By the time marriage of the word "Java" to the phrase "application server" became in-vogue -- giving rise to the acronym J2EE (now being deprecated in favor of Java EE or Java Enterprise Edition) -- BEA was practically a household name in enterprise IT, having seized the early lead in the Java-based app server market. But since the late 1990s, BEA's dominance of the J2EE market has been undermined by commercial and open source competitors such as IBM and JBOSS, respectively. Not only that, the company has endured a bit of an exodus of some of its most important executives. To say that 2005 is the year that BEA must regroup is an understatement. But regrouping is what BEA is doing as it's not only releasing a new version (version 9) of its Java-based WebLogic application server, but is also trying what it calls a "blended" business model on for size: one that straddles the commercial and open source fence.
In my interview of him (available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in), BEA's product marketing vice president Bill Roth gave me the lowdown on what users of WebLogic Server 8.1 can expect out of version 9.0 in the way of new features. Although WebLogic has primarily served enterprise clients before, Roth, in the interview, now refers to WebLogic as having an "enterprise grade kernel." One key benefit of the new kernel, according to Roth, is the ability to perform live upgrades to Java applications without end-users experiencing any downtime. To do this, an instantiation of WebLogic must engage in a bit of "slight-of-hand" in the redirection of app server traffic. Also discussed in the interview is WebLogic's new hot install feature -- a no-downtime feature that allows for an upgrade to the WebLogic server itself -- but one that's specific to clustered versions of WebLogic.
Speaking of the clustered versions, Roth and I covered some other ground -- such as pricing. Whereas a run-of-the-mill instance of WebLogic costs $495 per CPU, the clustered version runs $4000. We talked about BEA's philosophy when it comes to multicore pricing (it now charges a 25 percent "uplift" for additional cores) and Roth hinted that the company might get more aggressive on that front come the end of September when customers and partners gather for BEA's annual lovefest (BEA World). The CPU/core pricing does, however, present some challenges to BEA as it begins to experiment with what Roth calls a blended business model involving both open source and commercial software. For example, as a part of the WebLogic Server 9 release, the company will also support usage of the open source-based SPRING "add-on." Since SPRING is open source software that need not be licensed from BEA, the company will follow in the footsteps of other open source "support" outfits like Red Hat and JBOSS that make their money on service and support contracts.
How much further BEA will get dragged into the open source money pit (at least for commercial software companies) remains to be seen. Along the same lines of touting its support for SPRING, BEA also touts its support for another open source Java frameworks project called Beehive. In this, as well as my previous interview with Roth, he speaks of Beehive support as though it's a proof point of how the company is willing to offer support for things it might not have normally supported before. But the meme is a little disingenuous in that, even though Beehive is now an open source project, virtually all of the technology in it came out of BEA's software portfolio in the first place. It's sort of like saying BEA supports Beehive or Java. Well, no kidding.
Moving BEA's technology forward and embracing certain open or standard things (open source SPRING, the now de facto standard IDE Eclipse) are clearly what BEA needs to be doing to keep pace with its challengers. But, long term, it's looking more and more like all bits will be free and that we'll be paying for the hardware (either buy or lease) and services. Should that be the case, it remains to be seen just exactly how BEA and its contemporaries will make out.