The application server market will consolidate as IBM, BEA and Sun, in particular, are forced to go out and acquire the pieces missing from their product sets over the coming year, says Gartner research director Mark Driver.
"If a vendor says they have all the pieces, they are either delusional or deceptive," he said.
Speaking at the recent Gartner Symposium ITexpo in Sydney, Driver listed the two main choices in the application server market as BEA Systems' WebLogic enterprise platform and IBM's WebSphere Application Server (now at version 5.0).
"It's not the fact that these two have better technology than [smaller companies such as] Iona, it's simply the case that [would-be customers] get very nervous about investing their application stacks with a vendor which they don't know is going to be around in five years. When everybody in this room is dust, IBM will still be around."
Driver said BEA had been a leader in the application server market for the past two to three years, and with its history in Unix and Tuxedo technology, it understood large-scale transactional enterprise applications.
"BEA made a mint selling the world's best application server," he said. "What's wrong with that? [It's that] you can now get application servers for free when you buy large server hardware from IBM or Sun, they are embedding their application server software."
"[Longer term] BEA is going to be challenged to keep up. IBM is the 20,000-pound gorilla, they're not going to make a dime out of WebSphere and don't care. They will sell a wide range of [associated] global services.
"IBM didn't get WebSphere working properly until version 3.5, and some of you would argue even with that, but they have come a long way in a very short time, only in the last year has IBM been able to close the gap with BEA," Driver said.
"Microsoft suffers a cultural backlash, it is simply not perceived as scalable and reliable as Java/Unix-based application servers. The good news is, as much as you are willing to leverage the other offerings [such as SQL Server, .Net Server] then there are benefits in an integrated stack.
"Sun suffers primarily from a lack of execution in getting its software story out there. It's perceived as a hardware vendor that uses software to sell hardware. Some of [its] software products are very strong but [would be] customers would never know. The fact that Sun still owns Java gives it some political advantage."
Driver said enterprise IT managers should expect "aggressive action" from Sun over the coming 12 months, even though its software strategy would remain "changeable".
He said Oracle offered an overall solution but like Microsoft, it's a case of "how much of your soul are you willing to sell" to one vendor. "This contrasts subtly with IBM, where [for instance] you could use WebSphere with the Oracle database, and not have to go with IBM's DB2 database."
Driver described application servers as part of a software infrastructure market comprising portal servers, integration servers and tools, application server engines, development tools/integrated development frameworks and operations management tools. Vendors are starting to bundle some of these components into Applications Platform Suites (APS). "The thing that is the new is the deeply embedded development framework," he said.
As part of his "leader at the gate" ratings, Driver listed the leading portal servers as those from BEA, IBM, Sun and SAP, and said the WebSphere Business Integrator was the leading integration platform. For transaction processing (OLTP) the leaders were seen as BEA WebLogic Service Premium Tuxedo and WebSphere Enterprise. In the development category Microsoft bagged a leaders' flag with Visual Studio .Net, as did Oracle with JDeveloper and IBM with WebSphere Studio.
"For best of breed you can cobble it all together and I suggest this is a perfectly valid approach but expensive," he said."
"If you go with a suite you may get the best in a couple of areas [of software infrastructure], a couple that are good enough and some which are just not good at all. So you'll have to go out to other vendors, but the benefit is that you will deal with three vendors - one big one and the other two - instead of 10 vendors."