High-Priced iAS 6.0 Hard to Justify

SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - The foundation of every e-business application is a suite of essential services: database, transactions, messages, objects, and the Web. Java2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) from Sun Microsystems Inc. conveniently brings these services together in one bundle. If you're hosting custom Java applications, J2EE provides the framework needed to link those applications to users and to back-end services.

Several vendors, including BEA Systems, Inprise Corp., and Silverstream, have licensed J2EE from Sun and implemented it in their application server offerings. Each of these vendors has found ways to work within the J2EE specification while offering benefits not found in other implementations.

Sun-Netscape Alliance (aka iPlanet) just released its own commercial implementation of J2EE called iPlanet Application Server (iAS) 6.0. Although this is a powerful software bundle, I rate it Good because of its high price and inadequate integration.

Users of the prior Netscape Application Server (NAS) may not recognize iAS 6.0; iPlanet wisely retained NAS functionality, including C++ interfaces to application services. Besides switching from C++ to Java, you might have to switch operating systems. NAS's impressive roster of supported platforms, a list that included many of Sun's Unix competitors, has been trimmed to two:

Solaris 2.6 and Windows NT 4.0. We can expect future iAS support for Linux and Windows 2000. It will likely be up to J2EE licensees to extend coverage to non-Sun Unix systems.

Most J2EE implementations are either pure Java or very close to it, but some licensees use non-Java components to improve performance. For example, J2EE requires a database manager for its internal use. Silverstream bundled a desktop version of Sybase, whereas Inprise crafted a sleek SQL database in Java. iAS 6.0 includes a run-time version of the LDAP-enabled iPlanet Directory Server and uses its data engine to store iAS housekeeping data. The use of this engine, written in C++, boosts iAS 6.0's performance noticeably.

Version 4.5 of what used to be Netscape Enterprise Server for the Web is included in iAS 6.0. Java purists may blanch at non-Java components, but handling these performance-critical services with C++ instead of Java aids iAS 6.0's scalability. With faster, better-established servers available, the Java Web server in the J2EE reference implementation is not an option.

Judging from the installation and management interfaces, iPlanet's developers weren't given much time to weave iAS 6.0's disparate elements together. The Windows installer is a mess, tossing up repetitive questions from each of the components with insufficient explanation. If you enter an erroneous answer, the installation can fail without giving you a reason. Despite following the documented steps, I had to uninstall iAS -- a process that inexplicably took most of an hour -- and then reinstall it several times before everything came together.

Even when iAS 6.0 comes together, it doesn't come together that tightly. You use one administrative console to manage the Web and LDAP servers and another to manage the J2EE services. The J2EE console initially comes up blank, clueless about the server you just installed. You must tell iAS about itself, but carefully. If you check the box that enables automatic reconnection, the console hangs and will not launch again. Online documentation is scattered and some hyperlinks point to nonexistent documents.

Once iAS 6.0 gets going, it hums. After you get the hang of the separate administrative interfaces, you can split iAS's Web, directory/database, and J2EE services onto different machines for increased performance. This distributed approach is possible with Java Web and database services, but not without invoking the burdensome overhead of J2EE on each server.

I was pleased to find that iAS 6.0 integrates almost effortlessly with Windows NT's Internet Information Server (IIS), endowing Windows with the power of J2EE's Java services. Windows 2000's Active Directory is not yet supported.

Because iPlanet Application Server is strictly a run-time environment, a development bundle called iPlanet Application Builder (iAB) provides needed links to popular Java development tools. Initially, the $1,295 iAB will support only WebGain Studio. Future plug-ins will allow developers to use Inprise JBuilder, IBM Visual-Age for Java, and Sun Forte for Java.

The ambitious plans iPlanet has for iAS include NetDynamics (which was recently acquired by Sun) links to back-end systems such as CICS and SAP, a portal server for rapid business-to-business site deployment, and a product for mapping workflow and business rules. These are extra-cost options that will reach well beyond the capabilities of basic J2EE servers but will add to the cost of an already pricey solution.

In its present state, it's hard to recommend iAS over solid J2EE implementations from Inprise, Silverstream, and BEA. Future releases of iPlanet may come closer to making it the standard-bearer for enterprise Java.

Tom Yager (tom_yager@infoworld.com) is an InfoWorld senior analyst.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

iPlanet Application Server 6.0

Business Case: At $35,000 per CPU, iAS 6.0 is the most expensive Java application server we've reviewed. Although its J2EE implementation is solid (and Sun-certified), iPlanet's fee seems unjustifiably dear.

Technology Case: iPlanet's integrated LDAP and Web servers ensure speediness and help boost the product's overall value. Despite claims of independence, iAS 6.0 is the first application server to pass Sun's J2EE specification.

Pros:

+ Good integration with Windows NT

+ Bundled high-performance (non-Java) Web and LDAP servers+ Close ties to SunCons:

- Expensive compared to other J2EE servers- Confusing installation and managementCost: $35,000 per CPUPlatform(s): Solaris 2.6, Windows NT 4.0Sun-Netscape Alliance, Mountain View, California; (650) 254-1900; www.iplanet.com.

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