Big Blue’s SOA Blitz

Are the ESB visions touted by IBM, BEA, and others a new spin on an old idea: vendor lock-in?

The democratization of Web services continued last week as IBM Corp. announced a bevy of new service-oriented offerings—including a new “lightweight” WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus (ESB)—targeted at medium-sized enterprises.

SOAs are sold on the promise of a loosely coupled (or plug-and-play) services-based infrastructure, but the ESB visions touted by IBM, BEA Systems Inc., and others could amount to a new spin on an old idea: vendor lock-in.

Like the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California, SOAs—and, to a lesser extent, service-enablement—are perceived as the playthings of the well-to-do: in this case, of large Fortune-1,000 companies that have big budgets and even bigger IT problems. IBM last week sought to explode that perception.

“We believe [this announcement] expands the aperture of the types of businesses and the size of businesses now that are going to be able to realize the benefits of a service-oriented architecture approach to their application environments,” said Steve Mills, group president of IBM's Software Group, in a conference call last week with journalists.

Mills says C-level executives at mid-size enterprises have SOAs on the brain, too. Mid-size CEOs are emphasizing business agility and business transformation, and mid-size CIOs think SOAs can help get the job done. “The CEOs have aggressive plans for business transformation and they’re looking to the CIO to support a much more dynamic and change-oriented environment, one that is flexible and adaptable to changing market conditions,” Mills argued, citing an IBM survey of executive decision makers.

Enter IBM’s new WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus, which is designed to provide canned connectivity and integration services for an organization’s service-enabled infrastructure. The WebSphere ESB isn’t a full version of Big Blue’s WebSphere Application Server. Instead, it’s what WebSphere GM Robert LeBlanc called a “lightweight” engine that provides a subset of the core functionality—such as message routing and transformation—needed to support an ESB. It’s Big Blue’s first official ESB entry (although Big Blue touts its WebSphere Message Broker as an “advanced” ESB) and it echoes of rival BEA’s announcement of its “AquaLogic” Service Bus several months ago.

At the same time, IBM’s WebSphere ESB, like BEA’s AquaLogic Service Bus, isn’t a separate product, per se. Instead, it's an (admittedly stripped down) version of IBM’s WebSphere Application Server. Yet in the loosely coupled world of Web services—where third-party vendors such as Cape Clear Software Inc. and the Apache-based Synapse Project tout platform-agnostic ESB solutions that are designed to run on WebSphere, WebLogic, JBoss, and other middleware—Big Blue’s WebSphere-based ESB smacks of the proprietary.

Not surprisingly, Cape Clear CEO Annrai O’Toole, who hosts a trenchant blog on his company’s Web site, claims that IBM’s WebSphere ESB and BEA’s AquaLogic are essentially J2EE-oriented repackagings of the same messaging middleware that both companies have sold for decades.

Some developers—who as a rule are less enthusiastic about SOAs than are their executive masters—have started to take notice, too (see

Take Ed Howland, a programmer with a St. Louis, Missouri-based integrator who suggests that SOAs and their enabling technologies—such as the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL)—have an aura of the familiar about them. “Isn't BPEL just a re-hash of EAI from a few years ago? So if SOAP is the function wrapper du jour for the current application integration fad, what implies that it will enjoy any more success than countless others … [such as] ActiveX, DCOM, Corba, [or] RPC?”

Application Development Comes Down from the Mountain

Like BEA, IBM says its WebSphere ESB will be a big tent, as far as service-enablement and service orchestration is concerned. To a certain extent, says Kareem Yusuf, director of SOA product management with Big Blue, business domain experts and other non-traditional users will be able to model process flows and build loosely coupled (or “composite”) applications of their own.

“We are definitely delivering some of that today with our [IBM] Workplace offering, and clearly in terms of the more structured approach to [application] composition, via portals or service orchestration, we’ve been delivering that for a while,” Yusuf claims. “So in addition to the [enterprise application] developer, we’re targeting the business-domain experts: the person we call the integration developer, the integration specialist. This is someone who is not necessarily a Java coder—he is a business analyst, he understandings programming constructs, but is not necessarily a coder.”

To that end, Big Blue announced several lightweight tools based on (or designed to complement) its developer-oriented Rational solutions. There’s WebSphere Business Modeler (WBM), for example—a tool that helps users design process flows before deployment. WBM is designed to complement the SOA modeling capabilities of IBM’s developer-oriented Rational Software Architect tool.

Another new developer-friendly offering is WebSphere Integration Developer (WID), an Eclipse-based application development tool that helps users build and deploy business processes based on an SOA. IBM says WID can help users build composite applications—i.e., a set of integrated and related services that collectively perform a task (such as a loan-approval process)—because it provides a view of existing IT resources as services that can be “wired” together to compose full business processes.

Big Blue also announced WebSphere Process Server, a WebSphere ESB offering designed to help integrate business processes that involve people, IT resources, and business partners.

About the Author

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