IBM is in the midst of revamping its approach to enterprise computing as part of an ambitious effort to fundamentally change the way it brings its entire portfolio of server software products to market.
Under an initiative internally referred to as its e-Business Integrator program, IBM will increasingly move its focus away from individual products and toward developing customisable platforms.
These custom platforms will be aimed at specific types of tasks, including electronic commerce, corporate portals, and customer relationship management, IBM officials said.
As part of that effort, IBM will bring to market an enterprise application integration (EAI) tool that combines WebSphere, MQSeries, and its transaction-processing technologies into a single offering.
That offering, expected to serve as the core of the company's overall EAI plan, is expected to be available sometime during the first quarter of 2000.
The first public discussion of IBM's emerging development strategy will occur at customer meetings next month in San Francisco and again in January at Lotusphere in Orlando, where the company will preview Lotus Notes 6.
As part of this shift in strategy, IBM plans to offer Notes and WebSphere in two forms. The first form will be a set of packaged applications. The second form, in recognition of a general move toward modular-computing models, is to offer Notes and WebSphere as a set of mix-and-match services to be combined with specific IBM platforms, according to John Swainson, general manager of applications and middleware for IBM's Software Solutions group.
Analysts generally agree with IBM's modular approach to redesigning its middleware, and they note that most corporate users will welcome the flexibility in crafting solutions for their individual needs. But some raise questions about its validity for specific platforms, such as customer relationship management.
"We see people buying the packages precisely because they don't want to have to deal with putting together their own stuff and maintaining it for things like customer relationship management. So I would question that aspect of it," said Melinda Ballou, a senior research analyst at the Meta Group, in Stamford, Connecticut.
Key to the success of the strategy, according to Ballou and others, is IBM's ability to let users find, manage, create, and thoroughly test components. Also needed is repository support to help tie together team programming efforts.
IBM officials said they are attempting to establish the company as the dominant supplier of customisable platforms, in effect giving customers a third choice between building applications from scratch using tools or locking themselves into inflexible packaged applications.
The IBM platforms will then be interconnected using IBM's EAI tools, which will be repackaged to give the company an edge over rivals that cannot yet combine support for components, messaging, Extensible Markup Language (XML), and transaction processing in a single offering.
"If you think about it, we're going to be the only company that can trigger transactions based on the content in the message because we can combine MQSeries with a transaction-processing engine that keeps track of state," Swainson said.
Once that product is in place next year, IBM will also deliver an XML-based rapid-application development tool that will make it easier for average developers to create workflow applications that make use of what have traditionally been powerful but arcane IBM middleware technologies.
Some analysts see the strategy as a logical continuation of IBM's bundling strategy, which included bundling the CORBA-compliant Component Broker into WebSphere as well as its VisualAge programming tools.
"This sounds pretty ambitious. It will take a long time to pull this off. If they are going to rewrite [their middleware], they might as well start from scratch," said John Rymer, president of Upstream Consulting, in Emeryville, California.
To make its middleware products more modular, IBM will have to rewrite major portions of them, a process that, in some cases, could take a couple of years to complete.