The platform remains to be recognised

With so many vendors now marketing platforms that promise to take customers to dizzying heights of new functionality, it's a wonder that most IT people are not suffering nosebleeds.

With so many vendors now marketing platforms that promise to take customers to dizzying heights of new functionality, it's a wonder that most IT people are not suffering nosebleeds.

Whether a vendor is a provider of operating systems, middleware or application software, every piece of software sold today is positioned as a platform that can infinitely expand to accommodate all your future computing requirements.

All this noise from the various marketing departments at the vendors actually masks a serious technical issue IT people need to consider as they try to build sustainable IT architectures.

Back in the bad old days, about three years ago, the only software ever seriously considered to be worthy of the name platform was code that came wrapped up in an operating system. Only companies such as Microsoft, Sun or IBM could deliver platforms.

But about three years ago, we began to see software components we called middleware being packaged together in products called application servers. The value proposition of these application servers was that they masked the differences between various operating systems from developers, allowing them to more easily deploy their applications on multiple systems.

With more than 40 different vendors now selling various types of application servers, the arrival of these tools has forever changed the definition of the term platform.

The first thing that occurred was the companies that defined the term platform went into various forms of shock. Microsoft, for example, at first denied the existence of application servers, then proceeded to roll out various initiatives that essentially bundled application-server functionality into the operating system.

Sun, meanwhile, bought not one, not two, but three different ASPs (application service providers) after initially scrapping its own internal efforts. Today, Sun is back at square one with a new set of internal programs that cobble together these various efforts into a meaningful offering.

IBM simply took about a dozen different middleware offerings and marketed them collectively under a WebSphere brand name. Actual integration of these products should be complete some time in the next 10 years.

Then there was Oracle, which at first announced an application server to destroy all application servers, then recanted by killing that product in favour of embedding the application server in the database. If this sounds to you similar to what Microsoft did, you would be drawing the correct conclusion.

Then there's Johnny-come-lately Hewlett-Packard which has just bought BlueStone Software.

Unfortunately, things have not yet settled down on the platform front. With so many application-server vendors in the market, this space is rapidly becoming a commodity item. To differentiate their offerings, vendors now package application servers with frameworks for distinct market segments. Instead of buying an application server, you can buy a framework for e-commerce or an enterprise information portal from just about anybody who sells an application server. These frameworks are a set of customisable, prefabricated applications that can be bundled with application servers.

Providers of these almost-complete applications now find themselves competing with vendors that do provide complete applications. Each major application vendor now offers a full suite of products that are integrated by a common set of code, otherwise known as a proprietary application server.

But various application servers at the heart of each offering, Java notwithstanding, are frequently incompatible. So, billions of dollars will be poured into application-integration tools to connect all the various platforms. And IT people will spend the vast majority of their time making sure that all the platforms stay interconnected with each successive upgrade, as opposed to actually using the platforms to advance their company's business goals.

Someday we may all get off this collective treadmill, but until then, just remember one thing before you sign the dotted line: platforms are forever.

Michael Vizard is the editor in chief of InfoWorld.

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