IBM Talks Up WebSphere 6, Due in Two Months
by Dan Burger
New features in WebSphere 6, which IBM is making available the second week of December, continue to evolve the product well beyond it's infant stage when issues of complexity and extreme costliness made it the target of frequent criticism. Improvements in the development with and administrative of WebSphere are substantial and have likely given IBM the edge over BEA Systems and Microsoft, at least temporarily, in the Web application server market.
While IBM says that WebSphere 6 will ship in mid-December, that really means WebSphere 6 for Windows, Unix, and Linux platforms. Versions of WebSphere 6 for OS/400 and i5/OS on iSeries and i5 servers or for z/OS on mainframe servers are slated for "early 2005," according to sources at the company.
The fact that WebSphere 6 is J2EE 1.4 compliant is a big step forward; WebSphere 5 is J2EE 1.3 compliant. But J2EE 1.4 support has been talked about since the beginning of the year, when downloadable code from a stripped-down version of the application server was made available on the IBM DeveloperWorks Web site and many of the other features in WebSphere 6 were still unknown. Moreover, all of the major application servers will soon be (notably BEA) or already are (those from JBoss, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems are J2EE 1.4 compliant.) J2EE 1.4 is just the ante to be in the game, unless of course you are Microsoft and you own the Windows platform.
Perhaps this is why what IBM wants to talk about with WebSphere 6 is high availability. IBM is trumpeting the autonomic computing features that safeguard Internet business applications against costly outages due to everything from small network glitches to power failures or natural disasters. The capability to simultaneously detect and recover can save losses that are estimated to exceed millions of dollars per hour. That's the kind of loss that will get the CEO's attention and the avoidance of such losses will make a CIO look pretty good.
Autonomic computing capabilities are one of IBM's strengths in the marketplace, a differentiator between Big Blue and its competition that IBM plans to use to its advantage for as long as it can. The benefit package it brings reduces or eliminates many of the complex management requirements of which there are already too many in most IT systems.
In the case of WebSphere Application Server 6, the server was designed so that after detecting an outage it can automatically redirect data to a designated "fail-over" server. That server might be located within the same data center, but it could also be a remote location in which case information would be moved via the Internet.
Bob Sutor, director of WebSphere foundation software, points out that "with WebSphere 5, users had to depend on other applications to deal with servers going down. Now there is a high availability manager built into the application server," he says. It is designed to aid the recovery of transaction losses and the completion of transactions that were in progress. Sutor says some customers will not find it unnecessary to purchase third-party high availability products, depending on the level of functionality they require.
Offering high availability along with workload management features, and service oriented architecture interoperability features are all indicators of a strong infrastructure and that impresses Pierre Fricke, vice president of applications and integrated infrastructures at the analyst firm D.H. Brown. "The use of Java Server Faces in the presentation logic has reduced the amount and complexity of coding making WebSphere much faster to develop and deploy." It's too early to tell if WebSphere has caught up with Microsoft's .NET approach, he says, but WebSphere Express will go head to head with .NET and we will hear more about this in the near future.
"People are going to see a lot of improvement in WebSphere 6 over what they've seen or heard about in the past," Sutor says. In terms of management, where IBM seems to always outshine its competition, the administrative console has benefited greatly. Rather than working with multiple applications in various locations, there's a single place to configure all aspects of the system. This relates to features such as high availability, a new messaging engine, and Tivoli management tools that are built in to the console.
From a development perspective, the most talked about features include support for J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA) 1.5, Java APIs for XML-remote procedure call (JAX-RPC 1.1), messaging-driven timers, servlets, and enterprise JavaBeans. WebSphere 6 is compatible with standards from both the J2EE and Web Services Activity group at the World Wide Web Consortium. WebSphere Rapid Deployment has simplified code writing and the manual processes involved with coding Java applications. Through a directory scanning system that looks for new or updated codes, it shortens the cycle of writing and testing code.
"The combination of features that include administrative and developer efficiency are superior to the competition," Sutor says, talking specifically about BEA WebLogic and Microsoft .NET. "The tools are well integrated. The wizards provide step-by-step instructions and have made WebSphere 6 much improved over earlier versions. These features alone reduce the implementation time by about 75 percent."
Comparisons with WebLogic and .NET should take into account technologies such as Java Server Faces. It is true that JSF has the capability of creating high quality Web sites with full access to data sources, but that environment requires more user skills than .NET, and although the Rational tools are noticeably improved over the WebSphere 5 equipment and they excel in certain areas, overall they are not the equal of .NET.
Naturally, WebSphere Application Server 6 is at the center of the overall IBM product strategy. Most of the WebSphere products are built on the application server and those have, of course, been designed off the WebSphere 5.1 level. After the introduction of WebSphere Application Server 6, products such as WebSphere Commerce, Portal, and Business Integration Server Foundation will be built on the new app server. Software Group has been breaking WebSphere into components, each with a price, rather than integrating all of these components and charging one price, and this strategy is not going to change with WebSphere 6. One reason is that IBM sees this componentized WebSphere approach as an opportunity for customers to reuse features that lock in place and become easy to install and maintain. It also assures customers will be using the latest versions of the components and are more likely to keep current as the technology advances.
Pricing has not yet been announced, but Sutor claims the list price of WebSphere 6 will keep it in the ballpark with the competition. He says variables in the pricing structure relating to individual customers and existing licenses make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult, but comparing app server to app server will reveal very similar pricing. WebSphere 6 will be available in Standard and Express versions.