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BEA stakes future on SOA adoption

by David Longworth
October 13th, 2003

If web services is the key to a new architecture of integration, BEA believes WebLogic 8.1 is the platform on which it will run.

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BEA hopes to persuade customers moving to SOA to standardize on its WebLogic platform for end-to-end development, deployment and integration:
  • Its strategy aims to lead the SOA infrastructure market
  • WebLogic WorkShop has popular appeal among developers
  • BEA's support for web services standards is rated ahead of rival vendors
  • Its platform provides a ready-made infrastructure for linking applications
  • The proposition is standards-based SOA from a single vendor

Glossary terms: SOA, J2EE, development, WS-Security, portal, lookup tool

The application server vendor is pursuing its own version of a strategy that's been successfully pursued by others in the software industry, most notably by Microsoft: get developers hooked on your tools, and you'll easily persuade them to deploy to your platform.

BEA's strategy is predicated on enterprises adopting service oriented architectures (SOA) as a way of solving their application integration challenges. With the release of WebLogic Platform 8.1 in August, BEA claims to be offering "the industry's first converged application platform suite," providing a single platform for service-oriented application development and integration, and founded on Java, XML and web services standards. The platform brings together its development environment, an integration server, portal functionality and data integration tools, and its flagship WebLogic application server.

The strategy is a bold one, but then it needs to be. With 13,000 staff and revenues last financial year of $934 million, BEA is relatively well resourced, but the company is still a lot smaller than its main rivals in the application infrastructure market — Oracle, Sun, IBM and, crucially, Microsoft. It will have to build momentum quickly if it is to succeed in its bid to seize leadership in the newly emerging SOA infrastructure market.

Developer following
It will not be the first time BEA has won market position by first gaining favor with developers. Originally known for its Tuxedo transaction processing server, BEA by the turn of the century had refocused its business around the WebLogic application server, which it acquired in 1998 and which by the following year had become the most widely used Java application server. The secret behind that platform's success was the developer community built around it, with the company giving away the product for free download so that developers could build prototype applications using it.

BEA has been following the same pattern with WebLogic Workshop, a development environment for Java it first released last year, which offers a similar point-and-click style of development to Microsoft's popular Visual Studio tools. More than half a million copies have been downloaded from BEA's Dev2Dev developer portal, and already 23 books have been written about it. "Workshop is our secret weapon with 8.1," says Peter Linkin, senior director of product marketing at BEA. "It's the first time developers from any camp can work together on a project. Workshop will bring Java to the masses."

Workshop's ease of use has struck a chord with developers, many of whom are finding it increasingly hard to follow the complexity and size of J2EE, the underlying framework on which WebLogic and other Java application servers are based. Rather than targetting up to a million or so highly skilled Java and J2EE developers worldwide, Workshop allows BEA to set its sights on a much bigger marketplace, says Linkin: "There are ten times that [number] using VB, PowerBuilder, Cobol and C++. There's more of them and they are less expensive. You don't have to be a Java propeller-head to use Workshop."

BEA's masterstroke is in bringing this popular development tool together with its application server to create a cradle-to-grave development and deployment environment that encompasses data integration, application integration and portal functionality. This takes the platform's appeal beyond the developers and out to IT management and enterprise architects, who will also be impressed by its support for web services standards such as WS-Security. In this respect, analysts say BEA is several years ahead of mainstream rivals, although the biggest of them is not far behind: according to Gartner, Microsoft will have caught up by 2006, after the release of its Jupiter platform.

Business demands
The task now for BEA is to capitalize on that perceived lead. Its strategy for doing so is to emphasize business agility. "The way business people want to see IT run is different," says Linkin. "They focus on business processes and in the real world these are very complex." BEA is positioning its infrastructure products as the answer to IT's problem in keeping up with business demands, which conventional EAI products have not been able to solve. "IT managers are playing constant catch-up because developers are not productive enough," says Linkin.

In order to catch up, Linkin says IT should concentrate on establishing a middleware infrastructure as a strategic application platform — naturally, he has WebLogic in mind for that role. "Most IT people place most importance at the application level. That's what they're focusing on. But as we all know companies have any number of application platforms and they're all manually plumbed together.

"The point we're trying to make is if you regard middleware as the strategic environment that you focus on then you can do anything. Just keep your applications as vanilla and run the business as business people want it run. Remove the artificial lines that exist around your applications and focus on processes and user interfaces."

The message is hardly revolutionary. What's different about BEA's proposition is the integration of its Workshop development environment alongside the deployment infrastructure — an initiative led by Adam Bosworth, previously one of Microsoft's web services visionaries, with experience of popular development products such as the Access database and the ASP web server scripting language.

The upshot is that — although BEA's strategy is founded on standards that allow interoperability between different vendors' products — its aim is to encourage customers to converge all their development and deployment onto its own WebLogic platform. "In the past, there's been a lot of fragmentation," says Linkin, himself a veteran of integration products at Vitria and HP. "There's been pureplay software that just does integration and a whole sub-industry has developed on Web integration and user interface integration. Now there's a shift toward convergence, so you can get everything with one-stop shopping."

Modest successes
A few customers have already been convinced. One large retail chain in the US has used the implementation of the beta platform as the spur to retrain thousands of Cobol programmers and jump an entire generation of IT. "It had never made the switch because it never saw the benefits of going from Cobol to another development environment which could itself become legacy," says Linkin. "Now it's finally jumped a generation and it's repurposed all these Cobol guys. Nobody ever thought of making them more productive."

Elsewhere, BEA has recorded more modest successes, with existing WebLogic customers a fertile feeding ground. O2 in the UK and Virgin Mobile in the US have used the platform as the basis of SOAs for next-generation mobile platforms, while Her Majesty's Customs and Excise in the UK is rolling out the platform to help it comply with the government's eGov initiative to have all its services available on-line.

"We've been saying this for about a year and it resonates with CIOs, but particularly with line of business people," Linkin claims. "Because this all plugs into a framework, it translates from development into deployment. So all the deployment decisions are taken care of. We hit Joe developer but we also hit the productivity point. Other vendors can't cross-hatch the line [from development to deployment]."

Linkin feels optimistic, but BEA's biggest gamble is whether enterprises will opt to go down the SOA road. "If you can convince the business side of the benefits and persuade the CIO that it's the right architecture for the future, then you can take individual tactical projects, start small and make some progress," says Linkin. "Then you've got the best of both worlds. The CIO is happy and you're starting down the road towards a loosely coupled architecture."

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