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Rise of the superplatform: Overkill or just what the user ordered?

The past three years have seen the rise of a superpower in the middleware space: Java superplatforms. Like a modern day Soviet Union and United States -- but rooted in technology -- two sides have formed that offer users distinct differences and benefits.

Long gone are the days when an application platform was a relatively small environment that consisted of just a complier, an operating system and a few rudimentary frameworks.

Due to a combination of user demand and a competitive market among the likes of mega vendors like IBM, Oracle and SAP, the application platform -- specifically those written in Java -- has grown into a platform built on multiple features and is becoming increasingly popular among certain groups of users.

Within the last three years, the middleware industry has seen the rise of a new market segment of highly available, manageable and secure platforms that have superseded their distant cousins to comprise a completely new category of functionality beyond what Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) could provide.

A lot of the fear about open source we saw three or four years ago has waned.
Gervase Gallant
Board MemberCentral Iowa Java Users Group

The Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group called these powerful entities "Java superplatforms" in a report issued this week, a term widely recognized in the user space as meaning a platform that contains sophisticated integration brokers, advanced Web services, powerful portals and tightly coupled development environments – among many other things.

In fact, Anne Thomas Manes, a vice president and research director at the Burton Group, said "superplatform" is a general term that can cast a wide net.

"The basic theme [behind superplatforms] is that they are all-encompassing; they not only provide application servers but also provide portal business intelligence," she said.

A tale of two superplatforms

In her report, Manes forecast that in the near future users will have the option of two camps when it comes to superplatforms: They can opt for a large vendor like IBM or SAP, or they can go the open source and rebel frameworks route with Linux, Apache, MySQL of Microsoft .NET.

The appeal of open source, she said, is the obvious: Some users simply will not want to be locked in with proprietary technology with only one vendor. Companies should probably also ask themselves: Do we need all these features?

"If a company is really attached to staying with the J2EE standard, then why even pay a price for it? JBoss has the same capability," Manes said.

If a company is really attached to staying with the J2EE standard, then why even pay a price for it? JBoss has the same capability.
Anne Thomas Manes
Vice president and research directorBurton Group

Pierre Fricke, a vice president of application and integration infrastructure of Australian analyst firm Ideas International Ltd., said open source options like JBoss or Tomcat are simple alternatives to superplatforms because users don't have to learn the "plethora of complex APIs and don't need full portals as they can just use a Web browser.

"They are bubbling into the midrange just like Linux did, from the bottom up," Fricke explained. "If users are willing to work at night … take matters in to their own hands and find discarded hardware [to test and experiment with] they can make it work."

In the end, Manes said, customers will be faced with a choice between increasingly proprietary superplatforms at the high end of the market and undifferentiated open source J2EE application servers at the low end.

In the eye of the user

Dave Gifford and Gervase Gallant, two of the board members of the Central Iowa Java Users Group said they are intimately familiar with Java superplatforms.

Gallant said the majority of shops in the Des Moines area utilize the Apache components that come with IBM's WebSphere, but over the past 18 months they have started to utilize containers like Tomcat and JBoss.

"A lot of the fear about open source we saw three or four years ago has waned," Gallant said.

As far as a choice between proprietary and open source is concerned, Gifford said it all depends upon the IT department's core competencies.

"If the teams have a wide variety of experience with independent tools, class libraries, APIs, and are willing to interact and contribute to user forums and newsgroups that make up the open source community, then open source alternatives are a viable option," Gifford said.

As a second option, Gifford said if a team is less creative or more formal in their approach, prefer well-written technical documentation and have the time to allow a larger more established vendor help resolve internal integrity issues with software, then a "mega vendor" relationship is the most ideal.

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Who's the JBoss?

However, just as buy versus build, a hybrid solution is often overlooked, Gifford said.

"Seasoned IT executives know that the answer is not always black and white, but somewhere in the middle if they have the courage and internal resources to pursue such options," Gifford said.

A large company such as a bank or insurance company can still determine the optimal mix and implement software methodologies, processes and practices such as RUP while utilizing OMG's MDA (Model Driven Architecture) with IBM's XDE for code generation and still leverage open source solutions with an agile approach from a RUP-Lite or RUPxp perspective.

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