Application servers are inherently complicated. As the hub of modern Web applications, they connect and manage databases, business rules, user interaction, operating systems, networks, browsers, applications...and more. They make n-tier Web applications possible, but the term "n-tier" is likely to scare the uninitiated. Consequently, while Web applications are becoming increasingly important for corporate departments and midsize businesses, installing and operating application servers is a barrier for organizations lacking readily available technical expertise.
Web application providers know that application servers for smaller businesses represent, potentially, an important market — but the product must be appropriate. With Application Server 10g Standard Edition One (SE One), Oracle has gone to great lengths to put together a tailored package for smaller businesses or departments in larger businesses. The keys to the package are ease of use, scalability and value — pretty typical for entry-level software, but with application servers a difficult set of criteria. Oracle hasn't quite achieved all of them, but the foundation is extremely solid, and the package is impressive.
Weigh in with Scalability
What's the difference between Oracle SE One and the Oracle enterprise level application server? The answer is not that much. At its core SE One is the same as the enterprise application server. Differences consist mostly of the enterprise version's additional connectivity modules and unlimited use of services such as the Oracle Internet Directory and Oracle Application Server Metadata Repository. If a company eventually needs a lot of servers with a great deal of capacity, only the supporting cast — and not the basic software — changes. Oracle has application server scalability nailed.
The fact that SE One is the same full-featured application server as the enterprise version could be a mixed blessing in the context of smaller organizations. Optimization for service-oriented architectures (SOAs), Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), business process management (BPM) and J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA) opens doors to cutting-edge applications, but it also loads application server installation and administration with too many esoteric options. In fact, some of the same features that give it so much power and put Oracle Application Server among the best of breed also make it a product more at home in an enterprise IT shop than in an autonomous department with little tech support.
We're talking about "out-of-box experience" here, something usually associated with consumer software — not IT plumbing such as application servers. However, that's the bar Oracle set for itself with SE One: "One-click installation" is the phrase Oracle uses.
While working with and testing SE One, I installed it on three different machines. In my case, they were all Windows environments (XP Pro on a portable, Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003). It runs equally well in Red Hat Linux environments. SE One has a battery of configuration assistants that take the work out of a normal installation. Two of the installations I performed were indeed one-click procedures. That's an important success. However, the Windows Server 2003 installation ran into a snag, which turned out to be a port conflict caused by other software. These things happen. The installation process simply quit, however — providing only messages that diagnostic information could be found in one log file and a list of configuration assistants that didn't run in another. A couple of hours later, I managed to figure out the problem and finally located the configuration assistants. It shouldn't have been so difficult to recover from a configuration glitch, especially in a product intended for small and midsize businesses.
Once SE One is up and running, the browser-based administration tools (Oracle Enterprise Manager 10g Application Server Control) for monitoring and managing are first-rate: well designed, informative and flexible. One caveat: SE One's administrative environment is so "rich" that it might be overwhelming without the proper training and customization.
Site and Portal to Go
For smaller organizations, quite likely the most immediately useful capability of the SE One package is the out-of-the-box construction and maintenance of business Web sites and portals (using components such as Oracle HTTP Server, Oracle Application Server Portal and Instant Portal). Constructing sites and portals is good, but a lot of products do that trick. What's more impressive are the ways SE One provides to administer, secure and maintain sites and portals. This includes the means to perform site backup, version control and Oracle Application Server Single Sign-on user authentication.
Unlike some of the servers' more abstruse elements, it doesn't take long to set up and start modifying a typical business Web site (or portal) with database access and some included simple applications. It's not much more difficult to begin plugging in full-scale Web applications. SE One's implementation of Java (J2EE 1.3) is so not Oracle-centric that it goes beyond compatibility to being downright congenial to other products — including other application servers. However, note that out of the box SE One is designed to work with Oracle database management products (essentially versions of Oracle Database Server10g) and supports other databases with optional connectors.
|• World-class application server in an attractive bundle|
|• Some prebuilt applications make it suitable for an 'application server starter kit' for small and midsize organizations|
|• The out-of-box experience is good but documentation and error recovery could be improved for smaller organizations|
|• The product is so comprehensive and feature rich that smaller organizations may need training and roadmaps before implementation|
Whether developing n-tier, multi-server, Web applications from scratch or just doing HTML and PHP coding for Web pages, SE One provides Oracle JDeveloper for these jobs. What's interesting is that Oracle JDeveloper can do both jobs within a comfortable, unified user interface even though they are worlds apart in terms of technical complexity. For example, while working in Oracle Instant Portal, a click to the "edit mode" button brings up the relevant JDeveloper screen and tools. More experienced developers will appreciate the way Oracle Containers for Java (OC4J) simplifies application integration and deployment.
Oracle JDeveloper is one of the best Java application development environments around, which is a statement I'll leave to the numerous glowing reviews of it to bear out. The point here is that even for small jobs it's a good tool. For those companies with the means and motive to develop Web applications, having it in the application server bundle is a terrific deal.
There's Value Here
It could be that corporate departments or midsize businesses may not be interested in whether SE One has state-of-the-art caching, or that it implements a seamless J2EE 1.3 compliance, or that it can be upgraded to the enterprise version with support for Services-Oriented Architecture with its much-praised engine for Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). All that and a lot more are there in the background, so to speak.
What may count most is that Oracle Application Server 10g Standard Edition One is a superb collection of software that in most cases comes out of the box, installs, creates Web sites and stands ready to gracefully manage a large number of Web applications — usually without resorting to expensive consultants and technical support. That's a value proposition that should appeal to corporate departments and midsize businesses very much.
• Oracle Application Server 10g Standard Edition One costs $4,995 per CPU. Requirements: 300 MHz or higher processor speed, 1 GB RAM, 450 MB disk space. Platforms: Windows 2000 Server SP3, Windows Server 2003 SP1, Windows XP SP1 and several versions of Red Hat Linux. For more information, contact Oracle Corp., 650-506-7000 or go to www.oracle.com.
Nelson King is a 25-year veteran of the coding wars. He has written nine books on application development, and his tool evaluations are widely published.