Apps vendors take sides

When Tyco Corp's Kunkle Valves business unit became the company's e-commerce guinea pig, the development team wasn't looking for a quick fix. "We have just about one of every kind of enterprise resources planning system throughout the company," says Doug Snyder, director of e-commerce technologies.

By Tony Baer, contributing editor March 1, 2002

When Tyco Corp ‘s Kunkle Valves business unit became the company’s e-commerce guinea pig, the development team wasn’t looking for a quick fix. “We have just about one of every kind of enterprise resources planning system throughout the company,” says Doug Snyder, director of e-commerce technologies. “Our mission was to develop a template that we could apply across the board.”

Tyco’s strategy centered on Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft ‘s BizTalk Server for Supplier Enablement, an eXtensible markup language (XML)-based integration framework that enabled it to publish on-line product catalogs that customers could order from, while integrating with a back-end, OpenVMS-based Cincom CONTROL manufacturing system.

Similar demands from other manufacturers have prompted most enterprise application vendors to open up their packages to the Web, often using XML and related technologies. Most vendors are keeping their core back-end transaction application engines intact. However, they are taking advantage of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems ‘ Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE)—and more recently, Microsoft’s new .NET framework—to extend their offerings, primarily for external functions such as on-line portals, e-commerce engines, and enterprise application integration (EAI).

For Irvine, Calif.-based Epicor , the adoption of the .NET platform provides technology advances that, in the end, will eventually translate to more choices for customers. “By using the .NET framework, we can accelerate our development time and bring out new features much faster than the [common] 18-month intervals,” says Scott Smith, an Epicor product marketing manager.

While J2EE and .NET are reasonably standardized frameworks, vendors are attacking them differently. Until now, J2EE has had the benefit of a real track record, given its two-year head start. Furthermore, J2EE has drawn support from higher-end vendors because, unlike .NET, it can run on the UNIX and mainframe platforms used for global enterprise implementations.

But not all J2EE support is created equal. For instance, while Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft bundles two of the leading third-party J2EE app servers—BEA WebLogic or IBM WebSphere—into PeopleSoft 8, Walldorf, Germany-based SAP has taken a different approach.

“PeopleSoft is the only leading applications provider to support both of the leading J2EE application servers,” claims Jim Littlefield, PeopleSoft’s director of Internet architecture, who adds that APIs for programs written in C++, or with Microsoft’s COM+ component architecture, also were available.

“J2EE is by no means capable of handling all mission-critical processes today,” counters SAP’s Peter Barth, director of global solutions marketing. SAP’s strategy is to use the J2EE app server strictly for providing access points to SAP R/3 business logic for external programs or customized extensions. Under the hood, SAP continues to use its own technology—not J2EE—for caching, message handling, process and memory management, and database access.

Microsoft’s .NET framework also is popular with systems vendors that serve small- to mid-size manufacturers. Click Commerce , Chicago; Epicor; and Made2Manage , Indianapolis, all embraced Microsoft platforms long before the advent of the .NET framework because Windows platforms were far more affordable than midrange or mainframe alternatives. They typically used SQL Server database or the Visual Basic or FoxPro languages to build large portions of their applications, with .NET being the next logical move.

According to Click Commerce CTO Carl Davis, “J2EE architecture is still rooted in where Microsoft was last year,” when comparing Java Server Pages (JSPs) with Microsoft’s equivalent, Active Server Pages (ASPs). Both ASPs and JSPs provided component architectures for generating HTML Web pages dynamically. By contrast, says Davis, the new version of ASP for the .NET platform—ASP.NET—allows separating Web page visual controls from the business logic used to generate it.

Made2Manage has, so far, migrated to .Net its hosted portal module, Made2Manage VIP, which allows viewing order status through a Web page. Epicor—which has supported Microsoft BizTalk Server as its internal, XML-based integration framework—will migrate more selectively, after Microsoft’s expected release of the Visual Studio.NET integrated development environment early this year. “It will be a gradual process to use the .NET framework where it makes sense,” says Celia Fleischaker, Epicor’s director of product marketing. “The logical places will be e-commerce and collaboration with your suppliers.”