Q&A: WebSphere Studio Rising

In less than two years, IBM’s WebSphere Studio has leapt to the forefront of Java 2 Platform fEnterprise Edition (J2EE) development tools.

We spoke recently with Bernie Spang, director of WebSphere Studio for IBM, to find out what’s behind the meteoric rise of Big Blue’s flagship J2EE integrated development environment (IDE). We discovered that WebSphere Studio owes a portion of its success to IBM’s prominent participation in the Eclipse Project, an open source development initiative made possible by a $40 million donation from Big Blue.

But Eclipse is only part of the story, says Spang, who notes that IBM has invested ample time and money into enhancing the features, functionality and ease of use of the WebSphere Studio IDE.

The result, he claims, is a J2EE development environment in which developers should feel right at home, regardless of whether they’re programming on a Windows system or on a mainframe.

Let’s start off with some background on Eclipse. How and when did it launch?

November 2001 is when we announced the Eclipse platform and the fact that we were contributing it under open source—that we were forming an open industry consortium with about a dozen others at the time, called Eclipse.org. At that time we said that we were going to deliver our newly refurbished WebSphere Studio family based on Eclipse, and we contributed the initial code base, which was worth about $40 million.

So why effectively give away $40 million in technology investments to the open source community?

We saw that Java was clearly taking hold, and our Java-based WebSphere Application Server required us to rapidly move past development tools for hardcore programmers that deal with Java APIs to a highly productive, highly efficient development environment for enterprise development teams. So the focus needed to be not about a language editor, compiler, debugger—what had been called an IDE—it needed to be about a comprehensive environment. It’s about integrating all of the players on the [enterprise development] team.

In order to make all of that happen and to keep up with the pace of technology and to elevate our game with respect to ease of use and ease of development, required us to get out of the mode of supporting every development tool on its own. We needed to do that within and across IBM, and we said, while we’re doing that, we need to do it across the industry. And so we decided to open source this technology, and Eclipse was born.

Okay, we’ve explored the "how" and the "when", but let’s talk more about the "why." What’s the strategy behind Eclipse?

The idea is to provide a well-integrated set of best-of-breed tools for all developers for all of cases. You create an open, extensible platform, Eclipse, on top of which you can focus on doing your best of breed—for us, that’s WebSphere Studio—and from which partners, ecosystem partners, can build their best of breed tools, [and] so that [as] the customer I can install these things in a single environment.

Was Eclipse the first open source Java IDE, then?

Well, technically Sun had open sourced the NetBeans platform, which was the foundation of Forte, but what was unprecedented with what we did with Eclipse was to launch it as an open industry consortium, made up of open industry leaders, companies like Rational, Red Hat, Oracle, HP, Intel, Fujitsu. In fact, we have 40 some-odd board members now. So, yes, Sun open-sourced NetBeans first, but it wasn’t managed and endorsed and driven as an open industry consortium. That was what was unprecedented about Eclipse.

What does the backing of an industry consortium mean for Eclipse?

It means that it will stay truly open. An open industry consortium with as many members as we have now means that no single vendor can control or dominate the group.

And now you have a value-added IDE of your own—WebSphere Studio—built on top of Eclipse.

Well, first let me say that it’s not just WebSphere Studio. Eclipse is an open framework that can support literally any language that someone wants to build on top of it. For IBM, that meant migrating all of our own language tools over to Eclipse. This was no small task, migrating Visual Age for Java, Visual Age for Cobol, PL/I, iSeries tools for RPG, over to this new base [Eclipse], filling out tools for the portal, and for J2ME [embedded] device development, and for business integration and message integration kind of thing, so we’ve been very focused the last two years for filling out that portfolio.

As for WebSphere Studio, we’re only at the beginning of probably a year or more of continued improvements focused on ease of use with respect to drag-and-drop-type development, for an even wider audience of developers, to be able to build J2EE-type applications without knowing that they’re building in J2EE.

When I talk with developers, that’s what I hear a lot: J2EE is a very complex framework to which to program. Does the current version of WebSphere Studio you’re delivering help to mask some of that complexity?

When we announced WebSphere Studio 5.1 [in August], we clearly articulated that this is the first step, that you’ll see more from us before the end of the year, you’ll see more from us by next year, in terms of enhancing the richness of the user interface, automating scripting, things like that.

We’re moving in the state of the Java specification where we’ve been focused on abstracting the complexities of server-side programming. So what you’re seeing with the data objects and the server faces is abstracting the complexity of building the user interfaces to these server side applications. In our development environments we can take advantage of that … to make it easier for you the developer, without having to be a hardcore expert programmer, to build the high quality user interfaces that you need.

Another thing I hear from developers is that they’re comfortable with some of the older, more establishd IDEs that they’ve been using for a while. Are WebSphere Studio and Eclipse starting to catch up to, say, Microsoft’s Visual Studio.NET in terms of being easy to use?

Yes, we’re hearing consistently from customers that WebSphere Studio delivers the same ease of use and functionality that they normally associate with some other popular IDEs. I work on a pretty regular basis with a leading health care industry ISV that had been a complete Visual Studio development on Windows shop. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to say their name, but they made the decision early next year to do the next generation of their application suites on the WebSphere platform using WebSphere Studio.

Now let’s just say that the development team that I’d met with [at the company] were adamantly opposed to this business decision because they were using, and were quite comfortable with, Visual Studio. What happened was, after I met with them and showed them WebSphere Studio, they were saying things like this is such a compelling, easy upgrade, and this has a lot of the ease-of-use features that they’d become accustomed to in Visual Studio. That’s another way that WebSphere Studio is different from, say, [Sun’s] NetBeans.

How so?

Well, NetBeans enables you to have a common look and feel for your application regardless of what platform you’re running on, so a Netbeans-based IDE [can] look the same whether I’m running on Solaris or on Windows. But the point is that a developer coming from Visual Studio wants a look and feel that’s similar to what they had in Visual Studio.

That’s one of the most significant advantages of WebSphere Studio: I can develop an application on WebSphere Studio that I can run on my Intel box with Linux and take it up to an Intel box with Windows or even up to a mainframe running Linux. It’s going to appear in the user experience of the platform it’s running on—the look, the feel, the performance. There’s a technology called the “standard widget toolkit” that enables that to happen.

What’s in store for WebSphere Studio in 2004?

We’re just going to continue to build on what we have and enhance it even more. We have a solid foundation with Eclipse and the work that we’ve done so far, so the rest is just continuing to enhance ease of use, making things like drag and drop more powerful.

The goal is to have the most functional and easy-to-use IDE out there, and that’s what we’ll continue to do with WebSphere Studio next year.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.