albert's analysis: Is IBM Planning for Tomorrow's Business Customer?

If today's general advice is "plan for the future," is IBM adhering to that maxim when it comes to its business customers? Well, Big Blue seems to be moving in that direction with the launch of its e-Network On-Demand Server. Forecasting that intranet and extranet business applications will continue to rapidly proliferate, IBM has created this software product to allow users to bring the same personal imprint to their web environment as they've had in their traditional PC environments.

When IBM launched the e-Network On-Demand Server in late October of last year, it was an attempt to gain first entry into a ripe, but as yet untapped, customer market. The demand for such a product is opening up now -- as you read this -- and competitors are struggling (should I say scrambling?) to cover this space.

I hear good feedback from application developers and industry analysts, who have been coming out in support of this new initiative. One Gartner Group analyst, in fact, called the On-Demand Server a "breakthrough" product.

Basically, the eNetwork On-Demand Server allows companies to tailor Web application preferences to individual users or groups. It manages 'smart Web' applications that contain specific information about users, devices and connections. It is IBM's multiplatform, server-based answer to a growing need to conduct business transactions in Web-based Java environments.

The On-Demand server relies on a network computing model instead of the traditional client/server computing model. In other words, users can access a customized set of applications and data from any location in the network, directly from a Web browser. Its server is integrated with IBM's Tivoli management tools, to enable real-time monitoring and deployment of Web applications.

The ultimate goal, it seems, is to enable the writing of customized code that can specify such things as background color, screen layout, organization and retrieval of files, and even things like programming for a left-handed mouse. In other words, Web application access tailored to distinct user profiles.

Currently, millions of Web-based application users are forced to accommodate their work to many barriers imposed upon them, including applications that are tied to one corporate standard application server. The On-Demand Server helps customers manage applications of all types from one unifying administrator interface, and then map them to different Web server interfaces. It also provides a Java applet management interface, for configuration of services and profile management.

The net of all this: to improve server-centered computing at the user and group level, and to help enterprises migrate to Java and Web technologies and network computing. This is a practical move for IBM, because more companies are taking advantage of Java technology, and as they do so, they increasingly seek environments customized to their individual user needs.

Of course, I expect some resistance to web serving in the enterprise. Because in essence, the concept redefines the role of the traditional systems management person - someone used to monitoring PC environments, not Web environments. Yet in keeping with Lou Gerstner's dictum and overall direction to keep all IBM products and services synergistic and solutions-based, Big Blue is positioning its on-demand server product for easy integration with existing systems management tools.

Realize that systems management, by definition, implies an ability to roll out a new application - whether network, PC or server-based - configure it, ensure access to it, and finally, monitor it. IBM's On-Demand server supports not only Websphere, but also Sun Net Dynamics, Microsoft Internet Information Server, Netscape Enterprise Server and Lotus Domino Go. That's where I see IBM taking a necessary next step, by supplying total web client management systems.

The On-Demand Server appears to be another important step taken towards IBM's renewed focus on total solutions. By making this latest product adaptable across platforms - including OS/2, OS/390, AIX and Windows NT, IBM is on the right track. We'll be watching to see if it reaches its destination in a web enabled landscape.

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