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A Strategy For The Future

An Interview with Scott Dietzen CTO of BEA Systems

WLDJ: Could you tell us about your new role as BEA's overall CTO and what you think are your challenges in the next year?
I've been given a great opportunity to take the position of CTO for the overall company BEA is investing in areas on all levels of the application server that is becoming ever more critical to our enterprise customers, especially in the area of integration. With the emergence of J2EE standards around adapters and the new XML technologies around Web services and workflow, the industry is reaching critical-mass technology for standardizing the way the application and DB2 integration is done. Today, integration is a very fragmented, proprietary market, one that causes a lot of pain to our large end-user customers, our large systems integrator partners, and in fact a lot of our independent software vendors. This is due to the complexity of integrating their applications with other applications, both custom and off-the-shelf in the enterprise. Customers want to solve these problems up front. You no longer get to just deploy the application and figure out how to integrate it later on. Customers are being much smarter about building in that solution up front.

BEA has been investing in the integration area for about three years, and also had a long-running initiative around portal personalization. I think the broad realization is that the user interface and business applications don't tie together one-to-one as often as they used to. What we see across our customer base is the desire to aggregate multiple business applications together with a single user interface so that the people using those systems keep 4, or 20, different applications up on their desktop, cutting and pasting between those applications. They want to see a unified, personalized view of the back-end application infrastructure. I think BEA was prescient in investing here.

One of my charters is to take the innovations we've been doing over the past three years and integrating them together so they come under the same installation and management environment with a common look and feel. It will be a very natural extension for any customers using our application server.

That's the most critical challenge I face in taking on the CTO job - finishing the delivery of BEA's vision around the e-business platform. These platforms are much more than just the platform for custom application development - which is what the application server is. There's a critical integration component which includes business process modeling, Web services, and EAI technologies around the adapters. There's a critical next-generation user-interface component which includes portal technology aggregation, personalization, declarative interface building, and ease-of-development components, bringing all of this e-business platform programming capability to the developer who doesn't want to learn all the intricacies of J2EE and distributed object modeling.

On the business side, this is a much more conservative market for IT spending. BEA has managed to continue our growth in market share although the overall market is not growing nearly as quickly as it was a year-and-a-half ago. Customers are far more up front in wanting to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) business cases before they head down this path. I think customers are taking a much more mature approach in terms of deciding what business imperatives they should focus on. At the end of the day, we're best served by delivering real value to our customers and that always entails ROI. The challenge and the opportunity for BEA has been helping our customers document their ROI so we can transfer that to others.

WLDJ: What are some of the challenges facing BEA in the coming year?
I think the challenge is that we have some very strong competitors. BEA is a small but rapidly growing company that's got some great strategic alliances, but we're clearly dancing among the giants and we need to continue our history of "co-opetition" where we complement our competitors. We work very closely with Microsoft, for example, on Web services initiatives, and making our product integrate very tightly with the Windows environment. We have to work closely with IBM. Today we work closely with Sun and Intel.

WLDJ: How are you ensuring that BEA and its partners, as well as competitors' products, function smoothly together?
My role is to drive the strategy for our R&D organizations, help lay out the road map, investigate new areas of technology, expand our product line, and how we will integrate the products we have today. There are occasions when we have multiple approaches that are being surfaced inside of our engineering organization for tackling a particular problem. BEA feels strongly that it is our job -- and my job in particular -- that we help pick the best mechanisms and assure that they win so that we don't introduce complexity to our customers. I think some of our competitors have done a far less effective job of that. They've allowed internal competition to be surfaced to the customers - four or five different workflow solutions combined into a single product. We don't believe that it serves our customers very well if the customers have to make the choice.

Fortunately, I have a team that I encourage to specialize in various areas of the products. On the outwardly focused side, my team is responsible for coordinating BEA's participation in standards bodies. BEA participates in over 20 different standards organizations. My team spends the most time on the W3C and XML/Web services standards and initiatives, and the Java platform standardization initiatives. Our team is focused on ensuring that the right protocols, and the right programming models, are defined, continuing our history in offering very strong investment protection for our customer base. It's how we have become the market leader. We were more aggressive than our competitors in embracing and delivering standards-based technology to the market, which we're convinced everybody wants.

WLDJ: Considering the standards you've mentioned, do you consider standards bodies to be innovative or reactionary?
Actually, I think that each standards body has a very productive life. It's like a technology adoption curve. In the early stages they can make very steep progress; when we've got a compelling business case in technology transformation happening at the same time, you get a lot of excitement. I think both the Java standardization process and the W3C standardization process are on that steep curve, Java being a little higher up the ramp since the XML and Web services side - the integration side - are a little more recent effort. There are critical innovations that have already happened, such as SOAP and WSDL, and our efforts and those of Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and others to unify the industry around a single Web services stack. I think we're making good progress; I don't think we're done yet. There are key things to come. We have to be able to insure reliable delivery guarantees for asynchronous Web services. We have to be able to secure those asynchronous Web services. Asynchrony is so critical because it drives most Web processing today. If you look at Charles Schwab's training site, or any of its competitors, they don't service trade requests while you wait. They capture your trade request and then return, and you see the results maybe a few seconds later, or it might take a while to process depending on whether the market's open. We're very bullish that the sweet spot for Web services is going to be similarly around messaging; reliable delivery guarantees and security for asynchrony are the two most critical areas for furthering the W3C. BEA is very aggressive in this particular area.

WLDJ: You said that you see Web services developing around asynchrony. Do you see any other areas where it is evolving? And what is BEA's strategy in attacking that market?
We've got to get a critical mass around the set of standards to make all of this work. For synchronous Web services, like getting a stock quote or the weather, we're already there. The combination of SOAP/WSDL that we have in the marketplace is very good at that. We've already tightly integrated the Web services model with our Java container. We can transparently attach Web services to Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) and to JMS message queues and topics for publish/subscribe; to make the Web services model transparent. That means you can use Web services as your design center or come in with a WSDL definition and we can generate Java bindings for an EJB, or a message driven bean. You just need to fill in the business logic or we can go in reverse.

Most of our existing customers have J2EE applications or that's the design center they're used to building to. We can go in and automatically generate the WSDL that describes that service, and define a SOAP binding so that it is fully automated from the developer's perspective.

One of the principal challenges is about taking not just Web services but the greater e-business platform and making it substantially easier. If you go back and look at the history of client/server, the first wrappable user interface were very rich. If you go back to the MOTIF toolkit and the early SmallTalk products, you get a very rich programming model for richly interactive applications. But it took the great object programmers, the people with the computer science backgrounds generally, to produce and build these sexy user interfaces. Sometime later, PowerBuilder and Visual Basic brought the richness of the graphical user interface to the business programmers - people who are less comfortable with the intricacies of a complex object model and more inclined to think procedurally.

This is very much a portion of the market that the Java community needs to reach more effectively than we have to date. We've done a great job with the J2EE rock stars, now we need to turn our attention to people whose expertise is more in business applications, who are less inclined to want to go off and learn the intricacies of J2EE programming. I think this is perhaps BEA's single most crucial area of investment, making e-business easy, just like PowerBuilder and Visual Basic made client/server easy. I don't think anyone has done that to date. If you look at the .NET architecture, that's clearly the path they're heading down, but VB.NET is quite a big leap for the average VB programmer to pick up and I don't think our other big competitors have figured out how to make e-business application development and integration in portals easy. We think we can make it easy, and we think we can take those integrations and share them with the W3C and the Java community so that we're very happy to compete on offering the best of breed in standards-based technology.

WLDJ: Would you say that the following of standards is how BEA differentiates itself from Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM?
Historically, I think we've differentiated on adherence to standards. We continue to lead the market in delivering production implementations of J2EE standards. We've been shipping EJB 2.0, for example, for more than a year. And we've been tracking the spec very aggressively, something that most of our competing products are still not delivering today, especially with support for early production deployment. Adherence to standards before the rest of the market has been one of the things that made BEA the market leader. We will be very aggressive to continue with our innovation. The architecture of WebLogic Server is one of the things that makes this possible. We've produced a very general purpose of quality-of-service infrastructure for the performance and availability of fault tolerance through our clustering architecture. These generic services map to an orgy of sockets and spreads. It's been done in such a way that we can plug in underneath J2EE services so that we don't have to go into each of the J2EE personalities and engineer all of this stuff directly. We can engineer an overall platform and then wire it in; that's allowed us to move very quickly.

Another area we've historically continued to differentiate on is scalability and performance. We're running workloads on WebLogic today that are approaching the workloads we run on Tuxedo. Thousands of business transactions per second where business transactions may equate to a three- or four-database operation. These are really large business-critical workloads on Java technology today, which is very exciting for us.

We've differentiated ourselves with our partnering strategy. We've got more systems integrators and more independent software vendors building their products on top of WebLogic. Many of our customers buy off-the-shelf applications from Peoplesoft or Vignette or Ariba, and so on. They're already running WebLogic products in-house and were able to win business for their customers as well. BEA is one of the few vendors that doesn't have an agenda in terms of a particular hardware; it's the only one of the leading players that doesn't have a hardware OS database agenda. We're quite comfortable plugging into all of those different platforms.

Looking forward, I see this ease-of-use as one of our key differentiators in addition to our focus on making integration and next-generation Web user interface around portal dramatically easier.

WLDJ: We've heard about a new IDE called "Cajun." What can you tell me about it?
The "Cajun" product has been in limited alpha release for a couple of months and we will be entering a general availability beta shortly. It will be available on the BEA Web site for download. "Cajun" offers a technology to developers who don't want to deal with all the intricacies of J2EE. Some of the existing J2EE rock stars will look at "Cajun" and say "It's a neat tool but it's not for me because I'm much more comfortable and empowered when I crank all the J2EE and JMS code directly." We view it as a great vehicle for taking existing EJB applications that have been developed and surfacing them to J2EE experts. There's no magic here. What PowerBuilder offered was a more tightly constrained framework; you could do 80 or 90% of the work you needed for user interface design with dramatically less complexity by providing a framework.

"Cajun" has a framework built around Web services and Java development paradigms like EJB and JMS in it. We're making it very easy to construct processes that consume existing Java apps, consume Web services, and transform XML without having to learn J2EE. It still has J2EE underneath the covers. We're mapping this to all of the Java standards that our existing customers know, but hopefully we're appealing to an audience that doesn't have the time or inclination to spend learning all of J2EE and we think we can broaden the marketplace for our own products and for Java by doing so.

One of the things I'm most excited about is being able to provide an environment that allows the systems programmers and the business programmers to collaborate much more intimately than they have historically. If you look at, for example, the history of Microsoft. developers tended to be Access people or SQL Server people, Visual Basic people or VB C++. There was sort of an expert class and a business programmer class and more computer scientists got the heavy lifting done to run the enterprise. I think that BEA and the Java community are uniquely positioned to tie those two classes of users together in an environment that empowers both.

And that is exactly what "Cajun" is for. This is a long-running strategy and a major area of investment for BEA. We've already come up with some truly innovative ideas, like the notion of an annotation grammar for Java that makes it very easy in the source code to specify properties that will go off and generate code; define a class and say that you want this class to be invoked asynchronously; introduce a JMS store and a message driven bean that surround it without the programmer having to do it. It's these prepackaged stylized uses of J2EE that are cookie cutters so they can be plugged in. The J2EE developer is free to go in and add additional specializations should that developer feel they're necessary. For most of the "Cajun" programmers, the expectation is that they will be more comfortable working at a level where they don't have to understand the application programming interface.

"Cajun" is very much a Java tool. When you program in it you see and touch Java. There clearly is a visual component to the environment, but it is for Java programming. You use a procedural and object model to develop applications. What you don't have to do is learn all of J2EE. We're definitely trying to appeal to the Java programmer who either doesn't want to deal with J2EE for a particular app because their use of J2EE is pretty stylized, pretty standards-based or they don't want to learn it. We're not hiding Java; we are hiding J2EE, although in such a way that it's available for developers who choose to get active in it.

WLDJ: You talked about how "Cajun" can help the developer who isn't quite the hard-core Java person. What about wireless development products? Are there plans to make J2ME or WAP development easier as well?
SD: We have seen a movement toward multichannel applications. New applications are developed, they're not just being developed with a Web-user interface in mind, but also a user interface for wireless devices - the phones, the PDAs. We even have customers looking at appliance-type devices, even if they're not implementing for them yet. Voice is often neglected in the multichannel story but voice is a very powerful interface in the sense that it leverages existing technology. We've all experienced these really frustrating voice portals where we have to go through 18 layers of menus when we're selecting items four and five and it takes us 5 to 10 minutes to get to the information that we want. We have to make these voice portals much more powerful if we're ever going to sell users on leveraging them rather than talking to real humans, which is expensive. The technology here is around Voice XML, speech recognition, and personalization.

We've been distinguishing two models of the multichannel client. I would call one the generic client, one where voice applies, the phones, and text messaging, where we see a broad convergence around the need for text messaging. whether it's SMS or e-mail- based or even instant messaging on the Web I think that these things will come together over time into a text-messaging solution that works across all our multi-devices and page browsing. What they have in common is that there's no business logic whatsoever required on the client device. For typical enterprises, that looks like a really compelling solution because if you're an Amazon, or a Charles Schwab, you don't want to force your customers to install special-purpose application software on your devices because you've got customers who run too many devices for that to be feasible.

There's also a rapidly growing market for programming clients. We're talking about the J2ME stack - the MIDP profile specifically targeted at phones -- or building small Java apps that run on these small, slick grids on client devices and interoperate with app containers like WebLogic across the Web. BEA is collaborating aggressively to deliver technology for both models. We are an executive board member of the J2ME initiative working on the surfacing technologies like Web services, and SyncML for disconnected operations and a standard way for Java clients as well as a standard way for server-side apps. There's a new JSR for provisioning, it's a Java vending machine JSR that allows Java applications to be defined and tied into the server and then dynamically downloaded and installed on the client without the user having to do anything during the real-time provisioning of new application capabilities.

WLDJ: With the introduction of "Cajun", is BEA going after the Visual Basic crowd?
I can't say I have a lot of insight into Microsoft. I think that from their perspective, Microsoft does see J2EE as a competitor. BEA values the fact that we've had a good working relationship with Microsoft. We've done a lot to make our product and our platform Windows friendly by tightly integrating it with COM, for example, so you can build beans and plug them into Excel spreadsheets very easily. We've tied in active directories and we've collaborated on Web services and SQL Server performance benchmarks. We feel that our customers want us to allow them, when they're building and deploying on Windows to be able to take advantage of those native services. From that point of view, I think that Microsoft looks at us and says this is an important, value-added ISV for our platform technology. We have a good relationship there.

There is no doubt that .NET is going to compete with J2EE and the only scenario that I can imagine is long-term coexistence for both platforms. I think the Java community is already headed towards coexistence. This proposition of portability across platforms is critical to the enterprise ISV. If you're a Peoplesoft, or a Siebel, or an SAP, I don't believe that the current market conditions would allow you to choose a solution where you can only deploy on Windows, because customers want to run applications on UNIX, Windows, and even mainframes. That's part of the appeal of the Java platform. At the same time, Microsoft has its small enterprise marketplace already jumping on the .NET bandwagon. The industry is heading toward long-term coexistence of J2EE and .NET, and they will absolutely compete. Competition is good. The Java community shouldn't shy away from it. It will continue to drive innovation in the Java camp. We have to keep up with the innovations that are happening on the .NET side and stay ahead. You have to maintain your lead. It's one of the Java community's strengths: hundreds of companies innovating and sharing those innovations, and picking the best and growing our platform. I think that will be a challenge for a company as innovative even as Microsoft. Let me also add that the most compelling positive that has come out of this is our continuing convergence on a single Web services stack. As .NET and J2EE coexist we have a much more compelling value proposition than we did previously.

WLDJ: Anything else you want to tell the readers?
We have to continually challenge the Java community. It has to stick together and help make our environment easier. I think it's one of the daunting challenges facing the Java community. Java has grown in so many different areas, continuing to innovate and standardize broadly. We have to sustain our pace of innovation, but also look at the work we've done and think about how we can simplify it and make it better. We've been pushing in a lot of different directions and I want us to maintain that pace of innovation, while at the same time not introducing a complexity that I think can plague later stage standards. Standards bodies seem to have a great early stage life where a lot of innovation happens, and then you get creeping complexity. I would charge the greater Java community with finding ways to tighten and simplify the Java platform that will allow it to continue its growth.

Let's aggressively reach out to developers who aren't comfortable with complex object forms because they are much more comfortable with the knowledge of the business rather than the knowledge of computer science Java is going to grow and thrive. We have to continue to educate the world in Web services and XML. These are great technologies. There's a very natural synergy between distributed objects component models like EJBs and Web services. Inter-application integration, I believe, is going to move away from binary protocols like IIOP toward technologies like Web services because it allows for a looser coupling and a less fragile integration model. It provides more flexibility to unplug solutions and plug in new ones.

Web services don't compete with J2EE; they're an integration model, not a component model. We need the Web service and multichannel innovation to allow our platform to grow and thrive, at the same time recognizing this long-term need to coexist effectively with .NET. We will compete as we coexist because without that coexistence the whole train of application integration across the Web won't happen. What the Web has meant to date is tying the browser together with our documents and our business applications but the second generation of the Web will be deployed applications that much more seamlessly and easily interconnect. That's a great opportunity for Java to be working very closely with those developing Microsoft .NET architecture to assure that they will interoperate.

More Stories By WebLogic News Desk

WLDJ News Desk trawls the world of e-commerce technologies for news and innovations and presents IT professionals with updates on WebLogic related technology trends, products, and services.

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