Winner of the CORBA Wars

Suppose you want to write a distributed application using object technology. If your application will run in a purely Microsoft environment, DCOM is the obvious choice. If your app needs to run on Unix or other non-Microsoft systems, though, DCOM isn’t especially practical. So what middleware technology should you use?

The answer was supposed to be the multivendor standard for distributed object computing called CORBA. But CORBA isn’t very complete, so products built by different vendors have had a hard time working well together. Even though the vendors backing CORBA intended it to be a bulwark against Microsoft, the real competition turned out to be among the CORBA vendors themselves.

That competition has a clear winner: It’s Iona Technologies, a Dublin, Ireland-based company that has the largest share of the CORBA market today. It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s possible that Iona is the only software company to have actually made a significant profit from CORBA. It’s certainly the only CORBA-based firm to enjoy a wildly successful IPO, something that I’m sure has made its backers quite happy.

As nearly everyone knows, CORBA was created by the Object Management Group (OMG), which has done an outstanding job of making its work visible. OMG’s original members included all the big guns, including IBM, Sun, and HP. How did Iona, a small start-up operating out of a far-away city in an economically depressed country, manage to acquire the largest share of the CORBA market?

The story is instructive. First, the big hardware vendors in OMG all seemed to believe that CORBA really was a standard, and so most of them built products that only ran on their own systems. The truth, however, was that the CORBA standards were so loosely specified that making different vendor’s products interoperate was at best very challenging. What customers wanted was something that allowed them to create distributed object applications that ran on all of their systems, not just those from a single vendor. As a result, the CORBA-based products produced by hardware vendors were never very successful, and all of those original products have essentially left the scene today.

Iona understood what customers wanted from the beginning. Since the company had no vested interest in promoting any particular hardware platform, its CORBA implementation targeted multiple vendors’ systems --including Windows NT and several flavors of Unix -- right from the start. Iona benefited from the ultimately untrue but very appealing "CORBA is a standard" message promulgated by OMG, yet still provided a way to solve customer problems. All those customers had to do was install Iona’s products on all of their systems. If pressed by their management, Iona customers could claim that they were buying a fully standards-compliant product. In reality, they were creating an effective, workable, single-vendor middleware environment.

Another difference between Iona and its competitors was in how it saw Microsoft. From the beginning, cynics observed that OMG was really the "Oppose Microsoft Group," and most CORBA vendors touted their superiority over COM. Iona, by contrast, licensed COM from Microsoft. Iona’s company slogan is "Making Software Work Together," clear evidence of their pragmatic perspective.

Just as Iona’s dominance in the CORBA world has become clear, however, the game has changed. Purely CORBA-based products are on the wane as Enterprise Java moves to the fore. Enterprise Java adopts a few parts of CORBA, most notably IIOP, its core protocol. But good support for Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) is emerging as the sine qua non for multiplatform distributed object middleware. No matter how many OMG standards a product implements today, it’s nothing without EJB.

Iona understands this, as evidenced by their recent purchase of a small EJB company. But while they are the leader in the pure CORBA world, they’re arguably a little late to the Enterprise Java party. Tough competitors -- IBM, BEA, and others -- have gotten there first.

The lesson for Iona, as for every organization, is that there’s always another battle. Winning one may leave you in a good position to begin the next one, but that next battle is sure to happen. The lesson for end users is that pragmatic, customer-focused companies make the best partners, while religious fervor over some new standard is meaningless. --David Chappell is principal of Chappell & Associates (Minneapolis), an education and consulting firm. Contact him at david@chappellassoc.com.