Oracle, BEA wage app server warfare

A war of words blew up at the JavaOne conference Thursday between BEA Systems Inc., which leads the application server market, and Oracle Corp., which lies in third place behind IBM Corp.

In back-to-back presentations here, Oracle Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison cited a series of benchmark tests that he claimed show that Oracle's new Internet application server can dish up Web pages more quickly than BEA's. Bill Coleman, BEA's chairman, CEO and founder, said he's heard Oracle make the same claims about two prior versions of its application server, only to scrap those products and start afresh.

Application servers, which are becoming increasingly complex beasts, provide a software platform on which developers can build and deploy a range of business applications. They include middleware that makes it easier to pull data from older computing systems and distribute it over the Internet to multiple devices, and are seen as an important element in the emerging Web services model.

BEA is the market leader with about 35 percent, according to recent figures from research firm Giga Information Group Inc. IBM follows with about 30 percent market share, and Oracle trails in third place, according to Giga. Oracle has worked aggressively to improve its position, adding features to its application server for analyzing business data and caching Web pages, and building closer integration with its flagship database.

Thursday's proceedings began civilly, with Coleman demonstrating a new release of BEA's WebLogic application server, version 6.1, slated for release in July. The product includes features intended to make it easier for developers to combine services available on the Web -- such as travel information or a language translator -- to make new Web services. The company also unveiled a new integration server that lets developers access information from older applications, and software for building portals where data can be accessed over the Web.

"We're turning Web services into something people can really use, and it doesn't take a lot of coding," he told a packed hall of Java developers.

Coleman made it through most of his presentation without firing any shots at his rivals, but blew it at the end with a pointed introduction of Ellison, who's known for his impassioned speeches.

"As you can see, I made it though this entire presentation without blowing up; I can't guarantee that for the next guy," Coleman said.

Introducing himself as "the next guy," Ellison wasted no time taking potshots at both BEA and IBM, which he said is "trying" to build an application server. He cited the results of a handful of tests conducted by Oracle which he claimed show that its Oracle9i Application Server, which was announced here this week and also supports both J2EE and Web services, is faster and more scalable than BEA's.

"I bet Bill Coleman is thrilled with this presentation," Ellison quipped.

The number one concern about Java cited by Oracle's customers has been performance, Ellison said. It prompted Oracle to "throw away" its former application server and start again with a new version announced here this week, which he said is more scalable, performs better and supports a gamut of Internet standards including J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition), SOAP (simple object access protocol) and XML (extensible markup language). BEA's product also supports those standards.

"BEA can proudly say that, historically, they've been first to implement those standards. I give them tremendous credit for that. I believe we have leapfrogged them," Ellison said.

In a press conference later, Coleman dismissed Oracle's performance claims. The tests weren't conducted on real-world business applications, and Oracle didn't make it clear what version of BEA's application server the tests were run on, Coleman and other BEA officials said. Oracle made similar claims about two earlier versions of its application server, only to wind up scrapping those products and starting over, he said.

"That was so 70s -- a product demo in front of 50,000 people. Now let's see what people can do with the actual product," he said.

Both men agreed that competition in the application server market is a good thing. Competition encourages better performance, which is important if Java is to win out over Microsoft's Internet initiative, dubbed .Net.

One developer in the audience with London-based Barclays Capital agreed.

".Net is very fast and Java needs some kind of a shake up," he said, asking that his name not be published.

He said Oracle's performance claims might be legitimate, since the company "owns the database" and is able to integrate the two products tightly in a way that could boost the performance of its software. Oracle leads the database market, trailed by IBM.

JavaOne ends Friday. More information can be found at http://java.sun.com/javaone.

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