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Standards, open source, Java, and the Web are combining to force a huge shift in the infrastructure software industry. Middleware is becoming a strategic commodity. Free J2EE application servers are just the beginning of this movement. It’s crucial to understand that the major forces driving these changes will lead to lower costs, increased collaboration, and reduced time to develop and deploy new applications.

Standards have reached a critical mass where users expect and demand standards-based implementations. Historically, users have preferred to leverage an existing standard to solve a particular problem before expending major funds to develop and deploy new systems. In addition, users will shun vendors for going beyond standards, or not completely implementing them in a timely manner. This forces more industry effort to create and implement these standards – bringing competitors together to bridge differences and arrive at new solutions. Proprietary systems are no longer accepted. This focus on standards minimizes the difference between vendor implementations and has the effect of commoditizing software. However, the effort and investment put forth by vendors to create these standards within the middleware space highlights its strategic importance.

Open source supplements this trend since standards-based APIs are sufficiently defined so that any group of developers can create an implementation. Many developers are being drawn to open source as a direct way of getting their creations to market at a low cost as well as a means to improving the quality of the software by leveraging the resources of the development community. Companies like HP, IBM, and Sun are increasingly dedicating significant engineering resources to many of the open source communities.

While Java is not open sourced, Sun’s widespread distribution of the technology and the formation of the Java Community Process has been a loss leader to drive the systems business at Sun. In fact, the Java Community Process is a unique and clever balance that results in widespread de facto standards being created, such as J2EE.

As middleware becomes a strategic commodity, the Web serves as the focal point by:

• Being developed on open source and standards models – HTTP, HTML, and Mosaic
• Enabling easy collaboration for open source development
• Leading to the creation of powerful open source and standards organizations (Apache and W3C)
• Demonstrating that the price for software (e.g., browsers and Web servers) built around open standards would decline sharply and ultimately become free

J2EE Application Servers
Open standards and the resulting open source initiatives have played a major role in the evolution of the J2EE landscape. It’s becoming a well-accepted fact that the application server is the new keystone to any significant middleware infrastructure. The Java community’s efforts to standardize J2EE have been significant and have yielded a robust, resilient, and enterprise-capable platform, which has resulted in more users adopting the technology while decreasing the difference between application server implementations.

The combination of smaller differentiation and a larger user base is driving down the cost of J2EE application servers. Initially, application server vendors were able to charge huge sums for this strategic software, several times the amount of the accompanying hardware. Open source efforts like Apache Tomcat, JBoss, Orion, and the early Lutris work have proven that application servers can be created through open source initiatives. The resultant software is an attractive alternative for many end users due to its low/free pricing.

Beyond J2EE
It’s clear that the concept of middleware becoming a strategic commodity will only accelerate in the future and go well beyond the application server. J2EE continues to grow and embrace technology such as messaging and EAI with the JMS and JCA standards. The early implementations may not stack up yet to the sophistication of proprietary EAI and message bus products, but the low cost of the implementations makes them attractive for many applications. In addition, the amount of investment in these standards will continue to drive the functionality beyond today’s proprietary systems with the added benefit of no vendor lock-in, lower training costs, and increased interoperability.

Web services are obviously moving in the same direction. Many of the base pieces – like SOAP, WSDL, and UDDI - are becoming standardized. Users are waiting for higher levels of standardization in such areas as transactions, mediation, and conversational flow control before adopting Web services in a significant way.

The Java community must embrace this trend toward a low-cost strategic commodity to be a viable platform in comparison to Microsoft. The low cost and relative standardization across the Microsoft platform are powerful attraction points. The Java community can’t afford to live only at the high end of the market, charging tens of thousands of dollars per CPU of functionality.

The current trend of creating strategic software in the Java community is encouraging – J2EE continues to be the choice for large Web applications. And the new adoption of lower-cost models will help drive widespread adoption of the technology.

Users as diverse as IT departments in small companies to major enterprises and independent software vendors are starting to select J2EE application servers as their strategic deployment choice. The standardization efforts of the JCP and the open source community as well as the low cost are turning the technology into a commodity. This evolution toward a reasonably priced middleware solution significantly augments the transition of users to these new operating environments. The commoditization of Java middleware marks the next pivotal step toward a ubiquitous enterprise deployment platform.

Author Bio
Bob Bickel, general manager of the Middleware Division at Hewlett-Packard, is one of the original creators of the application server technology. Bob holds a BA in electrical engineering from Bucknell University and an MBA in finance from Temple University.

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