IBM’s WebSphere Family

WebSphere is IBM’s bid to become a major force in enterprise-level e-business over the next decade or two. More than any other initiative, it is the company’s platform for delivering its mid- to long-term vision for Web-based commerce. If you have invested in mainframe or AS/400 applications, WebSphere is a practical way to build on this investment with respect to the Web, especially if you want integration schemes that can work directly on your data center host systems. WebSphere may also interest you if you are developing new high-volume, mission-critical e-applications, regardless of your current host platform. As a proven, standards-based, platform-independent environment, WebSphere can help you achieve highly scalable and resilient results.

Though the entire WebSphere product line can be deployed readily on Windows NT/2000 servers, it uses Java technologies rather than Microsoft’s Windows-centric ActiveX and Visual Basic development methods. Many interoperable schemes between WebSphere products and ActiveX can be developed, but WebSphere is not targeted at shops looking mainly for Microsoft-based software development platforms. If you want to base your future Web initiatives primarily on Microsoft technology, WebSphere is not for you.

WebSphere provides a soup-to-nuts repertoire of standards-based solutions to facilitate developing and deploying Web-centric applications. WebSphere applications can consist either of all new code written in, say, Java, or a combination of new code seamlessly integrated with business logic borrowed from legacy applications. Integrating and manipulating heterogeneous data and applications that span diverse platforms is a WebSphere strength, as demonstrated by products such as WebSphere Host Publisher, the pivotal WebSphere Application Server, WebSphere Portal Server and WebSphere Transcoding Publisher. Contemporary object-based, platform-agnostic software development featuring Java, CORBA and Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs) is another hallmark. WebSphere strives to be a bonafide cross-platform offering that spans both IBM and non-IBM operating systems, though in practice new features tend to appear on NT and Unix platforms well before they are available on mainframes or AS/400s.

Ground Zero for IBM’s Web Services

The WebSphere family--especially the WebSphere Application Server (WAS), the WebSphere Business Integrator and the high-end design tool, WebSphere Studio—are the main elements of IBM’s version of Web services, though some Web services are also available with other IBM offerings such as DB2 V7.2 and Lotus Domino Application Manager.

Though based on industry standards such as XML and SOAP, IBM’s Web services differ, at least for now, from Microsoft’s .NET-centric efforts.

Microsoft appears to be focusing on B2C e-commerce transactions while IBM, true to its strengths and constituency, is pursuing B2B e-business. Another obvious and fundamental difference is the role of Java. WAS 4.0, and for that matter CICS Transaction Server 2.1 for z/OS, are both prime examples of J2EE-compatible enterprise Java servers. Microsoft, in contrast, appears to favor de-caf, as evidenced by its apparent decision not to support Java in its XP product.

Microsoft’s first .NET endeavor, called HailStorm, is an XML-based scheme to collaborate and correlate Web-based transactions within the context of the company’s existing Passport program. Passport lets you securely store all the user IDs, passwords, addresses and credit card details you need to be a proactive Webizen. For example, HailStorm can notify customers automatically of shipment of items ordered over the Internet using data stored in passports.

IBM’s initial emphasis, on the other hand, is on enabling enterprises or even individuals to advertise and publicize products or services they wish to market in a standardized electronic form using another variant of XML known as Web Services Description Language and the UDDI scheme for advertising, publicizing and syndicating products and services. IBM’s intent is to ensure that the Web world recognizes that WebSphere users have a better mouse trap--and that customers will beat an electronic path to their Websites.

The Expanding Family

In its early days, WebSphere was positioned simply as a Web server cum application server, where the Web server was based on the popular, open Apache HTTP Server from the Apache Software Foundation. These days the HTTP server is typically bundled with the operating system rather than with the WAS. Ironically, the Web server is about the only IBM networking-related product that currently is not tagged as a WebSphere offering.

With WebSphere’s strategic importance and with IBM having relinquished much of its networking portfolio to Cisco, IBM’s product managers for any and all networking related offerings understandably want to be associated with WebSphere. There are now more than 20 products in the WebSphere family, including all of IBM’s host access and Web-to-host offerings, such as the Host On-Demand Java emulator and the Host Publisher host integrator. Figure 1 shows the general architecture of the host-data integrating Host Publisher 3.5, which supports EJB, Java Server Pages (JSPs) and CORBA for new software development and permits output to be in either HTML or XML.

IBM’s WebSphere Software Platform diagram, updated by the author to show where Web Services fit in (Figure 2) is the best and easiest way to enumerate the key WebSphere products. Some of the commercially and technically significant products within the WebSphere family today (not counting the relatively independent VisualAge for Java and Tivoli products) include WAS, the cornerstone of this platform; the WebSphere B2B Business Integrator; the Transcoding Publisher; and the Edge Director.

WebSphere Application Server V4

WAS V4 is a top-end, cross-platform Java server, replete with IBM’s Web services in the case of the NT, Unix and OS/400 versions. It is what makes WebSphere such a valuable franchise. WAS credibly competes head-to-head with the other heavyweights in this category, including BEA’s WebLogic, Sun/Netscape’s iPlanet and the various .NET-related Microsoft offerings such as Application Center 2000.

In the case of mainframes, WAS V4 is a tightly integrated, EJB-capable enterprise Java server that takes full advantage of the unsurpassed high-availability, workload-balancing, centralized-management-and-scalability characteristics of today’s Parallel Sysplex systems. No other platform can come close to an IBM mainframe when it comes to these vital attributes for mission-critical operations. Uptime over a year for a top-end Sun Unix server is still likely to be an order of magnitude lower than for a S/390 running OS/390. Thus the most reliable and scalable platform for executing high-end enterprise-class Java e-business applications turns out to be an IBM mainframe rather than one of the much-vaunted Unix boxes.

In addition to EJB, WAS 4 also supports CORBA. This gives software developers total freedom with respect to the type of object technology they want to use for developing new e-applications, and it doesn’t force them to choose between the old favorite and the emerging standard.

IBM says WAS 4 can connect and interoperate with the largest number of business applications in the industry. Application types supported include, among others, SAP, PeopleSoft, CICS and IMS. Special emphasis has also been given to ensuring that WAS can deftly and reliably handle ultra-high-volume transactions without significant degradation in performance and response times.

WebSphere Business Integrator and Studio

Business Integrator lets enterprises quickly create, execute and manage business processes that span disparate applications, enterprises and people through use of a consistent, standardized methodology. It also ensures that you can monitor and manage these processes and their underlying operational infrastructure as a complete system, regardless of the platforms involved. Business Integrator is a total integrated solution for enterprises, service providers and system integrators that lets them design, develop and deploy adaptive business processes that can execute across multiple disparate internal business systems and interface with external business systems for B2B applications. It also offers a way to develop a common and consistent management view of business activities that adapts to changes in business practices. Within the context of Web services, IBM is positioning WebSphere Business Integrator as a way companies can integrate and manage the flow of Web services applications.

WebSphere Studio is IBM’s top-of-the-line design and development tool for creating and maintaining multiplatform Web applications. It expedites application development and minimizes the effort needed to create, manage and debug Web applications. It is allegedly the first tool in the industry that lets developers visually lay out dynamic Web pages using technologies such as Dynamic HTML and JSPs, in addition to HTML and JavaScript. Studio can also update and correct Web links automatically when Web page content changes. Developers also have the option of integrating their favorite content-creation tools into the design and development environment Studio provides.

WSTP and Edge Server

WebSphere Transcoding Publisher (WSTP) was developed initially to simplify migrating to the wireless Web and to help facilitate universal access from any device. WSTP simplifies supporting new devices and markup languages (e.g., WML), and provides an easy-to-use way for handheld devices, traditional personal computers and data center systems to communicate and exchange data. By dynamically adapting existing content and transforming it for new environments, WSTP (typically in conjunction with WebSphere Host Publisher) extends existing Web content to new devices, streamlines and optimizes data delivery and customizes content presentation.

Much of today’s Web content is written in HTML rather than the specialized markup languages newer devices require. WSTP dynamically bridges the different HTML structures and tailors content to the specific device--whether it is a PC on a low-bandwidth network, a cell phone or a Palm Pilot--and conveniently delivers the customized content to the user. For an overall Web serving solution, WSTP is a natural complement to WAS. Together, WSTP and WAS can deliver a full suite of robust Web application solutions for nontraditional clients such as cell phones and PDAs.

IBM designed the WebSphere Edge Server to be deployed at local and remote network boundaries, away from data centers and server farms. Its role is to provide specialized local services on behalf of back-end servers to improve Web application response time, availability and scalability. The original product, which included Network Dispatcher functionality borrowed from IBM’s now-defunct bridge/router program, provided an integrated solution for local and wide-area load balancing, content-based quality of service routing and Web content caching and filtering for multi-vendor Web server environments.

The Bottom Line

IBM’s goal of becoming a dominant player in e-business now rests squarely on the popularity, performance, robustness and competitiveness of its burgeoning WebSphere family. The pivotal WAS is doing quite well in the global market, with around 35,000 customers worldwide, thanks in part to the support of ancillary products such as WSTP, Host Publisher and Edge Server. The recently introduced Web Services was an astute move on the part of IBM because they add structure and definition to e-business. Having lost desktops to Microsoft and networking hardware to Cisco, IBM can’t afford to lose e-business to Microsoft, Oracle or SAP. IBM’s future depends heavily on the success of WebSphere.