editorial input of journalists who needed something quick, easy and decidedly non-technical."
Media companies receive information in high volume and different versions of the same information are often used for different purposes. A football story, for example, could appear on the printed page, in updated detail on the news site, and in far more detail on the Guardian's Football Unlimited site.
Vignette's Storyserver package was perceived to be able to deal with the complexities involved in this process, but not necessarily with the rapid fire ease-of-use required.
"If you want a state-of-the-art website then you've got two basic choices," says Vignette's Pearson. "Option one is you get about 60 per cent of the work done by hiring a slew of programmers, locking them in a room for six months, and hoping for the best. Option two is buying in software which gives you all the basic work plus tools which allow you to customise."
What the Guardian did was necessarily different; customising a website for visitors is one thing, but setting it up so that a range of linked sites responds both automatically and intelligently to rapidly changing input, from people who simply want to file their stories, puts a new spin on the term 'content management'," says Pearson.
Contracts were signed in April 1998 and the first Guardian sites went live six months later. Storyserver boasts a 'Lifecycle Personalisation' component which makes intelligent assumptions about users - a 21-year-old woman interested in fashion and fast cars is likely to become more interested in mortgages, investments and planning as she gets older.
This, plus the obvious requirement for dynamically-created web pages, meant performance was a concern, but such problems were averted by the use of Storyserver's proprietary caching system.
The Guardian created a layer on top of the Vignette server. Pearson is cagey about the core, but admits to "some TCL, SQL and HTML, plus the ability to go into Java if that's what you want". He adds that "what they've done isn't just make the sites easy to read, but they've made them easy to write as well".
Future developments will include the use of Vignette's syndication features, whereby content may be exchanged with business partners, and plans are under way to develop links with both major portal sites and smaller specialist 'hobby' sites to generate cross-selling opportunities. "In this way we can drive our own traffic and create 'contra' deals to generate additional revenue opportunities," says Waldman.
Designed by Neville Brody of The Face fame, the Guardian Unlimited sites' main claim to originality can be summed up as ease of use. "From the point of view of a journalist, you just file your story and, while capabilities such as live news updates, multimedia presentation, search, and interaction are there in abundance, they're never your problem," says Waldman.
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