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Grasping Apps

As businesses try to get a handle on their software plumbing, BEA and others respond with integrated do-it-all product suites.

Networkcar Inc. is eager to deploy new applications on the Web, but technical complexity is holding it back. The San Diego company, which wirelessly delivers real-time car diagnostics, location-based services, and other data to auto-industry customers, has rolled out several Web apps, but writing, deploying, and managing them can be onerous and time consuming. Networkcar is quickly learning just how important a fine-tuned application infrastructure can be to business innovation.

The term application infrastructure refers to development tools and languages, integration modules, packaged applications, management tools, and other software plumbing. For too many companies, it's become an unwieldy mish-mash of products from various vendors. Simplification is the goal. "That would free me up to do other things," says Wade Williams, a senior software engineer with Networkcar. Williams and the rest of the IT staff operate on an old rule of thumb--80% of an application team's time goes to software maintenance.

Charles Myers and Wade Williams

The ability to quickly develop and deploy apps is key to Networkcar's future, says CEO Myers (right), shown with senior software engineer Williams.
The dilemma's not lost on Networkcar CEO Charles Myers, who notes that the company's ability to develop and deploy applications more quickly is key to its future. Networkcar's customers are focused on getting access to ever-expanding sources of information about the cars and parts they make.

App infrastructures tend to be expensive and resource-intensive--yet critical--backbones for business processes. The group that manages United Airlines' Web site spends half of its IT dollars on maintaining systems. It would like to put more of those dollars toward innovation, says Rob Robless, chief technology officer at United's Customer Loyalty Services.

Tech vendors are trying to address the situation through more complete and integrated product suites. BEA Systems Inc., known for its market-leading WebLogic application server, this week will introduce WebLogic Platform 7, which combines a new version of the company's application server, a new application-development and-deployment environment, and upgraded portal, integration, and management software. The products support Web-services standards.

WebLogic Platform will include support for application security--an often-overlooked part of development (see story, "Hackers Sneak Through Open Doors In Applications"). Two years ago, United Airlines, a BEA customer, was forced to build its own application security because of the lack of commercial products. "We always prefer to buy infrastructure components, rather than build them from scratch," Robless says. United uses BEA's platform to unify systems spanning from mainframes and legacy databases to Java-based Web applications.

BEA isn't alone in targeting the need. Others range from IBM, whose WebSphere line includes more than 30 compatible products, to Sybase Inc., which cut its teeth on application integration as a database provider. The urgency to get application infrastructures under control is increasingly driven by two trends: collaborative business and Web services. As more businesses hook up their IT systems to those of partners and customers, application complexity grows. Web services involve software components that are deployed across networks. Both trends heighten the need for products to develop, deploy, and manage applications as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible.

"One of my fears is that if I add another layer of technology today, it becomes a maintenance-intensive environment," says Gerrit Borg, director of application support for the Los Angeles commercial real-estate firm CB Richard Ellis.

The buildup to the current application tangle has been years in the making. Longs Drug Stores started building object-oriented applications five years ago. CIO Brian Kilcourse and his staff later decided they needed an application framework to streamline the development process and settled on the Forte development environment. But that proved too complex. "I lost six months of being able to develop business logic while I developed a [custom] framework," says Debra Jensen, Longs' VP of business information systems.

Then the Walnut Creek, Calif., drugstore chain made another turn, switching to BEA's WebLogic application server and development tools so it could use Java. That solved one problem but created another. Kilcourse finds himself longing for some of Forte's strengths, in particular programmer productivity aids. He hopes BEA's new development tools bring some productivity advances to his team.

The fragmented market makes it difficult for an IT department to find everything it needs for its application infrastructure without taking a mix-and-match approach. "Everyone's got their areas of strength," says Shawn Willett, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Networkcar runs its Web applications--which include an app that reports a vehicle's smog test results automatically to a state's department of motor vehicles from the car's onboard computer--on WebLogic Server 6.1. Software engineer Williams is anxious to try BEA's new development environment because he'd like to create Web apps capable of serving specific market segments. The tools could speed that process by letting less-experienced programmers handle development tasks so that Williams can focus on other priorities.

Another concern: Many IT departments are grappling with two broad, and not always complementary, application underpinnings--Java and Microsoft's .Net. It's for precisely that reason that WebGain Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., company that sells Java development tools, welcomes BEA's effort to expand its developer community to include both types of developers. Stephen DiFranco, executive VP of marketing, says he's grown concerned that if Visual Basic developers jump to .Net, WebGain will be limited to the smaller Java audience.

With this week's product launch, BEA is trying to become something more than an application-server company. It's certainly growing in stature. Last week, the company reported revenue for fiscal 2002 approaching $1 billion. But bigger tech companies are moving in the same direction. In the next few weeks, IBM and Sun are expected to lay out their latest strategies for delivering Web services. For now, analyst Willett says, BEA's new products put the company ahead of the pack in providing a comprehensive application infrastructure, though he ranks its integration module as less mature than some.

BEA's relatively small size and independence--when compared with IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun--could work to its advantage by providing a no-strings-attached approach to application infrastructure. BEA partners include Documentum Inc. and E.piphany Inc., whose customers use the WebLogic app server to access Documentum's document-management repositories and E.piphany's CRM apps, respectively.

"We see them as imperative as an application infrastructure," says Whitney Tidmarsh, Documentum's VP of product marketing. "So it's imperative that we have seamless integration with them."

The pent-up demand for a better way to manage applications will drive the market for application infrastructure products and services to more than $100 billion in the next few years, from about $56 billion today, says BEA co-founder and CEO Alfred Chuang (the "A" in BEA).

Chuang--once a CIO himself, at Sun--says it's too expensive to maintain Web sites, pointing to the shutdown of some retailers' online stores as evidence. Many sites, he says, run on aging mainframes. "We need a new infrastructure, and we need to re-architect the back end," he says. The new approach extends to BEA's licensing. It's moving from per-server and per-user pricing toward a model where "we only make money when customers deploy new application functionality based on our technology," Chuang says.

The good news is that software companies are "all trying to make things easier for developers," Willett says. The bad: "Unfortunately, no one's there yet."

-- with Karyl Scott and Antone Gonsalves

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