Analysts: IBM a case of SOA gone wild?

With a conga line of new SOA products ready to hit the market IBM is grabbing lots of attention, but many analysts think the company needs to refocus its message and software line.

In the wake of IBM's latest barrage of service-oriented architecture product announcements, analysts agree that there's a lot of Big Blue to love, but add that it could stand to go on a diet.

With a new enterprise service bus (ESB), an Eclipse-based Web services development and integration tool, a business process engine and a Web services management product on the way, IBM plans to add a lot of products to its WebSphere line in the coming months. It also contends that its transaction-based IT install base uniquely positions it to lead SOA migrations, combining an understanding of legacy with a vision for the future.

While analysts agree that IBM has been leading the SOA charge, they also believe the tech giant has to refine its SOA message and bring its sometimes conflicting product set into harmony with that message.

"The vision isn't totally cohesive so the products are a bit of a hodge-podge," said ZapThink LLC analyst Ron Schmelzer. "It is hard for someone to buy something cohesive from IBM without services required."

Burton Group vice president and research director Anne Thomas Manes believes IBM "missed an opportunity" with this latest SOA push.

"I blame that on a lack of communication between the WebSphere and Tivoli groups," she said. "ESBs and Web services management products are both Web services intermediaries; they intercept SOAP traffic and perform various functions, such as routing, message transformation, security enforcement and SLA [service level agreement] monitoring. ESBs typically focus on the first two types of functions (routing and transformations), while WSM products typically focus on the latter two functions (security and SLA monitoring). But all WSM products also support the first two functions.

"IBM was in a perfect position to blend the two types of systems -- produce a combination ESB/WSM product. But instead, it produced a minimalist ESB product with limited integration capabilities and no management functionality, and an advanced ESB product that is really an integration broker -- not an ESB -- and it doesn't support management either. Meanwhile, the Tivoli product won't be integrated with either one."

Both Manes and Schmelzer questioned IBM's choice to put a lightweight ESB on the market. Manes stated "IBM would have served its customers better by sticking to its guns and making it clear that you can't buy SOA," while Schmelzer views ESBs as a transitional category with a short shelf life.

"ESB is an additional piece of software that you have to implement," he said. "The goal with loosely coupled services should be to get rid of middleware, not use more of it."

Calling it "IBM's most grievous move," Manes panned the decision to build the new lightweight ESB on a completely separate communications infrastructure from the heavyweight message broker.

"WebSphere ESB is based on WebSphere Application Server, WebSphere JAX-RPC and WebSphere JMS [Java Message Service]," she said. "WebSphere Message Broker is based on WebSphere MQ and Ascential [Software]. I don't see an easy migration path between the two."

Overlap was a concern for Schmelzer. He noted that IBM has many products that do essentially the same thing. It has two message brokering products, multiple development tools that sometimes can perform the integration instead of the message brokering products, multiple ways to orchestrate business process and various methods of managing an SOA.

During the announcement press conference, IBM senior vice president Steve Mills made the case that "it's not a one-size-fits-all world," but Schmelzer believes IBM needs to address the redundancy in its software group and pare it down in the name of efficiency.

"It's still a huge grab bag of stuff," he said. "I think it's really confusing a lot of people."

John Andrews, chief operating officer for Evans Data Corp., thinks some of the new products are designed "to get people to migrate to WebSphere. It's a strategy for upward compatibility."

Regardless of whatever fits and starts it sees in its product line, everyone agrees that IBM will continue to be out front of the SOA revolution. It's leading standards creation efforts and, despite all the WebSphere branding, it's evangelizing the central message that SOA is about building a nimble architecture, not locking yourself into a given product set.

Schmelzer called Big Blue "the dominant force in the market." Manes agreed that "IBM has a huge advantage over other 'SOA platform' competitors, due to its huge application platform install base."

And that install base means that IBM will be have a hand in every migration path that gets built.

"At some point in time, someone needs to be the traffic cop," Andrews said. "Whoever owns the transactions will wield a lot of power, and that's probably going to be IBM."

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