Application Server Market Begins to Mature

The application server is one of the latest software markets to burst on to the computer industry's radar screen. For the past year, a growing number of vendors have been scrambling to christen -- and in some cases rechristen -- products with an application server label.

At Java Business Expo, held in New York this past December, it was evident that the market will shift into an even higher gear in 1999. As vendors release second and third versions of their application servers, they are implicitly defining a core set of features required for products in this category.

It's hard to find a definition of application servers that everyone can agree on, but analysts from the Patricia Seybold Group proposed one of the most basic: "An application server provides an optimized execution environment for server-based application systems." In many cases, that means combining features from OLTP systems such as middleware, support for distributed object technologies such as CORBA, and new technologies data access and management techniques such as XML.

Increasingly, it's becoming clear that many application server vendors have bought into Java and the Enterprise JavaBean (EJB) specification as the best development environment for application servers. The EJB specification defines a transactional, distributed, protocol-neutral, multitier component architecture for running server-side business logic written in Java. An EJB server automatically handles system-level services such as security and object persistence and manages connections with EJB components running on the same or other servers.

Vendors whose application servers support Enterprise JavaBeans, including IBM Corp., GemStone Systems Inc. ( and Secant Technologies Inc. (, trumpeted this fact in their Java Business Expo announcements. Other application server vendors who released new versions at the show, including Sybase Inc. ( and Inprise Corp. (, said they would add EJB support early next year.

Analysts from International Data Corp. (IDC, and Aberdeen Group Inc. ( say EJB is revolutionizing both application development and deployment. "IDC sees EJB as one of the most important new technologies relevant to the successful development of enterprise applications for the Web, or even without the Web," wrote IDC analyst Steve Garone in a December paper titled "Enterprise JavaBeans Enters the IBM WebSphere." "As such, it is critically important for any vendor of a Web application server to support it, support it fully, and support it early."

But while EJB, CORBA and other technologies are becoming standard features, application server vendors are using other angles to differentiate their products from the competition. Sybase, Inprise and IBM have incorporated their Java and client/server development tools with their application servers to create application server suites. Inprise vice president Marc Rudov argues that application server suites can help companies develop custom applications efficiently. "There's a trend back to customized application development for competitive advantage," he says.

In addition to support for PowerBuilder- and Java-based development, Sybase is emphasizing security features in its Enterprise Application Studio suite, which includes support for secure socket layer (SSL) connections to both browser and non-browser based clients.

Performance is another feature vendors are claiming to silence one of the remaining about using Java for mission-critical application development. For example, Tower Technology Corp. ( is touting its TowerJ 3.0 application server's ability to dynamically update Java applications that have been natively compiled using the company's DynaFlex runtime virtual machine.

IBM, on the other hand, is emphasizing the need for application server scalability. "[Companies] have already gotten over this question of Java or not to Java," says Jeff Reser, product manager for IBM's e-business solutions group. "Eventually they're going to need to get more into scalability. The business logic that's part of this middleware is going to become more and more complex."

When asked which other application vendor he sees as IBM WebSphere's primary competition, Reser provides a telling answer: Site Server and Windows NT Enterprise edition.

IDC recognizes the relative absence of Microsoft in this market. In his paper about IBM's WebSphere announcement, analyst Steve Garone points out that Microsoft's solutions offer ActiveX instead of JavaBeans, and DCOM instead of CORBA. In choosing sides, Garone wrote that "at least for the time being, EJB and CORBA remain the most promising and best technologies for implementing multitiered, enterprise-level, application server- [and Web-] based, and cross-platform applications."

New Versions of Application Servers

(As of Dec. 1998)

(Expected in 1999)

Gemstone/J 2.0

TowerJ 3.0

IBM WebSphere Application Server v.2

Sybase Enterprise Application Studio v.3

Inprise Application Server


Secant Extreme Enterprise Server for EJB