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To help cut the cost of travel in today's economy, I flew ATA from Philadelphia to San Francisco last weekend. You know, if you live within the constraints defined by these airlines, it's not really a bad way to go. Of course, you travel in a full plane (and I mean packed to the brim), can't change your itinerary, spend an extra hour or so at the connection point, and so on. However, you end up paying less than you would at the major airlines, especially with a last-minute booking.

With the current state of the economy in the technology sector, one of the markets that has been hit pretty badly is the J2EE application server market. Nowadays, companies are very cautious about the cost involved in embedding a product with a large sticker price in their product. Especially when that product costs several thousand dollars per CPU.

There are three main outcomes from the downturn in the economy in this market. One, several small vendors are now out of business, or have been acquired by other vendors who were looking to expand their footprint. Another outcome is that the vendors who have survived are all offering more or less the same development and deployment platforms. The third is that a lot of businesses are taking a serious look at open source alternatives.

A part of the soul-searching that companies have undergone involves determining how much of an "enterprise" product they're selling. With fewer customers for large cross-enterprise B2Bi requirements, more companies are focusing on intraenterprise EAI functionality. Many of these applications don't need the capabilities of a full-blown application server. For example, the EJB market is one that's being evaluated very carefully. Many applications don't require the full power of a heavy and complex middle tier.

There are alternatives to building business objects as EJBs; for example, going directly from the servlet/JSP layer to a middle-tier Java application that connects to the data source - you still get the benefits of a three-tier application. The Web container you choose will probably support clustering and session management. Apple's WebObjects is a great product if you want to work in a pure Java object environment, but it has minimal support for J2EE.

Another trend that's becoming popular for back-end EAI applications is the concept of e-business messaging. In applications that don't require synchronous real-time responses, JMS messaging is a good alternative to using a full-blown application server environment. Several pure JMS providers are emerging in the market, including Sonic, Fiorano, Talarian, and SpiritSoft. The JMS environments provide the basic capabilities of an application server such as clustering, load balancing, transaction management, and security. And they provide back-end connectivity to legacy systems or Enterprise Information Systems (EIS).

Market leaders in the J2EE application server space such as BEA, IBM, Oracle, HP, and Sun are targeting large corporations that have a need for the complete J2EE offerings, EJBs included. If you look at the product suite offered by these vendors, the functionality is more or less the same: J2EE development and deployment, transaction processing monitors, commerce and portal servers, personalization engines, workflow engines, and more. The smaller players are now following the strategy of sticking to their niche and providing an integration story with the larger players.

The last part of the puzzle is the actual hardware that hosts the products. While it's a noble thought to be cross-hardware portable, this portability comes at a cost and added complexity. Commoditized application servers that run on specific platforms are more affordable since a large part of the installation, training, and development complexity is avoided by companies investing in the solution; case in point - Microsoft.

Hence, in the next few years we should see a consolidation of the hardware and software offerings from the larger vendors. IBM, Sun, and HP are well positioned to achieve this with their application server offerings, which can be easily coupled with proprietary hardware. In fact, with the HP-Compaq merger, HP may be the only company uniquely positioned to provide embedded J2EE capabilities across Unix and Microsoft platforms. How well that integration goes remains to be seen.

I will avoid flying ATA in the future, since they don't suit some of my primary requirements. But similar to the WebObjects community, there are a lot of passengers out there who benefit from the features ATA offers.

Author Bio
Ajit Sagar is the J2EE editor of JDJ and the founding editor and editor-in-chief of XML-Journal. A senior solutions architect with VerticalNet Solutions, based in San Francisco, he's well versed in Java, Web, and XML technologies. [email protected]

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