BEA chief talks SOAs, open source

BEA Systems held its yearly eWorld user conference in San Francisco this week and its message to customers echoed loud and clear from virtually every banner and every marketing brochure: "Deploy SOA. Now."

SOA, or a services oriented architecture, is a design approach to IT that proponents say makes it easier to adapt computer systems to changing business needs. It can also help reduce application development costs by allowing for greater reuse of software code, its boosters say.

The approach uses Web services standards to "expose" applications as services that can be reused across an organization. A service might be a program for authenticating users, a business function such as "update this customer's order status," or virtually anything else that can be expressed in software.

BEA announced some new products that it hopes will help distinguish it from rivals such as IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, who are also singing the SOA tune. The products include Quicksilver, BEA's take on an enterprise service bus, used for shuttling messages around an IT infrastructure.

Alfred Chuang, BEA's chairman and chief executive, talked to IDG about the new products, as well as BEA's longer term growth plans and its views on opening the source code to more of its products. Following is an edited transcript:

Q:: What role will Quicksilver play in helping companies build an SOA?

Alfred Chuang: Our current technology is really a platform for people to build applications in an SOA manner and deploy them. Quicksilver will help people take applications that are not even built in the SOA model and allow them to present themselves and be used in an SOA environment. So let's say I'm building a banking application, I have a lot of old stuff running on mainframes, I may have a two-tier Oracle application -- how do I make these things usable in an SOA environment and send them out to end users who they were never designed for?

An SOA platform will allow people to do that and, especially if you use our server technologies, Quicksilver will be a bus that allows things to be plugged into it, and they will look very natural to the new SOA-type applications.

Q: In the past, BEA has sold products primarily for developing and deploying Java applications, and now you're talking about reaching out to other platforms, even mainframes. Do you see a broader role for BEA in the enterprise IT environment?

Chuang: People don't really build stand-alone applications any more, if you do you just add more complexity to your environment. So there's a lot more integration going on, and that has led to BEA becoming a multi-product company. And other people's technology has to fit very tightly into the environment, that's not something we can control.

WebLogic Platform 8.1 (released in mid-2003) was the first convergence of our app server, our portal server and our integration server. Quicksilver is really a bus that even a whole platform could plug into, so it will be more independent of our own technology than anything else we have. That will allow different point technologies to use it for management, for spooling messages, all that kind of stuff.

Q: You announced another product today that you plan to deliver by the middle of the year, WebLogic Server Process Edition. Where does that fit into the SOA puzzle?

Chuang: Business process modelling has become very popular, so we are introducing a very low price product into the market that basically combines a little bit of portal, our app server and a BPM (business process management) engine into a single product. So it won't have all the integration technology, it won't have all the EAI (enterprise application integration) pieces, it won't have all the adapters, it's specifically for people to link processes together. It will be a separate, independent product that will be sold through our VARs and maybe our inside sales channel.

Q: Is it designed primarily for WebLogic users?

Chuang: It's more targeted to work with most of today's independent small EAI vendors, so it's for people who are buying from independent EAI vendors and they just need very limited features. We just did a huge study ... looking at the sweet spot of the integration projects out there, and this is one sweet spot that a lot of integration projects have, so that's why we're packaging the product this way.

Q: Analysts say Sybase's iAnywhere division leads the mobile applications market. is there something BEA's new Project Alchemy product solves that iAnywhere hasn't?

Chuang: All the enterprise connections, decision making, those types of things that iAnywhere will never solve. iAnywhere will be much more of a partner in terms of the devices, because that is a rapidly changing game. (Alchemy) will be the emulation for the browser, it will be the connect and disconnect, the state management.

Q: When will that come to market?

Chuang: Alchemy will be probably be late this year or early next year.

Q: You recently moved Olivier Hellebold away from leading your product teams to a new role in long-term strategic planning. Can you tell us more about that?

Chuang: We've set an internal goal that we want to become a US$3 billion company in five years. Only about 12 software companies have ever got to a billion dollars (a goal BEA achieved in its last fiscal year), and I think seven of them got stuck there. We want to make sure we don't get stuck in that trap. Companies like ours have a tendency to look only three quarters out. You can't grow to a $3 billion company like that. The only way it happens is to have a strong, dedicated person whose job it is to make that happen.

Q: Will that mean a broader set of products, or selling more of your existing products?

Chuang: No doubt it will mean a broader product set. The market is changing. Composite applications are coming along fast and I think in the next two to three years the packaged applications market will change drastically, so what's our role in that? We don't want to get into the vertical apps business, so how do we supply technologies so that composite applications can be built very easily? These are things that are deep in our thinking.

Q: Are you talking about new development tools?

Chuang: I think it's even prepackaged technology that could feature inside the application, prebuilt components that people will be able to leverage and use to build applications. We will never do anything vertical because that would compete with our ISVs, but actually a lot of features within applications are very horizontal.

Q: Open source is usually seen as a way to leverage the skills of a broader community of developers, but for software vendors it's also become a way to attract more developers to their products. (BEA announced recently that it would release some of the source code for Workshop, its developer environment.)

Chuang: For us that's definitely the case. We open-sourced Workshop to work with Tomcat (an open source Web server), and Tomcat has a huge contingent of developers. ... Once you do that, Tomcat users can become Workshop users, and then they can become WebLogic users.

Q: So do you plan to offer an open source version of your application server as well?

Chuang: I think when the API (application programming interface) of the app server is no longer dependent then it will make sense to do that. You can have a low-end version of the app server that's open source to get more adoption. But right now there's too much dependency and it will freak the customer out. Right now they think support and reliability are the number one things.

Q: When you say no longer dependent on the API, do you mean when there are enough standards in place to ensure compatibility?

Chuang: Look at why Linux succeeded -- because people don't program to Unix any more, they don't use RPC, they don't use the file system, they don't use device drivers, they don't use anything. That means they are programming to a layer on top of Solaris, they are programming to J2EE, so for them to deploy on Solaris or Linux it makes no difference. When that same phenomenon happens to the application server then that will be time to open source it.

Q: Do you see that happening in the next 12 months?

Chuang: No, it might not happen in the next 12 years.

Q: You're building a network of VARs (value-added resellers) in North America to help you reach smaller businesses. What constitutes a small business for BEA, and do you see that as a big growth area for you?

Chuang: Small to us is below $100,000. Medium is $250,000 to $1 million. So the VARs work with both, and we may even give them some larger accounts that are not named accounts. The reality is, how much value are we really adding ourselves to sell WebLogic Server? We don't. It's the most popular product out there, everybody knows it installs easily, by the time a customer calls us they are already using the product, so we don't add a whole lot of value to the sale, and that's a very high-cost-of-sale channel that were using to sell a product that, at best, is a lead in to selling other products. So, I would rather have proliferation instead, and the only way to get there is to go through the VARs.

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