Company defends lead with new app server software

BEA Systems lifted the lid on new products and services Monday that are intended to make life easier for software developers building Web services and help BEA shore up its lead in the competitive application server field.

The products include a new developer framework intended to let programmers with minimal Java training create Web services applications using Java. BEA also released a beta version of an upgrade to its WebLogic application server, and said current versions of that product are now available for IBM Corp. mainframe computers running OS/390 or Linux.

The company also announced that it has acquired a small Swedish company that makes a Java Virtual Machine for use on large corporate servers and launched a new program, called BEA dev2dev, intended to attract more software developers to its platform.

The announcements were made here at the start of BEA eWorld, the company's annual conference for developers. Alfred Chuang, BEA's founder, chairman and chief executive officer, was expected to demonstrate the new products during a speech this morning where he will also outline BEA's strategy moving forward.

The conference comes at an important time for BEA, which established an early lead among application server vendors but has since faced mounting pressure from larger rivals including IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. Those vendors see application servers as potential big money-makers, as well as a strategic sale that can help them push related services and products, said Shawn Willett, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc., in Sterling, Virginia.

"Times are changing for BEA," he said. Application servers have become commodities to a large extent, with each vendor offering similar features, and BEA is under pressure to maintain its edge by more tightly integrating its WebLogic products and offering new tools to lure developers, he added.

Besides the struggle for leadership among BEA, IBM and Sun, the Java community as a whole is fending off a push by Microsoft Corp., which is trying to lure developers away from Java and towards its competing .Net initiative. Earlier this month it launched Visual Studio .Net, a new version of its developer tools for building applications that can be tied together over the Web. Although Microsoft still has to convince customers that its software is secure and reliable enough for large-scale corporate applications, its new tools appear "very attractive, easy to use and powerful," said Mike Gilpin, a research fellow at Giga Information Group Inc. "It's necessary for the key J2EE players to respond; Cajun will be BEA's response to that."

The new developer framework, called WebLogic Workshop, is supposed to allow developers trained in Cobol, Visual Basic and other programming languages to create Web services using Java and J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition). Known formerly by the code name "Cajun," it was developed partly in response to customers who said that Java developers are expensive and hard to find, said Byron Sebastian, a BEA senior product manager.

Workshop uses visual interfaces -- or "visual metaphors" as Sebastian called them -- which allow developers to design Java objects while still thinking about their code in terms of the "events" and "methods" associated with other programming models. Skilled Java developers are still needed to do low-level plumbing work such as message queuing, but other developers can make use of that code without being familiar with complex J2EE APIs (application programming interfaces), Sebastian said.

"The developer writes the application logic and decides how applications will fit together, and the framework figures out the right plumbing to make all that happen," he said.

One analyst said the product could help solve "the primary strategic weakness" of Java -- that its complexity limits its use to a relatively small field of developers. "Even the people who are firmly behind the J2EE platform occasionally have concerns on that point," said Gilpin.

BEA is working with a variety of vendors to allow their packaged applications to be incorporated into the framework in the future, allowing a developer to use Workshop in conjunction with an application from PeopleSoft Inc., for example. Workshop also includes new tools for testing and debugging software more quickly, Byron said.

A beta version is available for download now at BEA's new resource for developers, at http://dev2dev.bea.com/, the company said. The final product is expected to ship midyear when pricing will be announced.

WebLogic Server 7.0, the upgrade to BEA's application server, was also released in beta Monday and is also due to ship by midyear. New features include a graphical security-policy editor that lets administrators assign access to applications based on rules.

Version 7.0 also includes a new wizard for configuring the software when it's used across a cluster of servers, as well as support for the latest Java iteration, J2EE 1.3, and greater support for Web services standards, according to BEA.

Workshop and WebLogic Server are part of what BEA calls its WebLogic Platform, which also includes server products for integrating applications and building portals. The revamped suite, dubbed WebLogic Platform 7.0, will be available midyear and has been designed to allow tighter integration among the various elements. For example, a developer would be able to create a Web service application that can more easily be accessed through a portal site, BEA said.

As for the acquisition of Stockholm-based Appeal Virtual Machines AB, BEA said it plans to optimize Appeal's JVM for use on 32-bit and 64-bit servers based on Intel Corp. microprocessors. Until now, the only "credible" JVMs available have been sold by vendors who also sell their own servers, operating systems or databases, which made it "problematic" for customers who use standard Intel-based servers, according to BEA.

Appeal's Rockit JVM has advanced I/O (input/output), memory management and multithreading functions that make it well suited for use with hefty server applications used by large corporations, BEA said. The acquisition is considered nonmaterial and financial terms will not be disclosed, the company said.

BEA maintained its lead in 2001 with 36 percent of the revenue in the application server market, according to the most recent estimate from Giga, compiled in September. Gilpin noted that IBM has worked hard to bridge the gap in functionality between WebLogic and its own WebSphere products. It narrowed BEA's market share lead from 2000 but remained slightly behind with 34 percent, Giga estimated. Sun and Oracle trailed, each with less than 10 percent.

"Clearly BEA is still the technology leader ... but the gap has been narrowing and there are some cases where IBM may have moved ahead," Gilpin said. "Some data suggests that the (performance) benchmarks are not dissimilar either -- WebSphere is a lot faster than it used to be."

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