Eclipse: One IDE to Rule Them All

Some enthusiasts tout Eclipse as an Rx for programming anarchy

For years now, software development in mainframe environments has been a mostly predictable affair, complete with standard transaction (CICS) and event-messaging (MQSeries) middleware, along with several common data sources (VSAM and IMS, or DB2, Adabase, and Oracle).

While this is changing—mainframe programmers today arguably have more options at their disposal than do code jockeys in the distributed systems space—CICS and MQSeries will almost certainly continue to be workhorse applications for years to come. On the application development tools front, IBM Corp. has long provided a standard programming tool chest, with support for COBOL, RPG, C, Java, and other languages.

“On the mainframe, you have 15, 25 years of development where everything has been sorted out, everything sort of follows the same process, where—regardless of what you’re doing—you’ve usually got CICS or MQ[Series] or DB2 in there,” says Tracy Ragan, CEO of Catalyst Systems Corp., a provider of software development tools for embedded applications.

The same can’t be said in the distributed world, where programming Babel is still frequently the rule rather than the exception. Application architectures such as Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and Microsoft Corp.’s .NET promise to cut down on the babble, to some degree, and there’s new hope on the development tools front, too—in the form of the open source Eclipse IDE project. Thanks to its open and extensible underpinnings—and with big-time shows of support from giants such as IBM and Borland Software Corp.—Eclipse could emerge as the de facto standard IDE for any conceivable programming language.

“So from our perspective, especially now that IBM and Borland are on board, Eclipse is not just an IDE, but also a community for discussing how development standards can and should evolve,” argues Ragan, who—in the interests of full disclosure—was a founding member of the Eclipse consortium board.

There’s no denying that Eclipse momentum. IBM first kicked off the project four years ago, in large part to spur the development of a one-size-fits-all integrated development environment (IDE) on which it could base its own WebSphere Studio IDE. To that end, Big Blue donated what it said was around $40 million in code to the open source Eclipse consortium.

Today, almost four years after the fact, Eclipse is the most popular Java IDE, and WebSphere Studio (which Big Blue has since rebranded Rational Application Developer) is second only to Borland’s JBuilder in terms of popularity among commercial tools. Borland, for its part, recently announced a move to base its application lifecycle management (ALM) tools on Eclipse.

By embracing Eclipse, Borland says it isn’t abandoning JBuilder and other highly successful products. “Many people are using JBuilder today,” said Raaj Shinde, Borland's VP of product strategy and architecture, at this year’s EclipseCon conference. “We will continue to support those people. But there is also a large segment of our customer population that wants tooling on Eclipse to build their own ecosystems. We will support those people as well.”

Other industry heavyweights who are (to varying degrees) on board the Eclipse juggernaut include BEA Systems Inc. (a strategic developer), Intel Corp. (strategic developer), Sybase Inc. (strategic developer), Computer Associates International Inc. (strategic developer), embedded systems stalwart Wind River (strategic developer), Hewlett-Packard Co. (strategic consumer), and SAP AG (strategic consumer). One industry heavyweight which isn’t onboard is Java proprietor Sun Microsystems Inc., which still pushes its own NetBeans platform IDE as an alternative to Eclipse.

As Eclipse’s dominant market share indicates, developers aren’t buying. One reason, at least from a programmer’s perspective, is that in spite of Eclipse’s tight association with Java and J2EE, it’s actually an IDE framework: No matter how arcane or abstruse a language or architecture, it can be incorporated (via plug-in or by means of some other integration) into the Eclipse IDE. Provided someone’s willing to do the development work, of course.

Nevertheless, Eclipse is best known as a Java IDE. In many cases, users say, programmers prefer it to a branded tool like IBM’s Rational Application Developer, which is based on Eclipse. ”I have informally polled some of my fellow developers for their choice in IDEs, and Idea and Eclipse consistently come out on top,” said J2EE specialist Jonathan House, a Java programmer with custom software development house SurgeWorks, in an e-mail interview last year. Most of the reasons cited for the choice of IDE came down to a question of the feature set offered—both Eclipse and Idea have very advanced code editing and refactoring tools that more advanced developers really appreciate.”

House says Eclipse is able to incorporate new features and functions more quickly than IBM’s Eclipse-based Rational Application Developer tool. “Having worked with both WSAD and Eclipse, I know that the [Rational Application Developer] environment is far inferior due to the fact that Eclipse features must be vetted for compatibility with WebSphere before they move into [it].”

For this and other reasons, some industry-watchers are speaking in terms of Eclipse inevitability. It’s not that Eclipse will supplant all other IDEs, they argue. It’s simply that in a landscape of dueling application frameworks—J2EE and .NET—Eclipse is poised to emerge as the logical antipode to Microsoft’s Visual Studio. “We have companies like Borland who are standardizing on the Eclipse platform; we already have IBM doing it,” says Catalyst’s Ragan. “It would be great if Microsoft did, but that’s never going to happen. So there’s Eclipse and Visual Studio that are going to be the two [IDEs].”

About the Author

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

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