What it means to be a computing platform today

The sense of having been an “IBM shop” or an “HP shop” 10 or 15 years ago is vastly different from what that means today. It used to mean a manufacturing enterprise ran its business system on a mainframe or midrange computer from one of those vendors. With the enterprise software industry still in its infancy 15 years ago, computer platforms like IBM's AS/400 or Hewlett...

By Roberto Michel, senior contributing editor July 1, 2007

The sense of having been an “IBM shop” or an “HP shop” 10 or 15 years ago is vastly different from what that means today.

It used to mean a manufacturing enterprise ran its business system on a mainframe or midrange computer from one of those vendors.

With the enterprise software industry still in its infancy 15 years ago, computer platforms like IBM’s AS/400 or Hewlett-Packard’s HP3000 were seen as more important than the green-screen planning and accounting systems that ran on them.

Today IBM and HP still offer platforms, but they entail much more than hardware. The biggest computing vendors offer infrastructure software for service-oriented architecture (SOA), whereby application functionality is delivered more flexibly as services. Under SOA, the aim is to make integration more flexible by dynamically linking business processes that span systems, desktop applications, people, and companies. Infrastructure vendors also offer foundations for portal-based business intelligence, and in some cases, the professional services to tie everything together.

The SOA engine

This range of hardware, software, and services from today’s infrastructure vendors stands in stark contrast to the heyday of host-based computing, when much of the infrastructure was proprietary to the hardware. SOA infrastructure encompasses several subcategories, including application servers, integration brokers, business process management software, enterprise service buses, and Web services repositories.

WinterGreen Research , a Lexington, Mass.-based analyst firm, pegs the size of what it calls the “SOA engine” market at just under $1 billion for license sales last year, but sees it climbing to $3.7 billion in license sales by 2013. Besides SOA engine products, WinterGreen also tracks SOA-related collaborative components that push the market size slightly higher.

Some SOA infrastructure vendors focus on one subcategory. For instance, IDS Scheer , with its ARIS tool set, is a leader in business process management software, but doesn’t offer an entire SOA platform. IDS Scheer works closely with enterprise software giant SAP and its NetWeaver infrastructure, while maintaining interoperability with other platforms.

By contrast, the biggest infrastructure vendors, such as IBM, span multiple categories. WinterGreen estimates IBM leads the SOA market with a 53-percent share, far outpacing Microsoft at an 8-percent share. Slightly trailing Microsoft are Oracle and SAP, followed by other providers such as TIBCO and webMethods (now part of Software AG ).

“IBM has a big lead right now, but it’s difficult to say who will lead in the long term, since there are so many players,” says Susan Eustis, WinterGreen’s president. “Basically, [the market] is up for grabs.”

Other analyst firms acknowledge that the use of SOA is building. Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research , in a November 2006 report on the state of enterprise software adoption, found that 22 percent of companies surveyed have an enterprise-level SOA strategy—up 6 percent from 2005.

The burning question, of course, is what business purpose does SOA serve? Most infrastructure vendors stress flexibility.

In contrast to the days of hard-coded interfaces, with SOA, companies can flexibly rearrange how pieces of information and software functionality can be integrated in the form of services. “But the promise of SOA is not just data transport,” says Eustis. “It’s about being able to decouple and manage services so that you can recombine them with attention to sequence and flow.”

The onus is on the infrastructure vendors to push not just SOA technology, but also industry-specific business processes that can be accelerated with it, says Bob Parker, VP of research with IDC Manufacturing Insights , Framingham, Mass. This is a big part of what vendors such as IBM or HP are doing in their professional services units, which apply SOA to domains such as supply chain and product life-cycle management.

“They tend to lead with those services to identify methodologies to support a particular manufacturing problem,” says Parker. “From that point, they look at what hardware and software they can bring to bear to help a manufacturer.”

Pulling in the ERP base

Some of the biggest enterprise suite vendors—namely SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft—also offer SOA infrastructure. These vendors need to use their infrastructure as a means of bringing their respective ERP customer bases into the age of services-based computing. At the same time, these vendors need to prove that their infrastructures are open and flexible enough to interoperate with any system or process. At the end of the day, these vendors are not simply looking to sell middleware—they want to enable their customers to move into a new era of business technology.

Ultimately, says Parker, all the infrastructure vendors need to move past the plumbing aspects of SOA, and even stop stressing flexible processes to such an extent. Most end users, he adds, are after better decision-making, which springs from good, clean information on specific business problems, along with a better user interface. Parker calls this a “decision reengineering” opportunity, and says the infrastructure vendors with large services arms and industry expertise are well positioned to address it. “I think it’s a huge services opportunity to help companies reengineer the way they make decisions,” he says.

Another aspect of the infrastructure market is the increasing level of collaboration among some of the large technology vendors. An example of this is how Adobe Systems works closely with SAP to apply Adobe’s Flex and Flash technologies to a new user interface experience for analytics. Similarly, SAP is working with Microsoft to blur the traditional boundaries between ERP and office productivity software with the Duet solution set.

Users are excited by such new, blended user interfaces, Parker says, but don’t care much about the underlying infrastructures that help make them possible. As Parker puts it, “The technology guys want to talk about orchestrating processes and lowering the cost of integration, but the users are saying, ‘We don’t need fancy process orchestration. We need our data to be right, and we need to make it easy to use our systems.’”