IBM WebSphere upgrade looks beyond J2EE

IBM Corp. is developing an upgrade to its WebSphere application server that aims to make it easier for companies to orchestrate transactions among groups of business applications, and to expose applications as Web services that can be used by other companies, an official said this week.

The WebSphere upgrade draws on a technology being developed by vendors including IBM and Microsoft Corp. called BPEL4WS (Business Process Execution Language for Web Services), as well as capabilities being prepared for the next iteration of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) specification, version 1.4, said Scott Hebner, IBM's director of marketing for WebSphere.

The upgrade aims in part to make it easier for developers to build and deploy applications that can be offered as services to other businesses by integrating workflow, business rules, and transaction capabilities into WebSphere. A company that has built its own retirement plan application, for example, could expose it as a Web service and make it available for use by other companies, Hebner said.

"The developer sees a collection of Web services to compose and choreograph into transactions. What's nice is the developer is insulated form the underlying complexity, whether it's CORBA or CICS or Java, it's a series of business services made available to them," he said.

Hebner pointed to what he called shortcomings in the J2EE specification that make it insufficient in itself for doing such development work. Developers today can use J2EE with standards like XML, SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) to expose applications as services. But those standards don't provide a way to define workflows and orchestrate groups of applications, he said.

"J2EE by itself just isn't sufficient, it's like a heart without the lungs. Putting on a veneer of Web services progresses it, but it's not enough for an on-demand environment. A new set of application server capabilities is needed," he said.

Sun Microsystems Inc., which created Java and is overseeing its development, is expected to announce enhancements to to the J2EE standard early next week that relate to Web services. The company declined to discuss those plans Thursday.

The features in the J2EE specification are designed to appeal to "a wide, common set of developers, and when something makes it in it needs to be a pretty well established standard," said Ralph Galantine, a group marketing manager at Sun.

"As far as completeness goes, we often hear the other criticism, that J2EE is too big," he added.

The specification is designed to meet 80 percent of developers' and vendors' needs, he said. For the other 20 percent, users may need to look beyond the standard to other, emerging technologies.

The enhancements to WebSphere will be delivered in a release due out before the middle of the year, Hebner said. IBM released an upgrade to the Network Deployment edition of its application server in December; due in the coming months is Version 5 of the Enterprise Edition. It will be accompanied by a corresponding upgrade to WebSphere Studio, IBM's tools for building Java applications, Hebner said.

The workflow capabilities come from BPEL4WS, which IBM and Microsoft are seeking to establish as a standard. The technology included in the WebSphere upgrade will be a "precursor" to that specification, since it is not yet a standard, he said.

Other capabilities come from Version 1.4 of J2EE. That specification also isn't complete, so the WebSphere update won't be "certified" as 1.4 compliant but will include essentially all of its capabilities, Hebner said.

"The business rules are a set of EJB Java services ... that allow you to expose the service in a parameterized manner. It allows me to build an application that others can easily reconfigure by changing the rules," he said.

The application server plays a central role in IBM's "on-demand" computing initiative announced late last year. To further that effort, the product will also include "autonomic" or self-healing capabilities as well as features for grid computing, Hebner said.

IBM competes in the Java application server market with several vendors including BEA Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. The whole Java camp, meanwhile, is competing for developers with Microsoft Corp.'s .Net platform.

Hebner acknowledged that the standards for creating Web services have yet to be finalized. Indeed, BEA is backing two technologies for choreographing Web services, BPEL4WS and WSCI (Web Service Choreography Interface), which are competing for the attention of standards bodies.

IBM's decision to include J2EE features that are not yet standards marks a shift for the company that brings it more into line with other Java vendors, said Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. In the past IBM has tended to wait until specifications are complete before including them, he said.

"J2EE has got too big and there's no reason people should have to wait until (a standard) is ready, because that's increasingly an arbitrary collection of features that may or may not be relevant to a customer, and which also may or may not be relevant to IBM meeting its objectives strategically to compete with other Java vendors and with Microsoft," Gilpin said.

IBM's larger customers tend to play around with new technologies for a year or more before deploying them anyway, and including an early version of an emerging technology allows them to become familiar with it sooner, he noted.

Competition among software vendors is increasingly shifting towards tools, Gilpin said, as features in application servers become standardized. BEA, for example, has already implemented much of J2EE 1.4 in its WebLogic application server, although it hasn't disclosed plans for including WSCI or BPEL4WS .

While the vendors compete to expand their middleware offerings, some customers have become disillusioned with the promise of XML and with the whole idea of Web services.

"Integration is working inside the enterprise. What isn't working is where I think most businesses lie -- trying to do integration with suppliers, customers and their customers' customers, and there we need a whole lot more help because it isn't working," said Paul Grantham, vice president of software development at broadband provider Covad Communications Group Inc., who spoke at the Object Management Group Inc.'s software engineering conference earlier this week.

Covad has to link its applications to switching equipment at the central offices of seven or eight telecommunications providers for its billing and provisioning purposes.

"We get to them through a defined set of XML interfaces, but I have five people just to maintain changes in XML on those interfaces. We get 15 to 20 major changes (per month), enough that the system will die if we don't do it," he said, adding that he's "pretty skeptical" of Web services.

Hebner acknowledged that XML standards are still evolving, but argued that in the mid-90s similar concerns surrounded the use of HTML. The "marketshare leaders help to define what the standard (for Web services) will be," he said, adding that IBM is prepared to make concessions where necessary to help define standards quickly.

"Even though we may think (a particular technology) is technically superior we will ultimately fall into line with a standard even if we don't think it is the superior alternative," he said.

While technology issues are being addressed, legal concerns also need to be hammered out, others at the OMG conference said. For example, if Dell Computer Corp. orders 10,000 processors from Intel Corp. using a Web service and the processors don't arrive because the transaction fails, who is legally responsible?, asked Magnus Christerson, director of product strategy at tools vendor Rational Software Corp.

"You need a lot of lawyers to decide what these businesses processes mean from a legal standpoint," he said.

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