Analysis: Developers living in interesting times

At IBM's Developerworks Live conference a year ago, I had the sense that IBM's software division was finally achieving what it had seemed to lack for a number of years. So it was interesting to go back this month to hear how far the grand plan has proceeded.

At IBM’s Developerworks Live conference a year ago, I had the sense that IBM’s software division was finally achieving what it had seemed to lack for a number of years.

It was espousing a strategic direction, backed up by a co-ordinated marketing strategy. So it was interesting to go back this month (to New Orleans, on this occasion – last year it was San Francisco) to hear how far the grand plan has proceeded.

Last year IBM’s focus was on “grid computing” – the suggestion that the applications of the future will reside on “grids” of resources, analogous to the way electricity is delivered.

This year IBM was pushing a vision of the future it has termed “on demand” computing.

This refers to applications that are distributed in nature; that are “autonomic” (self-diagnosing, self-configuring and self-repairing), scalable, heterogeneous (running on multiple platforms and technologies) and available 24 x 7. And the grid services architecture that IBM was pushing last year is key to the delivery of the vision.

The head of IBM's e-business on demand plans, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, admits the vision is some years away from reality. But Wladawsky-Berger says IBM is providing the foundations for “on demand” computing by providing (or helping to provide via its work with standards bodies) the hooks for grid computing, autonomic computing, and authoring and managing distributed applications.

These foundations include a blueprint for grid computing labelled OGSA (Open Grid Services Architecture). OGSA makes use of web services to define services that can participate in a grid to provide resources (for example, storage, application functionality, security) to an application deployed on that grid. A good introduction to grids and a recently released toolkit for grid development can be found on the Globus website. Globus is a research organisation whose work is funded by DARPA, NASA, NSF (the US National Science Foundation), IBM and Microsoft.

In New Orleans IBM announced the launch of a new section of Developerworks site focusing on grid computing. Updated versions of the IBM grid toolbox and grid application framework for Java are available for download from the Alphaworks site. IBM also announced a new downloadable kit for developing web-services-based applications, entitled “Speed Start Web Services”. The web services kit includes trial versions of WebSphere Studio, WebSphere application server, the WebSphere web services SDK and DB2 Universal DB.

At one session I attended we were told that IBM would be progressively building OGSA into all its products, including the hardware, operating system and middleware layers.

Currently IBM is beta-testing OGSA support in DB2, WebSphere and Tivoli software products, as well as on the IBM AS/400 platform and the e-Series machines. Business partners said to be working on incorporating OGSA into their products included Entropia, Siebel, SAP, Ariba and Peoplesoft.

Another component of the IBM strategy that was heavily promoted this year is “autonomic” computing. Autonomic computing is the phrase that IBM uses to describe software applications that are designed to incorporate a feedback loop that aids in allowing systems to diagnose and repair problems and balance workloads, helping to simplify application management and deployment.

Shortly before Developerworks, IBM announced a blueprint for autonomic computing – available from the Developerworks site – and four software initiatives aimed at helping developers to build autonomic systems. The first of these is the Tivoli Monitoring Engine (a service to collect, report and take action on events generated by autonomic-aware systems). Tivoli will also include something with the somewhat long-winded title of Business Workload Management for Heterogeneous Environments. It is is based on the ARM (Application Resource Measurement) standard, which is designed to measure an application’s resource requirements so the system can adjust accordingly. IBM’s last two autonomic initiatives are a log-and-trace tool that can be used to track application problems and allow systems to take corrective action, and ABLE (Agent Building and Learning Environment) an intelligent rules-engine to provide analysis and action capability to autonomic systems.

Since last year’s Developerworks, IBM has swallowed up Rational Software, one of the leading developer tools providers specialising in architecture and modelling products.

With the acquisition came Grady Booch, a longtime object-oriented programming guru, who now serves as head of IBM’s Rational division. In a keynote address at the conference, Booch said he was pleasantly surprised at how easily the acquisition has gone, and how close Rational’s and IBM’s architectural visions are. Already, he says, IBM has provided the Rational products with large chunks of new functionality and technology, and the synergy has worked with other way too, with Rational’s tools and methodologies being incorporated into IBM’s software development infrastructure.

All told, while this year’s event seemed a little quieter than last, and developers a little more shell-shocked, there was more substance to IBM’s theoretical picture of computing nirvana. The company’s oft-voiced commitment to open standards and the support of those standards with financial aid for initiatives such as Globus and the Linux kernel project, to name a few, deserves praise. Part of the task of a conference such as this is to step back and take a long-sighted look ahead, but computing nirvana still feels quite some way off.

What's coming soon? There are some exciting things happening with tools based on the open source Eclipse developer environment – including IBM’s own WebSphere Studio product, and various toolkits for WebSphere such as the toolkit for Domino JSP development in beta now and due to ship with Domino 6.2 at the end of May. The head of development for application server, messaging and development tools, Danny Sabbah, told me he knew IBM was on to a winner with the Eclipse IDE intiative when he saw internal developers were choosing to use big Blue’s Eclipse-based WebSphere studio product rather than competitive products.

I can also report that there will be an Eclipse-based RAD tool for Lotus Domino developers later this year (Q3 was the rumour), which is based on the JSF (Java server faces) standard, and will provide drag-and-drop GUI development of Java Server Pages talking to Domino servers.

I predict confusing acronyms arriving at an even greater rate as the list of open standards increases – and IBM is perhaps the leading proponent of TLAs, coining the term AMD (for air-movement device), otherwise known as a fan.

Lastly, I’m guessing the next year or two will see intensification of the battle between the J2EE camp and Microsoft’s .Net camp. There is tremendous momentum behind Linux, Java, J2EE and open source on the one hand, and an immense installed base of Windows platform users and developers on the other. Both sides are courting developers furiously, and spending large sums on providing websites full of information, tutorials, code examples, white papers, trial development kits and more to win supporters over to their respective camps.

While undoubtedly making for extremely interesting times for developers, the business will still be hard for some time. I guess that means we’re all in a job for a while, folks.

Evans is IDG New Zealand's CTO and online business manager. He travelled to New Orleans courtesy of IBM.

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