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J2EE for the Real World

We're witnessing unprecedented demand for J2EE-based e-business solutions

The advent of J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition), a market-revolutionizing industry specification that standardizes the way that application servers work, sets the stage for a collision of two markets: content management/personalization and back-end data access/transactions.

It also becomes a driving force as organizations move to create powerful new e-business applications that bring together all forms of electronic interaction for customers, trading partners and employees.

The J2EE standard has been uniformly adopted by almost every application server vendor and is being enthusiastically adopted as the standard for Web development by much of corporate America. It unifies the programming interfaces or APIs to the most important areas in an application server. Just as SQL did for relational databases, J2EE is creating tidal waves in the Web application marketplace. Once database vendors adopted support for the SQL standard, no packaged vendors would dream of writing their own database. In the world of Web applications the same is now true of application servers. It makes no sense to write a Web application without using a standard application server. Several packages were written prior to application servers and their creators were forced to write their own proprietary application server functionality. These vendors find themselves in a tough position, faced with the need to either rewrite their entire functionality or find their market share shrinking as buyers shun their proprietary approaches.

The J2EE standard also brings several other advantages:

  1. Application developers with J2EE expertise are widely available.
  2. Additional components for specific functionality (e.g., e-commerce) can be bought from third parties and plugged into the server.
  3. A wide range of tools are now tailored for J2EE use, including popular products such as Macromedia Dreamweaver.
  4. Expertise and skills learned while building applications can be reused on all other application projects.

As J2EE becomes the core technology for real-world Web applications, we're witnessing unprecedented demand for J2EE-based e-business solutions such as portals, e-commerce sites, B2B commerce solutions and so on. This has become a top priority for IT.

In the past many of these solutions have been built on top of IRM (Internet Relationship Management) products whose primary specialization has been content management and personalization. For early Web sites this was adequate, as they were mostly serving up static content. Once the basic site is up and running, however, the demand quickly shifts to more data-driven applications in which customers can place orders, see inventory, book travel, track packages and more. This requires the ability to develop highly scalable, enterprise-class Web applications that access existing corporate data and applications and provide high-end transactional capabilities.

In particular, almost every application server vendor - to meet the demand from their clients for more prebuilt functionality - has begun developing e-business solutions that include IRM functionality based on top of their application servers.

Prior to the J2EE standard, Web software companies, including IRM vendors, wrote their own servers to support their applications, frequently spending as much as 70% of their energy on that task. These were proprietary, with weak architectures that lacked important features like distributed objects, transactions, standardized data access and message queuing. Furthermore, they provided proprietary scripting languages that weren't up to the task of writing serious enterprise applications. Today no software company in its right mind would write its own proprietary server. A company would simply write to the J2EE standard and support the leading J2EE servers in the market.

Because of the availability of J2EE standardized servers, there's a backlash at customer sites against the proprietary server architectures. Organizations standardizing on J2EE want to use this architecture for all their e-business applications; that way, they invest in learning only one skill set that can be used across all projects - and they're easily able to find developers who already know the J2EE standard. They're also able to use a much wider range of development tools as products such as Rational Rose and Macromedia Dreamweaver are adapted to support the J2EE standard. Furthermore, they can purchase from third-party vendors add-on components and prebuilt software modules that comply with the J2EE standard.

As the content management/personalization vendors collide with the application server vendors, we see a major battle brewing. At stake is the huge e-business platform market. In one corner are the IRM content management and personalization products built on a proprietary architecture with weak scripting capabilities. In the other are the application server vendors who are moving into e-business solutions, leveraging their strong architecture.

The obvious move for the existing IRM vendors is to rewrite their products to be J2EE compliant. Companies such as Vignette are describing multiphase plans to do something like this. This is a tough task though, and may well take years to accomplish correctly; during this time it will be close to impossible to simultaneously evolve their solutions functionality at a rapid pace. Probable outcome: loss of momentum and market share.

Several application server vendors are already pursuing the strategy of adding e-business solutions to their product lines and moving into the complete e-business platform space. Not all will succeed, as the solutions skill set is different from the systems skill set that most possess. Those that do will take market share away from the IRM vendors and may have a shot at the brass ring.

Real World E-Business Solutions and J2EE
Savvy businesses have realized the need to create powerful new Web sites that bring together all forms of electronic interaction for customers, trading partners and employees. These e-business Web sites need to recognize the context of individual visitors and adaptively bring together all the resources needed to help them find what they're looking for and transact business. These next-generation e-business Web sites make it easier for people to navigate around a vast sea of information and to personalize the way the site works for them. They also offer powerful business applications and transactions.

Next-generation e-business Web sites require a multitude of important capabilities. They must possess:

  • The ability to handle all forms of interaction: Initially, Web interactions were restricted to users visiting a site via a Web browser. But wireless devices connected to the Web, such as WAP/WML-enabled cell phones, are expected to eclipse the PC population (200 million PCs) by the year 2003, growing rapidly to over 500 million devices. There's also a need to allow for B2B transactions that take place directly with trading partners' applications using XML.
  • Fresh, constantly updated content: This is required to drive traffic to a site and keep it interesting. Content also drives transactions (e.g., equity research causes people to trade stocks and rich graphical product catalogs drive consumers to make purchases). Discussion boards help create communities, which in turn drive traffic. Web sites that share knowledge bases with customers and employees greatly improve the flow of critical information needed for things like customer self-service.
  • Richly functional Web applications: In addition to content capabilities, organizations need to provide richly functional Web applications. These are different for each particular industry. For example, insurance industry users will want to view insurance policies and claims, whereas in the travel industry users will want to book travel. These applications need the capacity to handle large numbers of business transactions.
  • Connectivity: Web applications need to be able to access legacy mainframe applications, packaged applications (SAP R/3, PeopleSoft) and relational databases, as this is where existing functionality lives. The existing functionality needs to be repurposed with new Web interfaces. Multiple systems need to appear seamlessly integrated so the customer/visitor sees all the relevant information in one place.
  • XML capability: These applications also need to be able to communicate directly with those using XML. This enables seamless electronic integration with trading partners and trading exchanges. It also eliminates paper and human intervention, both of which are costly. Processing a paper purchase order typically costs around $75 versus around 80¢ for an electronic PO.
  • Personalization: Personalization has become one of the most important tools in the online business world. Just as personalized service in the physical world creates satisfied loyal customers, it's also critical to provide personalized service in the electronic world. As soon as visitors reach a site, observing their behavior allows organizations to learn about them and start personalizing their experience. As visitors become more interested and as trust develops, they will tell the organization more about themselves. This information can then be used to further personalize the site. As visitors experience the benefits of increasingly relevant information, their trust evolves rapidly to higher levels and it becomes increasingly likely that they'll transact business. As they start entering transactions, it's possible to immediately recommend other products that work together with what they're purchasing. After they've become customers, it's possible to use information from internal systems to cross-sell and up-sell additional products and services.
  • "My Yahoo"-style personalization: As a longer-term business relationship builds, customers and other site visitors will want to clearly define their own personalization. This involves allowing them the flexibility to lay out their own pages, assembling components of information in a way that makes sense to them. Each component needs to be customizable to allow them to choose the information they wish to see. Examples here would be financial clients specifying which stocks should be on their watch list and what types of equities research they'd like to see.
  • E-mail: E-mail provides a powerful way to reach visitors after they've left a site, to promote additional products and services. Like content on the site, e-mail messages need to be personalized to make them highly relevant; otherwise they can be considered offensive.

J2EE-based application servers are highly flexible platforms for building richly functional Web applications. They enable developers to rapidly evolve new functionality for Web sites, and provide the scalability, reliability and security that organizations need. By embracing industry standards they help organizations avoid vendor lock-in. However, as seen from the requirements above, J2EE-based application servers are missing many of the pieces required for e-business, such as content management, XML, personalization and other critical e-business features. Developers can develop these pieces on their own, but with the pressure to deliver e-business solutions fast - ahead of the competition - the time and cost of building from scratch becomes unmanageable. On the other hand, while prepackaged solutions have the advantage of fast time-to-market, they often lack the functionality, flexibility and scalability that organizations need.

The dilemma developers face is exacerbated by confusion in the e-business platform market. The prepackaged solution vendors that promise fast time-to-market will face a challenge from the traditional application server players who promise scalable, reliable, standards-based solutions - and vice versa.

As the market evolves, hybrids of these two worlds will emerge (or collide). In fact, evidence of this can be seen by more recent e-business platforms that offer a combination of flexibility, fast time-to-market and a standards-based architecture. As such, the vendors that will ultimately win this battle will provide a "best of both worlds" solution - delivering not only the fast time-to-market that e-business demands but also the flexibility to extend functionality by leveraging the underlying power of J2EE.

Conclusion
This is all good news for developers. With a platform that provides core features including personalization, content management, a component framework and an extensive library of components, developers get the fast time-to-market, flexibility and rich features they need, on top of a J2EE standard application server foundation. Using such a platform, developers can focus on the solution, not the technology - quickly delivering the robust applications their e-business initiative demands.

More Stories By David Skok

David Skok joined Matrix Partners as a General Partner in May 2001. He has a wealth of experience running companies. He started his first company in 1977 at age 22. Since then he has founded a total of four separate companies and performed one turn-around. Three of these companies went public.

Skok joined Matrix from SilverStream Software, which he founded in June 1996. Prior to its July 2002 acquisition by Novell, SilverStream was a public company that had reached a revenue run rate in excess of $100M, with approximately 800 employees and offices in more than 20 countries around the world. His work as a value added investor is best known for helping JBoss take its Open Source business to a successful exit with its sale to Red Hat, and for helping AppIQ, Tabblo and Diligent Technologies, which have all had successful exits, from their inceptions to their acquisitions by HP and IBM.

He serves on the boards of Digium (makers of the very popular Asterisk Open Source PBX/telephony software), CloudSwitch, Enservio, OpenSpan, Solidworks, VideoIQ, and HubSpot. In addition to his broad focus on enterprise software, he is specifically focused on the areas of cloud computing, Open Source, Software as a Service (SaaS), marketing automation, virtualization, storage, and data center automation.

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