IBM is closing in on pulling together a unified software approach to Web development, with WebSphere server positioned as the primary delivery platform for IBM applications.
WebSphere 3.0's release later this year, the first in a series of upgrades, will offer a broad range of developers and users several new features and significantly easier access to IBM's back-end software services.
For example, WebSphere 3.0 will contain full support for Java Server Pages technology. This will make it easier for developers to use any Web development tool to access back-end services, such as IBM's San Francisco framework, or online transaction-processing services, such as CICS, according to James Barry, product manager of the WebSphere and HTTP Servers Software groups at IBM.
"The way to think about WebSphere is to look at it as the front end of a very big arrow," Barry said.
Making sophisticated tools and middleware such as San Francisco and CICS available to a wider array of developers is critical for IBM, according to analysts, who also doubt IBM's ability to attract new customers.
"We anticipate their VisualAge revenues to grow as WebSphere gets rolled out to corporate users over the next 12 months, but we don't anticipate them growing it much beyond the IBM user base, which [IBM] needs to do," said Sally Cusack, a research analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Following Version 3.0, IBM plans to add server-side caching technology that will allow WebSphere to act as a front end to CICS and other transaction-processing services.
This move will be a critical component of IBM's overall "e-business" strategy because IBM's current architecture relies heavily on back-end processing that takes place on the mainframe.
However, in the age of Web transactions, many customers need instantaneous processing at the application-server level.
Over time, IBM officials expect WebSphere to play a critical role in the delivery of Notes applications and new customer management software being developed by IBM's Corepoint Group, in Indianapolis.
That means that WebSphere will emerge as the delivery vehicle for every piece of major software in IBM's lineup, Barry said.
"[WebSphere] is important for us because we saw it as the place where the next generation of applications will end up being hosted, and the services that they will need are all embodied in WebSphere," said John Swainson, vice president of IBM's Application and Integration Middleware group.
For IBM customers, putting WebSphere servers in place today can be viewed as laying the foundation for a long-term strategy that taps into existing business logic that now resides on a range of IBM platforms, according to observers.
"[WebSphere] allows users to take IBM legacy apps and move them to the midtier and use their existing data and add new functionality or applications for Web distribution or with an intranet," Cusack said.