Strong Java

Strong Java

Despite Microsoft’s best efforts, Java is well-established in the enterprise. Can it hold its ground?BY D.F. TWENEY

THIS YEAR, the programming language-cum-development platform called Java turned 5. It now stands as one of the world’s most popular computer languages—and it continues to grow. The number of Java programmers is increasing by 10 percent per year, according to research company Evans Data.

Yet Java’s ascendancy hasn’t happened quite the way Sun envisioned back in 1996. In stark contrast to the swarm of Java applets populating the Web during its first years, client-side Java is almost nonexistent today. Instead, the language has moved behind the scenes, within the application servers that drive corporate websites—and increasingly, companies’ line-of-business applications.

During the past year, enterprises have taken Java to heart like never before. The language has matured. Tools for developing and deploying heavyweight Java applications are readily available from Borland, IBM and Sun. And developers now have a wealth of experience with the language.

“Java today has become mainstream,” says Mark Driver, research director for Internet and mobile technologies at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. As a result, Driver says, Java applications are turning up everywhere from mainframes to mobile phones—and thanks to improved Java development and management tools, companies don’t necessarily need Java gurus to benefit from the language anymore.

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At Detroit-based Ford Financial—the financial services arm of Ford Motor Co.—Java is central to the company’s

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migration away from a two-tier client/server model toward a three-tier thin-client architecture. While maintaining the company’s longstanding big-iron back end (IBM mainframes running DB2 databases), the company is now developing Java-based middleware applications that run on BEA Systems’ WebLogic Java application server. Ford’s applications, which handle such core business tasks as loan origination and account management, now have HTML client interfaces, eliminating the need to support client-side software in the company’s eight service centers and 150 dealer locations—and making it possible to extend these applications to consumers on the Web.

Ford has no regrets about basing its IT infrastructure on what five years ago was a brand-new technology. “We selected [Java] because it met our scalability, flexibility and value needs; and it has really proven itself,” says Marcy Klevorn, director of customer branch and dealer systems for Ford Financial.

What’s more, Java now has only one serious competitor—Microsoft’s .Net framework—but that competitor is just getting out of the starting blocks. (See “.Net Gain,” July 1, 2001.)

Enterprise OS-1
What catalyzed Java’s corporate growth was the release in early 2000 of Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). Not a product, but a set of standards and procedures, J2EE formalized a framework for building multitier Java applications, using technologies such as servlets (Java applets that run on a server), Enterprise JavaBeans to exchange data and application objects, and Java server pages (JSP) to generate HTML for Web-based applications.

J2EE caught on quickly, with developers lured in part by a well-stocked toolkit. “Even with just the J2EE environment provided by Sun, I’ve got a ton of my application already built,” says Ted Shelton, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Borland, which sells Java development tools as well as Java application servers.

The standards provided by J2EE provide, in effect, an operating system for enterprise applications, handling low-level programming issues such as data access, file management and interoperability among application components. “Java is great by itself, but once the operating system galvanized—and that is J2EE—that’s what really made it go,” says Mark Carges, president of BEA Systems’ e-commerce application components division.

Wide Industry Support
Once J2EE appeared, enterprise software vendors, with the exception of Microsoft, quickly lined up behind it. As a result, Java’s biggest asset now is the wide range of middleware based on J2EE—BEA Systems, Bluestone, Borland, IBM and Sun’s iPlanet all offer Java-based application servers.

For enterprises, standardizing on one platform and language reduces risk, because the single standard makes it easier to replace software if necessary. It also simplifies integration issues and lets the same Java experts work on a variety of projects.

At Ford Financial, a central team of 25 Java gurus works with application development teams in the company’s various departments, providing help by evaluating vendors, assisting with integration and implementation, maintaining the underlying J2EE infrastructure, and looking for opportunities to reuse components and code among departments. “You’re only going to have so many people in an organization that really have strong [object-oriented] development skills. We try to isolate some of the nuts and bolts from the application teams so they can concentrate on the business logic,” says Jeff Lemmer, manager of the e-commerce and application architecture team at Ford Financial.

In some cases, business issues, rather than the language’s technical merits—lead a company to Java. “The majority of enterprises are not choosing between Microsoft or Java—they’re choosing Microsoft .Net, IBM WebSphere or BEA Systems WebLogic,” says David Chappell, principal of San Francisco-based IT consultancy David Chappell and Associates. “In choosing an enterprise Java product, the most important thing is that the vendor who makes your product will still be selling it five years from now.”

Eric Dean, CIO of Elk Grove Township, Ill.-based UAL Corp. (the parent company of United Air Lines), makes a similar point, noting that WebLogic and its Java structure are convenient tools, “but there’s not a religion around Java.” Instead, the important feature is the middleware layer it provides, he says.

Power Productivity
In its earliest days, Java was touted as a “write once, run anywhere” language. It didn’t quite work that way—applications usually need some tweaking to run on different platforms. But what is truly transferable are people’s programming skills. Stu Stern, who heads Sun Java Center, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Java arm of Sun’s professional services division, quips that it’s a “learn once, write anywhere” language.

In addition, IT managers appreciate the increased productivity of Java developers. Java provides a good balance between rapid development—thanks to its object-oriented nature and the wide availability of Java components—and the ability to access low-level computing processes. According to Richard Monson-Haefel, an author and programmer, productivity under Java is typically 20 percent to 40 percent higher than when using C or C++, thanks to built-in features such as automated memory management and the ease with which components can be reused. Ford’s Lemmer has seen application developers’ productivity increase as much as two to three times when they move from C++ to Java.

Java developers are still in high demand, says Gartner’s Driver, but their numbers are increasing fast. While Java Developer Connection estimates that there are currently about 2 million registered Java developers, Gartner puts the number of “qualified” developers at about half that. But the company predicts there will be nearly 3 million experienced Java developers by 2005—forming a rich talent pool for enterprise IT departments to draw from.

The Race Is On
Still, it’s too early to say that Java has won completely. The corridors of computer industry history are littered with the corpses of companies that underestimated Microsoft. Although .Net is still brand new, one thing all commentators agree on is that Microsoft will continue to improve it until it becomes a serious threat.

“Over the next five years, we see two de facto platforms for a vast majority of e-business apps: Java and Microsoft,” says Driver. “We don’t see a clear winner. We expect a 40-40 split, or perhaps a 50-30 split in favor of Java,” with the remaining 20 percent divided among a variety of legacy and other platforms.

For large companies with a wide variety of platforms and hardware in their data centers, Java will probably remain the platform of choice, thanks to these companies’ existing relationships with Unix vendors and to Java’s cross-platform strengths. For small and midsize companies, however, it’s much easier to standardize on a single platform—and that’s where Microsoft may enjoy an advantage, Driver says.

Regardless, the next five years are likely to see a lot of light and heat generated over the Java versus Microsoft issue. Take it all with a grain of salt. Both platforms are technically robust and will likely remain around for a long time, says Chappell. “Both are good enough. If that weren’t the case, one would be crushing the other one.” Whether or not that statement still holds in five years remains to be seen—but for now, Java is going strong.



D.F. Tweney (dylan@tweney.com) is an award-winning writer and editor covering business technology and the Internet.

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL WOLOSCHINOW

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