BEA readies WebLogic for Intel's new server chip

BEA Systems has partnered with Intel to develop a version of its application server software that runs on Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor, the companies are set to announce Monday. The move should lower the price for customers who want to use BEA's software and expand the market for application servers as a whole, according to BEA's chairman and chief executive officer.

BEA's application server, called WebLogic, already runs on Intel's 32-bit Pentium III Xeon processors, but limits to how far those chips can scale mean that few customers actually deploy the software on Intel-based servers. Instead, most run it on more powerful servers from the likes of Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., which use proprietary RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors, said Bill Coleman, BEA's chairman and chief executive officer (CEO), in an interview last week.

Intel's Itanium chip is designed to change that. Its 64-bit architecture allows it to address the large amounts of memory associated with enterprise applications, and it can scale to build more powerful servers can than the Xeon. Intel hopes to combine the power of Itanium with its mass-market production methods to undercut the vendors of RISC-based servers who dominate the high-end market today.

To do that, it needs software vendors to rewrite applications so that they take advantage of Itanium, and engineers from Intel and BEA have been doing just that, Coleman said. A version of WebLogic 6.1 that has been partially optimized for Itanium will be released in the third quarter, with a subsequent version that takes better advantage of the chip's capabilities due six months later, Coleman said.

"I really see the sweet spot of this coming to market as we get into the first half of next year, because we've got to have McKinley out there," he said. McKinley is the follow-up to Itanium due early next year and is expected to offer greater performance than its predecessor.

Itanium servers are generally priced lower than the RISC-based systems they compete with, which in turn will "vastly lower the price point" for businesses that want to deploy an application server, Coleman said. In addition, Itanium servers will be on sale from 25 vendors by the end of the year, providing customers with greater choice than they have in the Unix market, he said.

"This whole thing is about making the pie bigger, and making our piece of it bigger as well," he said.

The first Itanium servers were rolled out in the past two months from Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and others. Analysts have said they expect most customers to experiment with the new architecture before making a commitment, and say that many will wait for McKinley before making any wide-scale deployment.

The partnership between BEA and Intel is a non-exclusive one, an Intel spokeswoman said, meaning Intel can cut similar deals with other application server vendors including IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. "This partnership (with BEA) is a sign of the growing momentum behind Itanium," said Intel spokeswoman Kari Skoog.

Indeed, IBM has been working with Intel for more than a year to port its own WebSphere application server to Itanium, and like BEA will offer a version that has been optimized for the Intel chip, said Scott Hebner, director of marketing for WebSphere. IBM isn't ready yet to offer a timetable for that release, he said.

As part of Monday's announcement, Intel and BEA said they will pursue joint sales and marketing initiatives to encourage customers to use BEA's software on Intel-based servers, and to encourage third-party software makers and systems integrators to support the combination. The companies will also open a technology lab where their joint products will be tested and validated.

BEA is focused on porting WebLogic to 64-bit versions of Linux and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, Coleman said. Meanwhile, the company won't cut back its support for the versions of Unix that run on the RISC-based servers from Sun, HP and IBM. Almost 100 percent of the applications that work with WebLogic are developed by customers on Intel-based servers, but 95 percent of deployments currently are made on RISC-based servers, he said.

If Intel's Itanium servers prove successful -- questions about performance and manageability still remain -- they will pose a challenge to Sun's server business, but "won't change anything overnight," Coleman said.

"The world has counted Sun out at least a dozen times in the last 19 years and they're still doing pretty darn good," he said. "If this makes the J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) market grow a lot more rapidly and brings a lot more applications a lot quicker, it's going to increase the pie. How much of that pie Sun owns and whether it's more or less market share is going to be based on their ability to compete with their product set."

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