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Oracle challenges IBM, Microsoft with application server platform

Oracle's application server platform has made considerable progress, but analysts say it's still immature in the eyes of high-end customers.

Oracle's Application Server, Fusion Middleware and related technologies have come a long way in a relatively short time, according to a new analyst report.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. talked to software vendors and their customers and found that Oracle, IBM and Microsoft are "leaders" in the field of application server platforms, despite the fact that Oracle made a fairly late entrance onto the application server platform scene.

"Oracle is just creating or acquiring a lot of features," said John R. Rymer, a Forrester vice president and research analyst. "IBM is well-known for having a very broad portfolio of software products, [but] Oracle at this point has equaled or surpassed what IBM is able to bring to clients."

According to the analyst firm's new report, "Forrester Wave: Application Server Platforms, Q3 2007," an application server platform consists of infrastructure software for building Web and composite applications, as well as applications based on service-oriented architecture (SOA) design principles. The report says these types of platforms integrate an application server -- which manages user requests, data access and business logic -- with middleware, portal servers,  

A matter of maturity

Oracle outranked both IBM and Microsoft in the new Forrester vendor comparison. But, according to Rymer, that honor had more to do with the breadth of Oracle's application server technologies than its grip on the marketplace.

Oracle started building its application server platform about four years ago, Rymer said, well after players like IBM, Microsoft and BEA Systems. As a result, he said, Oracle's platform is less mature, and high-end buyers have taken notice.

"The big concern about Oracle is [its] ability to handle both a broad range of requirements and high scale and high reliability," Rymer said. "I don't see Oracle as often as I see IBM and BEA in large-scale, mission-critical, high-availability [deployments]."

Rymer said Oracle today is able to meet the extreme requirements of the high-end set -- something it proved when it supplied the Tribune Company's, a major online news outlet, with Oracle's Application Server,  

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"[Oracle is] now at a point in the last year or so where it actually has engineering teams that go out and work with [application platform] customers, and the poster boy for this is the Tribune Company," Rymer said. "It got there with Tribune but there was a lot of special work and a lot of professional services that went into making that happen."

Going forward, Rymer said, the big challenge for Oracle is proving to potential customers that it can handle any application platform job that comes its way, in the same way that today, there are few questions about IBM's and BEA's abilities in this area.

And despite the reality of immaturity, Rymer added, Oracle's application server platform has grown up quite a bit -- thanks to a highly aggressive acquisition strategy and a blossoming installed base and partner community.

"Oracle, in my judgment, also has a very good strategy. They're very aggressive [and] they're effective at flagging new requirements and responding to those requirements very quickly, either through acquisition or through organic development," he said. "They are doing the work now that will result in products that unquestionably will be able to handle very large scale, very high complexity and very high reliability."

The details

The new Forrester Wave looked at nine application server platform vendors, including Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, Magic Software, BEA Systems, Pegasystems, Red Hat's JBoss division, SAP and Sun Microsystems.

Forrester researchers said they were surprised to find Pegasystems, which focuses on the BPM market, emerge as a strong performer, just one step down from being named a "leader." Pegasystems approached IBM's scores.

Forrester analysts were also surprised that Sun Microsystems emerged as a strong performer approaching the status of BEA, another well-known strong performer, according to the report.

JBoss, despite having the most attractive pricing, fell short of the leading vendors because it offers fewer features, as did SAP, according to the report.

Closing advice

According to Rymer, Oracle has made enough progress on its application server platform that potential buyers should at least have a good look at the offering.

"[Oracle is] late to start in the middleware game and maybe they're not that mature, [but] in my estimation, they are reaching the point where you probably should consider them even if you've got very large-scale requirements," he said. "I think that IBM has dealt with the broadest range of requirements and I think that Oracle is right up there with them. Oracle is really challenging them."

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