First Cisco, then Intel, now IBM. Not a bad hat-trick for the notion that "SOA is more than just software hardware is part of it," as IBM's Robert LeBlanc put it in a phone briefing about the company's acquisition of XML appliance maker DataPower today. But there's much more to this announcement than simply adding hardware appliance options to IBM's WebSphere product set. The boundary between hardware and software in service-oriented infrastructure is dissolving, as a review of the past few months' events will quickly make clear.
Loosely Coupled first flagged up the importance of this trend when previewing Cisco's AON announcements back in June, a week before they became public: "Next week's announcement will fundamentally change the landscape of the SOA market and provide a new context in which to evaluate offerings from large and small vendors alike." In the wake of the announcement, my analysis of its impact on SOA couldn't have been more explicit: "You need to start looking at the application infrastructure as something that straddles software and hardware rather than being a wholly software artefact."
A follow-up report in the July/August issue of Loosely Coupled monthly digest, a brief excerpt from which we published online, included an analysis of DataPower's positioning and customer traction. CTO and founder Eugene Kuznetsov was quite clear at the time that products like Cisco AON and DataPower's appliances spelt trouble for integration software vendors like IBM:
"The reality of it is that there's a collision course here," he says. Although applications that require a lot of process logic will still need the full J2EE-based stack, simpler middleware processes won't: "For example, going from COBOL to XML. That's going to be the place where this sort of XML-aware networking is going to be an alternative is an alternative to the middleware."
Funnily enough, Kuznetsov was taking a more conciliatory line during today's conference call, sitting alongside IBM's LeBlanc. "The people who need DataPower gear are serious about SOA," he said, "and in those environments they're deploying WebSphere because it's the best platform for SOA out there." (Talking of diplomacy, the pair were equally keen to rule out any conflict with IBM's prior support for Cisco AON: "We see AON as very synergistic," said LeBlanc, while Kuznetsov said any apparent overlap in functionality was just a matter of ambiguous terminology).
Make no mistake, though the real reason IBM bought DataPower was it realized this was a trend it wasn't going to beat. The days of selling a new J2EE licence for every integration instance are waning fast, and IBM had to move fast to get on the right side of the trend. It's significant that DataPower will become a separate SOA Appliance organization with its own direct report to LeBlanc, rather than being subsumed into the rest of the WebSphere software division. Now that IBM owns DataPower, it's not only going to cannibalize its own low-hanging J2EE integration business it'll be looking to bite chunks out of BEA's and Oracle's too. It can't be long now before Reactivity and Layer 7 get gobbled up as IBM's rivals scramble to even out the odds.
Meanwhile, Intel's acquisition of Sarvega back in August sheds light on another aspect of IBM's roadmap for deploying DataPower's technologies. Intel acquired Sarvega, I wrote at the time, in order to optimize its XML processing software for Intel Architecture, potentially "making some of that technology available to be licensed for use by infrastructure software vendors such as IBM, BEA, Microsoft or even SAP (or Linux/Apache ...)."
Don't be surprised, then, to learn that IBM intends to put some of DataPower's technology into its software products. "That's one of the reasons I feel so excited about the opportunity with IBM," Kuznetsov said today. LeBlanc chimed in to confirm that IBM will be playing fast and loose with the boundaries between hardware and software in the SOA infrastructure: "Most deployments today are either hardware or software. We saw an opportunity to provide both ... We think there's a lot of [DataPower] software technology we have an opportunity to bring into the WebSphere family." Similarly, some functionality for example relating to web services management will migrate the other way.
Which brings me full circle back to my posting earlier today, which I wrote in blissful ignorance of the impending IBM-DataPower announcement. The context in which to interpret this acquisition is as another step in the evolution of the mediation services layer, and the definition of mediation services brokers. Yes, there are other more mundane contexts, such as the immediate opportunity for IBM to sell XML appliances for acceleration and security gateway roles. But over time these point solutions will be subsumed as ancillary services within the broader mediation requirement that I outlined earlier.