Enterprise Suite for NT: A BackOffice Alternative

Until recently, Microsoft Corp.’s BackOffice was the only Windows NT-compatible back-end application suite available. But with the release of the IBM Enterprise Suite for NT, previously known as Bartholdi, IBM Corp. has tied together the best of what it has to offer and, as a result, provides a solid alternative to Microsoft’s BackOffice Suite. And the IBM suite offers what Microsoft is just beginning to understand is important: compatibility with non-Microsoft operating systems.

Before you rush out to buy a copy, though, it’s a good idea to thoroughly inspect the basic differences between these two products. IBM has always had a different view than Microsoft of what the public needs, and the design of this suite is no exception. The Microsoft BackOffice Suite provides a varied toolset, attempting to supply quality tools for every aspect of enterprise application deployment and use. IBM, on the other hand, has centered its suite primarily on the deployment of applications.

In other words, IBM has assembled this suite of applications for system administrators and developers. There are few end-user tools, and there are very few of the usability niceties found in most products intended for the general public. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Simplification of the applications’ interfaces makes porting them to other platforms easier.

Another reason for the lack of end-user tools is that IBM's paradigm says if its tools are used correctly, the data and application delivery method should be totally transparent to the user. IBM takes the realistic approach that the deployment of an enterprisewide server-class application is going to be troublesome for someone. That someone will be the handful of administrators and developers responsible for the application, and not the thousands of end users.

The IBM Enterprise Suite has a couple of key features that make it stand out from Microsoft's BackOffice. The first is the licensing agreement. Unlike Microsoft, IBM allows for the installation of the product on multiple servers. The suite can be broken up and each of the components can be run on a separate piece of server hardware within your network.

Another key difference is the cross-platform capability. Although full suites for other operating systems are not yet available from IBM, various components are available on a variety of platforms other than NT, and those products are fully compatible with the applications in the NT suite. In addition, IBM plans to release this suite, in whole or in part, under AIX, OS/2, HP-UX, Sun Solaris, MV, and OS/400. Also, client licenses are available for a wide range of platforms. The Enterprise Suite for NT, in fact, comes with client software for a mixture of client types.

A Look Inside
Inside IBM’s Enterprise Suite for Windows NT V1.0 are the IBM DB2 Universal Database Workgroup Edition V5.0, IBM eNetwork Communications Server V5.01, DB2 Connect Enterprise Edition V5.0, Lotus Domino V4.6.1, IBM ADSTAR Distributed Storage Manager (ADSM) V3.1.1.0, IBM TXSeries, IBM MQSeries, IBM Net.Data V1.0.12 and Intel LANDesk Management Suite V6.1.

The suite's database offering, DB2, has come a long way in the NT market. Aimed at high-end enterprise usage, the latest version of DB2 is a strong data backdrop for the rest of the suite’s components. It combines the strengths of the mainframe DB2 with a complete set of tools for managing large databases over complex LAN topologies. In contrast, Microsoft's BackOffice Suite includes SQL Server 6.5, a well-established product aimed at midlevel usage. Not quite as powerful as DB2, SQL Server can handle all but the heftiest of enterprise database needs.

The IBM eNetwork Communications Server provides a means for running SNA applications over Sockets (TCP/IP) networks or TCP/IP applications over SNA networks without any modification of the application code or addition of new hardware. This newest version of the Communications Server supports Host On-Demand, allowing it to act as a Web-to-host gateway, connecting Web-users with 3270-based business applications.

The suite provides direct connectivity to IBM mainframe databases through the DB2 Connect Enterprise Edition. Applications running under AIX, HP-UX, OS/2, Solaris and Windows NT can communicate directly with DB2 and SQL/DS databases on a variety of mainframe platforms. Version 5.0 has new ODBC 3.0 and JDBC drivers. We found the new GUI for making connections easy to manage.

IBM uses Lotus Domino V4.6.1 to provide Web server functionality to the suite. The popular Lotus Notes database and e-mail server are included with the Domino server. Notes provides an alternative to DB2 for implementing small document-based databases and for providing a conduit for moving data between DB2 and a Web page. Domino's main strength is its ability to convert any Notes document directly into a Web page on-the-fly, allowing ad hoc browsing of the database.

Microsoft BackOffice lacks a document-based database in its component list but provides Web services and e-mail through the Internet Information Server (IIS) and the Exchange Server, respectively. Each of these tools individually may outclass Lotus' offerings for the same functionality, but if the tight dynamic integration of data, mail and Web serving that Domino provides is essential to your enterprise, Microsoft’s suite cannot directly provide it.

ADSM provides backup and archive services to multivendor PC, workstation and file server platforms. Backups are performed on request or via scheduling by the ADSM storage management server. ADSM also offers disaster recovery and hierarchical storage management (HSM). HSM transparently migrates data from workstation and file server drives on the basis of size and age criteria. When a user accesses a migrated file from the workstation, the file is moved back to its original location automatically. Microsoft offers no centralized backup facility as part of its suite.

Both IBM and Microsoft offer a distributed transaction processing component. These transaction processors work as middleware between business applications and the operating system or database. IBM’s TXSeries, a group of integrated software components, can be used to create a Customer Information Control System (CICS) environment or an Encina Monitor environment. Both environments can communicate and cooperate with each other.

Application programming interfaces (API) for the TXSeries, provided for developing transaction processing applications on a number of platforms, can use the standard CICS and Encina APIs to run on mainframes or PCs with little change. The TXSeries includes a good set of system management and monitoring tools. Transaction serving in the BackOffice suite is handled by Microsoft Transaction Server. Microsoft also provides a set of APIs that can be used to develop applications with Microsoft development tools.

The application deployment features of the suite would not be complete without a method for distributed applications to communicate with each other. IBM's MQSeries enables applications to exchange information across different operating system platforms by sending and receiving data as messages. MQSeries, like its comparable Microsoft component, Microsoft Message Queue Server, takes care of network interfaces, assures delivery of messages, deals with communications protocols, and handles recovery after system problems. Both products require client software to be installed on each-end user workstation.

The Net.Data development tool is included with IBM’s suite. We found Net.Data, which runs on a Web server, to be an easy way to create dynamic documents. It facilitates adding information stored in databases, flat files, registries, applications and system services to a Web page. Net.Data builds on the database access and reporting capabilities of DB2 Connect. Additionally, it can act as a development tool for the creation of either simple dynamic Web pages or complex Web-based applications. Net.Data has support for the IBM Internet Connection Server API, the Microsoft Internet Server API and the Netscape Server API.

Microsoft provides Web interface development functionality with its Active Server Pages (ASP). ASP is limited to Microsoft’s IIS, but equips developers with a much more robust set of Web page design and interface options for that environment than IBM’s Net.Data. Once again, ASP is limited to IIS while Net.Data is compatible with APIs from multiple vendors’ products.

To complete the suite, IBM added Intel Corp.’s LANDesk Management Suite. LANDesk is a full set of tools for deploying, managing and protecting network assets. Administrators can perform such functions as software distribution, software metering, server monitoring and remote control, and software and hardware inventory on Novell NetWare and Windows NT. Through the included LanAccess product, LANDesk interoperates with Tivoli Systems Inc.'s Tivoli Enterprise Management product.

BackOffice provides a close match in functionality to LANDesk with its Systems Management Server. The Systems Management Server provides support for DOS, Macintosh and OS/2, and also includes NetWare clients.

Around the Test Track
We installed the full IBM Enterprise Suite on a single server, a dual Pentium Pro with 256 MB of RAM and 8 GB of disk space. Eleven CDs were required for the full installation, which took a little less than 1 1/2 hours.

We chose the Express setup option and were asked only two simple questions at the beginning of the install, for a DB2 username and password, and for a choice between CICS and Encina monitoring. Unfortunately, IBM's installation routines provided no further feedback for the remainder of the install except for the prompt for new disks. There were spans of several minutes during the installation process where the system appeared to be totally inactive.

A readme file on the first installation disk contains information that is imperative for a successful installation. The setup program automatically loads when the disk is inserted, though, making it easy to overlook the readme file. We, in fact, did just that on our first installation. We immediately followed that up by making the simple mistake of providing a different username and password for our DB2 password than that which we used for our NT login. The installation process crashed while installing the last CD. Recovery was impossible, and the uninstall routines did not completely fix the problems. We had to wipe the software from the disk and restart from the beginning of the installation process to recover.

Once past the installation, the overall quality of the software was good. One nice feature is that almost all software could be managed remotely from a Web browser. For companies in which physical security is an issue, an administrator can perform almost all necessary functions without visiting the server.

One of the direct results of blending together applications from so many different sources to build this suite is the noticeable differences in the user interfaces of each application. We found meandering between applications within IBM’s suite to be confusing at times. Traipsing between BackOffice applications, though, always leads us to the old familiar Windows interface.

Documentation for the Enterprise Suite was also inconsistent in quality and usability. All documentation was online, although much of it remained on the CD. The installed Start Menu entries contained no pointers to the documentation on CD, so we had to hunt for it. Once the correct help files were found, it was often difficult to find what we were looking for. For instance, setting up a scheduled ADSM task took a couple hours because the documentation on how to do so was unclear.

Despite faults in the documentation, some of the software was intuitive enough to enable relatively short learning curves. For example, with our mixture of experiences at setting up databases, we were able to use the DB2 administrator tools to manage the database with minimal use of the online help. But some applications absolutely required that we go through the documentation to accomplish anything.

The product documentation points to an integration demo that provides an overview of accessing dynamic data from a DB2 database through a remote Web browser connected to the Domino server. Domino, in turn, used MQSeries to send database transaction requests through the TXSeries to DB2. Without experience with the tools involved, a simple version of this connection took 2 days to create.

Before You Buy
Before purchasing a back-office suite for a Windows NT environment, IBM’s Enterprise Suite for NT is worthy of some careful consideration. Microsoft’s BackOffice components are highly integrated, providing a strong set of tools that are custom-fitted to the Windows NT-only environment. IBM, though, provides a database aimed at a higher usage level, a Web server that supports ad hoc delivery of data, and a foundation that will grow with you even if your company starts integrating non-NT technology.

But perhaps more important, the IBM Enterprise Suite for Windows NT is the clear choice for managing key business application deployment on a network with mixed platforms. Taken individually, the products are sometimes difficult to use, but together they provide a cross-platform integration tool that is hard to beat. And this integration gives the IBM suite its strength.