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Interview...with Paul Chambers

Interview...with Paul Chambers

JDJ: Paul, I'd like you to give us some technology trends and talk a little bit about GemStone's role in the wireless market. Tell us some of the key players in that market right now.
Chambers:
The wireless market is a little bit different for people in software and it's been driven, really, by the telecommunications industry, which makes it a bit different. I think that if your name is on the play list, you can see where it's going to go within the next few years. The sorts of players that you've got in the market are telecommunications equipment manufacturers and the northern mobile operators, so you've got companies like Nokia and Ericksson driving the standards, because they have rolled out infrastructure which you've got to have to support the standards. They ship the kit, like mobile phones and small phones, which actually can support the standards as well. So they pretty much have a big say in how things go. I think they're becoming the ones to watch in terms of companies and the market.

JDJ: What exactly is driving this trend in the wireless market?
Chambers:
Over the next few years it's going to be quite a big revolution in terms of telecommunications and technology. With the fundamental technology out there, you can see by the software applications and standards for applications where they're going to go in the next five years. You've got the North American market and the European market and the standards are a bit different and not necessarily compatible. In Europe at the moment what we have is a GSM network that's operating at about 14 kilobits per second. Now it's just variable for data, it supports data. You can run things like WAP, the Wireless Application Protocol, over there, but it's pretty slow, and if reception is a bit bad, it cuts even further down to 5 or even 4 kilobits per second. So it's pretty primitive stuff we've been running. You can do the same thing in the United States - in the States is a standard called CDMA, and it's supposed to send this sort of bandwidth and people are learning WAP over it. So again, it's pretty primitive, it's pretty slow and the key thing that's going to happen in Europe this year is a new technology coming out called GPRS, which is an upgrade to the GSM system. Now that delivers about 115 kilobits per second. That's pretty useful and you can start doing stuff, especially with small sorts of applications. Another thing that is a big difference is it administers IP, mobile TCP/IP, so it's always on - it's packet switched - so it's moving away from circuit-switched systems to packet-switched systems. The same thing is going to happen in North America as well with CDMA 2000; it's going to go to packet switching. Now that's much more interesting for applications, much more usable.

JDJ: It sounds like there are a number of standards that are emerging. How does J2EE fit in, and how does GemStone offer it in wireless solutions in the future?
Chambers:
Really, it's the ongoing world for J2EE. I think maybe the way to view J2EE is as an aggregator, an independent aggregator. It's activating information at the back end - services and communication, data, etc. - and at the front end it's becoming an aggregator for different channels out there. So the things that can be predominant out there aren't just the Internet with PCs. You're seeing digital TV, Web phones, mobile devices - all sorts of different devices out there. And the role for J2EE is to be the aggregator and deliver to all of them, with all the channels out there independently. With GemStone, what we've been doing is working with clients who actually deliver wireless applications with GemStone at the back end, so the standards, such as the servlets and JSPs, work with most of the wireless products, such as the WAP application servers. The WAP application servers, essentially, are very much like the Web servers: they serve up pages. They solved some of the problems of the narrow bandwidth so instead of binary messages to the mobile device, they handle different protocol stacks so they're supporting things like circuit-switched data over GSM, circuit-switched over CDMA here in the States. Obviously, that rolls over into the new technologies we were just talking about. So they have a new set of challenges to hit. You've got mobile devices, less memory, you've got an over-the-air network with less bandwidth, so GemStone fits in behind that. What GemStone actually does is deliver more of what all applications should do. It's delivering a level of smartness, a level of caching. If you use a lot of the wireless applications every minute, oh man, they're bad! And, if you can put a smart system like GemStone behind the scenes, you can get much more user-friendly, much smarter systems. When you remove that, you get interrupted, you lose the connections, etc., etc. You need some smartness both from the device and on the back end so that you can resume correctly, so you can remember what you were doing. That's a key bit with GemStone - to be smart. And the final piece is robust, scalable, delivering to a high through-put. If you look at the volume, certainly in Europe the number of people who have wireless connections over PCs is about two and a half times fixed-line access - two and a half times in the mobile world, and the rest of it is going to be so upset by things like digital TV. Both of those platforms are going to supersede PC access. The numbers that are going to go through these systems are going to be huge - concurrent users and concurrent transactions. With J2EE and products like GemStone/J it's critical to have them at the back end to deliver what we've been delivering on the Web.

JDJ: Tell us a little about the role of the persistent cache architecture that GemStone has and how that's a key player in the wireless.
Chambers:
There are two key bits. Dr. Lougie Anderson, GemStone's vice president of engineering, was talking about two things we have: a persistent cache architecture in GemStone and extreme clustering. The extreme clustering really tries to solve all the scalability problems. Basically, what it's trying to do is implement a multivirtual machine architecture to get around all the scaling issues with single VM architectures. So you've got scalable garbage collections, scalable resource management. And it's robust and can run for a very long time without being brought down. That's what the extreme clustering gives and that's what we're bringing to wireless, that channel-neutral platform. We have clients that actually run dual channels into the same application - it's no problem with our servlet technology. Somebody in the servlet pages, detecting where your request is from and just formatting it slightly differently, it's not a big challenge. In terms of the PCA - what the PCA (the persistent cache) and all in GemStone is - it's really a shared cache where all the VMs can collaborate. It's like a community of VMs in a cluster can actually collaborate and that's the way you can put the smartness in. This is where you can build in protection again so when people lose their signal on wireless applications, the system has to remember where they were and get back to a current state and you can do that in a scalable fashion. PCA is really enabling that sort of smartness and robustness.

JDJ: Can the PCA, the persistent cache architecture, keep track of those transactions and pick up where they left off?
Chambers:
Absolutely. If you take the Web technology and the wireless WAP technology, it's got the concept, it can do some sessions, so that's in the cache itself. Tracking will be done via cookie support and session support, so when people lose connections and resume connections they'll see what they were previously doing. What we really need to do, though, is see the next generation of phones, because you need smartness at the phone end as well. When you lose a connection, the last thing you want to do is lose the whole service. You want to be able to continue...you don't want to lose what you previously did. That's a concern there, you do lose that. When we talk again we can talk about how the devices are evolving over the next few years as well and see how that will change things.

JDJ: There have got to be some customers that are driving all these changes in wireless and this whole trend. Could you give an indication of some of the customers that you have dealt with in Europe as well as the United States that are driving GemStone's movement to the wireless?
Chambers:
Yes. What we're seeing is the finance industry is moving pretty quickly on this. Some of the typical applications we are going with are Internet banking for all the mobiles. The other thing we're seeing is B2B as well, basically for field people who need status updates at all times. We have a client here in the States called Buildscape. Buildscape is actually a B2B exchange for the building industry, you know, the building merchants. A lot of people are out on sites, and they use their Palm Pilots and WAP phones, etc. They actually place orders, check on the status of things, check on deliveries. Another company we're working with on their wireless drive is eConnections. They were previously Marshall Industries. They're rating similar things where they've got field staffing to actually have access to the current status and they're also tracking just where things are at, they track where their orders are at and where deliveries are at in their logistics system. On the banking side, another company we're working with is First Rand in South Africa. They're running a dual strategy both with the Web and on wireless applications. Again, Internet banking, aggregating all the financial services, stuff that you like to do on the fly, stuff that you want to do. You don't want to put on a whole PC just to make a payment - it's a big thing. You just want to switch your phone on, switch your Palm Pilot on, and do it there and then. So people like going down those routes for those sorts of items.

JDJ: We'll be back again next month to continue our conversation with Paul Chambers.

More Stories By Jason Westra

Jason Westra is the CTO of Verge Technologies Group, Inc. (www.vergecorp.com). Verge is a Boulder, CO based firm specializing in eBusiness solutions with Enterprise JavaBeans.

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