Albert's Analysis: Forward Thinking Keeps WebSphere in the Game

It's reality. An "e-business evolution" has come to the Internet. While most businesses today have established a presence on the Internet – most traditionally through a static home page – the newest blitz is the use of those Web sites to provide dynamic, real-time business exchanges. As it did with home pages, it may take time for Web e-business tools to become standard practice. But bet on it happening quickly.

I credit IBM with looking toward its own future, by promising ongoing enhancements to the WebSphere product line and by building in versatility across platforms.

WebSphere is a Java servlet-based Web application server that helps customers build, deploy and manage e-business Web sites through self-serve type applications that use browser-based Web technology. Written in Java, it purports to plug in easily to multiple Web servers, most notably IBM's AS/400, S/390, AIX or NT, but also Netscape Enterprise Server and others. Positioned by company marketers as a less expensive alternative, it provides a way to leverage existing business systems without replacing them.

WebSphere products are being built to accommodate increasingly mixed environments. For example, as many businesses have already invested heavily in CGI programs and Net.Data macros, WebSphere intends to support and enhance those capabilities on AS/400 – to position itself as an alternative, if not a full replacement. But Big Blue goes further, promising a richer application environment for more sophisticated or complex uses.

In future releases, WebSphere Application Server is being positioned to provide the capability to serve e-media content ranging from streaming audio and video, 3-D and panoramic images. That goes a long way from static "brochureware."

I heard an IBM executive recently promising the WebSphere family of products to be "even stronger in the future." With an increasingly crowded field – including big name competitors like Microsoft and Netscape, as well as a host of smaller firms – such words must translate into reality, for IBM to maintain a competitive edge and credibility (which it seems to have accomplished with it's server initiatives.)

Take a look at what's been done so far. In June, IBM announced the availability of its WebSphere Application Server, plus enhancements to the product line, such as packaging the Apache HTTP Server with the application server, and making the NetObjects ScriptBuilder available as the first development tool for the WebSphere product line.

Then in September, IBM unveiled a set of PC-based Web application development tools called WebSphere Studio, to help companies develop self-service applications. And now, future plans include adding Enterprise Java Bean support to the WebSphere application servers, to provide greater access to back-end business data.

WebSphere Application Server acts as a sort of "middle tier" interface between the Web interface and back-end business data. In other words, it's an application layer written on top of a static HTTP layer. Currently, the AS/400 base operating system is being shipped with the WebSphere Application Server, with the option to buy WebSphere Studio, and WebSphere Performance Pack, both of which run on client or workstation platforms.

Based on what I hear and see, IBM appears determined to support cross-industry, cross-platform e-business Web solutions. And so far, the WebSphere products lend tribute to the portability of Java servlets across platforms. This is quite a difference from its legacy "exclusivity" posture of years gone by.

Again attempting to stay true to its total solutions mandate, IBM promises to back up its growing family of products with consultant services, education and certification programs, global services, and an expanded network of partners.

As solutions for technology customers become increasingly heterogeneous – taking pieces from here and there to create the best possible composite – IBM is embracing versatility as a way to keep pace. In my view, that's a great way to stay in the game.

Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships.