June marks the five-year anniversary of WebSphere,IBM’s e-business application development environment.Many large companies were early adopters of this software; in fact, it is implemented in 93 of the top Fortune 100 companies.
However, IBM now is reaching out to small businesses witha scaled-down version of its product called WebSphere Express. These companies’ first question is likely to be, “What is WebSphere, anyway, and what can it do for me?”
Java Changed Everything
WebSphere is middleware, which means its roots can be traced to the mid-1990s and the Javaprogramming language, which was cross-platform at a time when everyone else was still tooting their own proprietary horn. With Java’s emergence, the idea of middleware was born. As IBM’s James Russell, director of emerging technologies and integration, explained it, middleware “is the goo that helped companies get out of the porting game.”
Russell told CRM Buyer that although today’s companies have moved beyond Java, the concept of middleware remains, allowing businesses to integrate data from all of their different platforms. In conjunction with this trend, standards and cooperation among competitors also have become more common, enabling a greater degree of business integration.
What Is WebSphere?
So, how exactly does WebSphere work? In a nutshell, companies use the WebSphere environment to build interactive Web-oriented applications that support business functions needed for e-commerce. Businesses can tie together all of their data and existing applications and then put a Web front-end on them.
“Most companies have a tremendous amount of investment in their existing applications,” IBM spokesperson Laurie Friedman told CRM Buyer. “They don’t want to just replace everything; they want to Web-enable what they already have.”
Sizing It Up
WebSphere is also a hefty offering. It is composed of server software and development products bundled into packages. The number of pieces involved may seem quite overwhelmingat first glance, but it all breaks down into a few major components.
The foundation of the software is WebSphere Application Server, aJava engine that runs on many operating systems, such as Windows, 390 and Unix. WebSphere Application Server comes in four sizes: small, medium, large and super size.
The smallest size, Express Edition, is designed for enterprises with less than 1,000 employees. One step up from that is Standard Edition, which enables use of Java servlets, JavaServer Pages and XML to create Web content. The large size is the Advanced Edition, which is geared toward Java developers, and at the top of the heap is the Enterprise Edition for highly transactional, high-volume e-business applications.
Once a business has chosen the appropriate version of WebSphere Application Server and has this foundation in place, the rest of the pieces of WebSphere are modular and connect in some way to the main application server.
For example, many individual development tools are available in the WebSphere Studio. Tools come in two flavors for two different audiences: Web site developers and application developers.
A company can choose to run just the application server and a few tools, or it can buy WebSphere suites to address a particular need. For example, there is a Portal Suite for building personalized portals, an Everyplace Suite that supports a mobile workforce, a Commerce Suite loaded with B2B capabilities, and a Business Integration suite to build end-to-end business application solutions.
Different Needs, Different Tools
IBM’s Russell said WebSphere’s main function is to integrate all of a company’s existing data across all of its different operating systems and applications. For example, if you need to aggregate your business data to fulfill a business requirement, then you need an application server. After that, what you purchase depends on what you want to accomplish.
If a company is reasonably large and has its own IT department, Russell said, it likely will be comfortable buying the software directlyfrom IBM and installing it without on-site assistance. However, if the company wants a more customized package or does not have an IT department at its disposal, IBM can help it find a business partner.
What will all of this cost? The answer depends on how many pieces of WebSphere are purchased and how much capacity is needed to handle business tasks. As a point of comparison, Express Edition for small businesses can cost as little as US$25 per user, while Standard Edition starts at $8,000 per processor. Tools start at $400 per user.
Russell said the WebSphere lifecycle is relatively simple and involves onlyacquiring, deploying, configuring and maintaining the software. He noted that users only need upgrade when business requirements change. Moreover, if a company runs into trouble while using the software, IBM has a technical services department to get things back on track.
Getting It Going
Although Russell said IBM has tried to make the installation and customization process simple enough to be an administrative task, Forrester analyst Ted Schadler told CRM Buyer that WebSphere is still quite complex and difficult to install and configure. He said that although all the components of the software are sold under the WebSphere label, those components include numerous tools that have to be put together.
“But once it’s configured and up, customers love it,”Schadler noted. “Companies like eBay made a shift to WebSphere for a reason. They wanted IBM’s support,they wanted IBM’s commitment to the future, and theywanted that product’s breadth.”
Although IBM leads the application server market, it has several strong competitors, most notably BEA Systems. In the face of this challenge, IBM clearly is using its size to its advantage. According to research firm Gartner Dataquest, WebSphere has overtaken BEA in the application server category, SAP in business portals, and Tibco and WebMethods in integration software.
In the overall application arena, which includes application servers, integration capabilities and tool sets, Schadler said there is a grand battle under way between IBM and BEA, followed by Microsoft and, to a lesser degree, Oracle and Sun. He identified this as a classic industry maturation, in which customers have settled on a small number of giant vendors. “The field has gone from 40 down to six,” he noted.
Schadler added that he expects competition between IBM and BEA to heat up over the next three to five years. BEA is the little engine that could, he noted, and it makes a great product that is focused on developers. However, the reality is that it is a $1 billion company competing with a $100 billion company.
Although BEA’s application server is a very competitive product, Schadler added, the overall package is not as complete as IBM’s and has neither the integration power nor the full product portfolio of WebSphere. “It’s a great technology, and their customers love it,” he said. “But as the software industry matures, the stability and breadth of an offering matters a lot, along with the size of the partner base, the number of developers who are familiar with the product, and the support it receives from other software vendors.”
In third place, Schadler said, Microsoft offers a package called Windows Server System, which includes Visual Studio .NET and a new server operating system called Windows Server 2003. He said this suite is similar to WebSphere but works best for smaller companies with simpler problems.
Delivering on Promises
WebSphere may sound good in theory, but does it work in practice? According to Kforce, a full-service, professional staffing firm, the answer is yes. The company collects more than 3,000 job applicants per day from online job boards, such as HotJobs.com, then matches applicant skills to its recruiting-firm clients.
Don Sloan, director of technology services at Kforce, told CRM Buyer that his company integrated WebSphere into its diverse internal systems two and a half years ago. He said that although the installation and configuration process was complex, WebSphere was no more difficult to install, configure and maintain than any other application server would have been.
Once everything was in place, Sloan said, Kforce was able to reduce the time required for its applicant/recruiter matching process from two or three days to less than an hour. That efficiency boost has had a tremendous impact on the company’s revenues.
Sloan added that besides being impressed by the breadth of components available in WebSphere, a large part of Kforce’s decision was based on the fact that it wanted a huge company standing behind the product. He said Kforce has been pleased with the service it has received from IBM.
In the future, Russell said, the technology and standards underlying WebSphere will continue to evolve. IBM is focusing on enabling its customers to accomplish tasks faster and more dynamically so that they can respond quickly to external market changes and internal business shifts.
“In the software space, this means that I want to make sure that my e-business infrastructure is nimble enough so that I can go from a business moneymaking idea to implementation really rapidly,” he explained.
However, Schadler said IBM needs to work on delivering allthe functionality of WebSphere in a package that is simpler for customers to use. “When a company brands something with a single name, customers expect it to be easy to buy and deploy,” he said, “and IBM struggles with that. I would say ‘thumbs up’ on the capabilities, and ‘work to be done’ on the simplicityand ease of deployment.
“A lot of software goes into making a good Web site,into making a single interface tap into all of the back-end systems that a company relies on to do shipping, product configuration and pricing calculations,” Schadler added. “To build a good Web site, you need lots and lots of integration, andIBM excels at that. They also have lots of people that can help you put it all together, and I think WebSphere is an attractive foundation for e-commerce sites for that reason.”