JBoss VP: Why middleware is hot, powerful and not boring at all

JBoss Inc. vice president Bob Bickel explains the role open source software is playing in commoditizing formerly expensive middleware applications.

E-commerce is ticking along at a million clicks a minute only because middleware is pumping its engines. So don't take the rumors of its demise seriously, says Bob Bickel, vice president of corporate strategy and development at Atlanta's JBoss Inc., an application server/middleware vendor.

In this SearchEnterpriseLinux.com interview, Bickel describes the middleware renaissance, and the role open source software is playing in commoditizing this once expensive set of applications. In part one of our discussion with Bickel, he described the advantages of and cost savings associated with open source licenses.

On Tuesday, JBoss introduced a new migration program -- including a methodology, toolkit and assessment model -- to help customers move their business applications onto JBoss Application Server. At LinuxWorld last week, Novell Inc. announced stronger support for JBoss Enterprise Middleware System, which includes the JBoss Application server, a J2EE server.

As open source middleware matures, it's placing the proprietary market under tremendous pressure. Not surprisingly, we're seeing massive commoditization.
Bob Bickel
vice president of corporate strategyJBoss Inc.

Before we get started, let's clarify one thing: What is the role of middleware in the enterprise?

Bob Bickel: Middleware is used to integrate corporate applications with one another and with databases, allowing access over the Internet by customers, partners or employees. Most people don't get it because they don't see it, but the travel site where you're booking your airfare is powered by middleware in the back end. Great middleware is the reason it takes only a few seconds for the Web application to search the airlines' databases and return information to you.

What are the market trends in middleware today?

Bickel: Three things are happening in middleware. It's consolidating, it's becoming a commodity and it's undergoing a renaissance.

Middleware is a huge market that includes many types of technologies -- app servers, persistence, cache, integration, messaging -- and many vendors.

We've seen a fair amount of consolidation over the last few years, as companies expanded into related technology areas and acquired one another.

What do these trends mean to the corporate IT buyer?

Bickel: As open source middleware matures, it's placing the proprietary market under tremendous pressure. Not surprisingly, we're seeing massive commoditization.

CIOs are asking themselves why they should continue to pay thousands or even millions of dollars a year for what they can get for free. Prices must drop or proprietary vendors have to add more features. One immediate reaction was to add features that not many customers needed, but that could be used to justify high price points.

As middleware becomes a commodity, open source has an obvious price advantage. What's becoming clear as well is that open source is the place for standards innovation.

To give you an example, JBoss did that with Hibernate, our object/relational mapping technology. Before Hibernate, ORM was an expensive, embryonic and marginalized technology. When Hibernate was released in 2002 as an open source product, it completely changed the market.

Hibernate validated ORM as a technology and popularized it for Java. It did this by bringing ORM to the masses as an open source product. In fact, Hibernate has deeply influenced the architecture, design and philosophy of the forthcoming EJB 3.0 specification, which represents a major improvement and simplification of the J2EE platform.

The Apache Web server has a reputation for being on equal footing with proprietary Web servers in terms of functionality and number of users. Are open source application servers building a similar reputation?

Bickel: Application servers are moving in this direction, though it will take some time before open source app servers reach the dominance the Apache Web server enjoys.

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An annual survey by BZ Research found huge gains in usage for the JBoss Application Server over the last two years. In the first survey in 2001, we didn't even register. In the November 2002 survey, 13.9% of those surveyed reported using JBoss AS. In November 2003, this grew to 26.9%. And in November 2004, usage of JBoss AS leaped ahead of WebSphere and WebLogic to 34.8%. These numbers represent the reality of what's happening in the marketplace. You won't see them reflected in analyst reports, though, because they rely on software licensing revenue to measure market share.

Could you describe two JBoss projects that demonstrate middleware in action?

Bickel: Siemens is deploying their Network Management System for their mobile communications networks on JBoss. This is an integral part of the system they sell to mobile operators that make all of our cell phones work. If there are problems or new services to provision -- all of that is flowing through a grid of JBoss servers.

I was just visiting with a Navy project that's using JBoss [middleware] to control the movement, allocation and coordination for flying missions from aircraft carriers. This is built in a very highly fault-tolerant manner and, as an example, makes sure that all the things needed for a mission are put together -- the aircraft, the pilots, the fuel, the weapons, timing and coordination of when the mission flies and when it returns, etc.

This article originally appeared on SearchEnterpriseLinux.com.

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