Application Developers Aim For The Middle

When it comes to integrating a portfolio of business applications, which reside on anynumber of different mainframe, UNIX or Windows NT platforms, IT customers are gluing theirfuture IT architectures together with the help of middleware solutions. "Middleware'srange of functions such as transaction management, load balancing and Web-to-legacycomputing, eases the application developer's burden to build distributed applicationsacross the customer's choice of underlying hardware, operating systems, networks, databasemanagement systems and object models," says Ed Acly, research director for IDC'sMiddleware Service.

To put it another way: IT customers are increasingly buying middleware products becausethey simplify the complexity of building distributed IT architectures in a mixed computingenvironment. Middleware, it seems, is destined to be part of future IT infrastructures.Not even the drag on sales created by Y2K issues, European currency conversion fears orthe slowdown in the Asian/Pacific economy could keep the combined middleware markets fromgrowing 28% to $1.7 billion worldwide in 1997. And the outlook continues to be positive.

MOM's Messaging

As middleware vendors make their products inevitably easier to use, IDC analystspredict annual growth rates for middleware in excess of 30% by 2002. Message-OrientedMiddleware (MOM), which currently includes the emerging businessware market, is expectedto displace data-access middleware as the largest middleware market segment by the year2000. However, other analysts think the application integration component of MOM is themost important area for many CIO and IT managers.

"Application integration is the fastest growing area of middleware and has beenthat for at least the last year," says Yefim Natis, vice president and researchdirector, Gartner Group. "Every middleware vendor has some degree of applicationintegration support already in their current products." According to Natis, the trendstarted several years ago, but "1998 was the year that everyone jumped on thebandwagon." But a growing market is not good for everyone.

"Until recently, application [integration] middleware was mostly provided by manysmaller-sized companies, each holding onto a small part of the market. As the big guyshave come in with [sophisticated] products -- distributed platform middleware -- thesmaller [ISVs] have to look for other opportunities.

"Some become partners [with large companies] or are acquired," says Natis."In any event, they all need to look for new growth opportunities and applicationintegration seemed to be an available growth opportunity because the larger vendors havenot yet turned that way."

IDC analysts, on the other hand, are bullish on the use of Enterprise Java Beans (aninterface from Sun Microsystems that lets developers build re-useable application buildingblocks that can be deployed in a network) as a convergence point for the applicationdevelopment community. They predict that distributed Transaction Processing (TP)middleware will become the second-fastest-growing middleware market, behind MOM.

Webification Of The Tried & True

The Internet, of course, has influenced the market dynamics. Tired, but otherwise,tried-and-true legacy applications must now be Web-enabled. "[Developers] are tryingnot to write another set of stovepipe applications," says Natis. "What peopleare trying to do, is build component applications, that is, applications that are writtenfor the Web, but that are built on top of the existing applications." Still, savvy ITdevelopers know all too well that application integration is not an easy task.

Bill Shellooe, HP's strategy manager for application development tools and middleware,confirms that fact. "If I'm putting together a high-end electronic commerceapplication to integrate a lot of my legacy systems, I've got a lot of work on my hands ifI'm trying to write that back to the data source and down to the operating system."But he adds, "All applications now are being built using [an] Internet architecture.And in order to complete [them] and the applications, middleware is absolutelyfundamental."

Shellooe views an Internet architecture as consisting of four tiers: the client; a Webserver; an application server; and the data source, which could be anything from UNIX toNT databases to legacy applications to ERP systems. So, application integration usuallyrequires more work than writing brand-new code and creating brand-new data definitions.

"It requires a different kind of middleware. It puts forth different kinds ofproblems," says Gartner's Natis. "The more the Web moves toward the enterprise,the more there is a pressure and a requirement to provide a middleware infrastructure thatallows you to create Web applications that utilize existing applications. But thatrequires integration."

Shellooe definitely agrees. "Coding your own integration solutions can [take] alot of time and trouble. I think that's where middleware affords them greaterleverage." And, once Windows NT 5.0 (or Windows 2000 as we will come to know it)enters the picture, Shellooe says that things will get interesting. "A lot ofmiddleware functions come with an operating system that at the same time -- at least fromMicrosoft's perspective -- comes on only one platform. It's very good for our NT shopcustomers who are able to take advantage of the Microsoft [functionality]."

But he adds that's just the beginning for middleware. The integration challenges willnot fade from view. "There is also a parallel need that's being addressed and thatwill continue to need to be addressed, which is middleware that spans multipleplatforms."

--Susan J. Aluise is a technology writer for the Washington News Bureau(Washington, D.C.).

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