Open Source at the Core


Technology writers and business journalists are usually unclear about the beginnings of the open source software (OSS) movement. Two seminal information technology (IT) events can lay claim: the formation of IBM SHARE in the mid 1950s, and the "invention" of UNIX in the early 1970s. In the case of SHARE, of course, code was highly shared but it wasn't open. All code at the time was totally closed to the platform for which it was written. The UNIX development effort has been described by Dennis Ritchie, one of the "inventors," as an attempt to "foster fellowship" among developers. There was a lot of formal and informal OSS-like fellowship and sharing of source code as well, but about a dozen well-documented forks of UNIX took a lot of the openness out of the process, which-in turn-inhibited clean interoperability.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) can also lay claim to beginning the OSS movement in the 1980s. Of course the FSF is very clear that the code it develops and distributes in its GNU project is not "open source software, but free as in air" software. Because Linus Torvalds chose to distribute his Linux kernel under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2 in the early 1990s, the FSF has a strong case for being the catalyst even if it won't take the credit.

All of these "almost, but" caveats lead to the Apache Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) web server first distributed in 1995-1996. Today there are over a dozen ASF OSS mid-stack software projects but when someone says "Apache" in the OSS context, with no noun following it, they typically mean the HTTP server. It is the precursor to the entire spectrum of OSS application and web server software that dominates the market today.

The initial Apache Software Foundation (ASF) "project," Apache HTTP combined the sharing of IBM SHARE, the fellowship of UNIX, and eventually the legal underpinnings of its own GPL-like license terms and conditions. In fact, Apache HTTP quickly became more ubiquitous than Linux because it ran not only on OSS-definition-compliant operating infrastructure but on other UNIX variations, Windows, Apple systems and legacy (that is, non-UNIX) systems from IBM, Digital Equipment and others.

Although in the Internet era there is no need to separate development efforts geographically or nationalistically, an organization similar to ASF was founded in France in 2002. Called ObjectWeb, it was a joint project among the French Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique (INRIA), the systems supplier Bull, and France Telecom. In China, another similar organization called Orientware was launched in 2004 by Peking University, Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), CVIC Software Engineering Co., Ltd.(CVIC SE) and the Institute of Software, Chinese Academy of Sciences (ISCAS). At the end of 2006, these two organizations merged into OW2.

OW2 has many OSS projects in process similar to the ASF's, and ASF and OW2 have begun to cooperate more closely with each other.

Driving Commoditization and Convergence in the Mid Stack

The two most important aspect of ASF, OW2 and related application/web server software efforts is that the two functions are now almost totally OSS to the core. As of 2007: Users who want application/web server software functionality specifically are almost always going to choose OSS, with the only decisions users face about how the software will be supported and how soon the software is needed.

That is:

  • Users can receive support directly from the related community via bulletin boards and lists, or they can choose from dozens of service companies how provide more traditional maintenance subscriptions and professional services such as implementation and training
  • Users can download the software today for almost any application need but there are some high-performance capabilities such as for use in high-availability (HA) transaction management where a proprietary application server might be a better choice at least through 2008/2009.
  • Users who don't even know they need application/web server software functionality will also most likely be deploying OSS without realizing it (because it is built into the packaged software they are acquiring).

There is one major exception of course; exclusive Microsoft customers are not included in the user set described above. These users receive web server functionality via the Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0 and application server functionality via the aggregation of IIS, the Microsoft .NET Framework and the ASP.NET capability built into the Windows Server operating system. Therefore exclusive Windows Server users are less likely to choose any kind of freestanding application or web server software, whether OSS or proprietary. Still, all the leading OSS application/web server software works with Windows. Although only a small percentage of Windows users make the choice to go freestanding, in absolute terms, the numbers still account for a large percentage of the OSS application/web server user census because the Windows Server base is so large.

In addition, the OSS nature of the ASF, OW2 and related efforts relative to application/web server software functionality has driven commoditization up the stack. Just as Linux is quickly displacing all the disparate UNIX forks from the 1970s and 1980s, key ASF, OW2 and related efforts have displaced or are displacing proprietary web and application server software, making it a commodity. Further, just as ASF and OW2 have begun to converge some of their development efforts, the movement of OSS up the stack is driving convergence in the mid-stack. More and more projects will emerge that combine synchronous and asynchronous connections, SOA and more vanilla architectures, HTTP and other protocol support, and other characteristics. This is somewhat apparent already in the OSS enterprise service bus movement described in two parts in earlier articles in this series.

The following section describes the ASF and OW2 efforts in the application/web server software sector. The subsequent section includes a description of some of ASF/OW2 spin-offs and their distributions available from Covalent, IBM, and Red Hat JBoss. Oracle, Pramati, Sun, Tmax, and Trifork also offer OSS application/web server software distributions.

The Application/Web Server Software Foundation/Consortia

The ASF sharing and fellowship that built around its HTTP server and subsequent projects grew out of the need by developers of early Mosaic/Netscape-browser-based applications to get something as secure and as easy to use on the back-end server as developers were used to getting on the non-AS/400-based packaged applications products at the time (such as Computer Associates' ManMan, Qad's PRO/Mfg, SAP's R/3). These application packages all had application/web server functionality built-in in order to access terminals or PCs.

At the time, leading systems suppliers also provided similar user-interface/protocol functionality built into their proprietary and UNIX operating systems. Freestanding mid-stack software such as RPC products, message-oriented middleware, and object request brokers were then fairly new technologies. Developers could use them to build their own web and application servers if they so chose but there were very few choices for developers that simply wanted barebones but quality wide area networking "serving" functionality out of the box (such as they were used to in file and print servers built into local area network operating software).

One of the original Mosaic developers at the University of Illinois had built some of this functionality into its seminal portal project but when that developer moved onto another academic pursuit, "webmasters" all over the world were left hanging. They banded together, took that basic Mosaic server code, and the original Apache web server emerged. Today the project is at version 2.2.6. The point part of the release number refers principally to security and bug fix issues. But 2.2 itself is "a major release and the start of a new stable branch. New features include smart filtering, improved caching, Apache JServ Protocol (AJP) proxy, proxy load balancing, graceful shutdown support, large file support, the event Multi-Processing Module (MPM), and refactored authentication/authorization.

But the most important result of the rapid growth in popularity of the Apache HTTP web server distribution was how quickly it led to the commoditization of the entire web/application server layer of the software stack as described above. Because of Apache HTTP's functionality and OSS nature, within a few years, it had replaced the for-a-fee Netscape equivalent in popularity. (The Netscape Apache-HTTP-like product was later part of the Netscape/Sun joint venture called iPlanet and is now Sun's web server software.) Apache HTTP was quickly made an integral add-on to two of the leading closed-source application-server products of the time, the IBM WebSphere Application Server and Oracle's various application server iterations between 1998 and 2005. The leading application server software during the years 2000-2003, the BEA WebLogic product, did not bundle in Apache but it ran well with it, and companies such as Covalent (see below) provide BEA customers joint Apache/WebLogic services.

In addition, the HTTP server also begat Apache Tomcat, which is a Java servlet server, and Apache Geronimo, the application server that sits under IBM's WebSphere Application Server community edition among other instances. Tomcat supports transaction management/monitoring via Java management extensions (JMX). Apache Geronimo version 2.0 is Java Enterprise Edition (JEE) 5 certified and features a modular architecture that allows users to select only the components they require for their application deployments. This lets users size Geronimo down to a very small footprint. Tomcat and Geronimo are pure Java, so all platforms that run Java are supported, including Linux, Solaris (x86 and Sparc), Windows, AIX, and HP UX.

Meanwhile OW2 concentrated more on application server functionality. Its Jonas application server supports dynamic HA and a scalable platform (OSGi based services, clustering), a lightweight EJB3 container with EasyBeans, and self-management with the OW2's JASMINe management software. JASMINe is an advanced administration tool for the JEE cluster. OW2's Bonita workflow engine and Orchestra BPEL engine include Jonas built in as did Red Hat's middleware stack prior to the Red Hat acquisition of JBoss. The Jonas community uses Apache Tomcat, Axis, Jakarta, Struts, and other Apache code, JBoss Rules, and of course OW2 's own JOTM, JORAM, JORM, and other software. The Jonas community contributes back to Apache Axis and its own projects including EasyBeans.

Service Providers
As a result of major OSS efforts such as those of Apache and OW2, by 2007 the application server layer of the stack has almost also "gone OSS." A first in information technology market history, a $2-$3 billion market became commoditized fairly quickly. In addition to the Apache and OW2 projects, the JBoss Group (acquired by Red Hat in 2006) had its own community and hastened the commoditization. Some commercial application-server projects folded their tents and left the market (e.g., Novell's eXtend, HP's Silverstream). In other cases, like Sun's web/application server effort, companies joined the OSS movement themselves. Adobe/Macromedia/Allaire's ColdFusion is an exception, riding a delicate balance between the OSS offerings and the equivalent functionality built into Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and upcoming Server 2008.

But primarily, instead of buying application/web server software now, users simply look for service providers that can support the software. Some of these suppliers are independents such as Covalent and Red Hat and others are long-time software suppliers such as IBM that have changed their business model to fit OSS application/web server software market needs.

Covalent provides full commercial support for a wide array of mid-stack software such as the ActiveMQ message-oriented middleware and Apache CXF (the latter is a pending Covalent service). Apache CXF is an OSS services framework that is currently undergoing incubation in the Apache Incubator and that helps users build and develop services using frontend programming APIs, like JAX-WS. These services can speak a variety of protocols such as SOAP, XML/HTTP, RESTful HTTP, or CORBA and work over a variety of transports such as HTTP, JMS or JBI. Two Covalent businesses related to application/web server software include support for both Tomcat and Geronimo and a service it calls its "Enterprise Ready Server (ERS) product."

Covalent ERS comes with two fully configured and ready-to-run Apache Web servers, versions 1.3/2.0 and version 2.2. They are compatible with the standard OSS Apache, and therefore interoperable with more than 200 operating systems and most major Web applications and application servers. Covalent does not modify the Apache binary code, thus ensuring that ERS will always interoperate with Apache-certified technologies. This streamlines automated installation of popular languages to use with Apache for dynamic content and server management, including Java, Perl, and PHP. Covalent ERS also includes the Java 2 Single Environment (J2SE). Multiple server instances (secure, non secure, with or without extensions such as Perl, PHP and FTP) can be run with a single Apache installation.

Covalent is very tightly aligned with the Apache Software Foundation inbound and outbound. Although Covalent offers subscription maintenance support for end-user customers, it also offers an OEM License for ISVs that embed ERS.

IBM WebSphere Application Server Community Edition
IBM WebSphere Application Server Community Edition, as mentioned above, is IBM's distribution of Apache Geronimo. Because IBM's version is pure OSS, of course it features the same JEE 5 compliance as any other Geronimo. It also includes an integrated version of Tomcat. The feature that IBM emphasizes is a clear path to more advanced capability in the "closed source" WebSphere Application Server family (which also has Apache HTTP web server built in as described above). There is something to be said for this advantage because as mentioned above, OSS web and application server software is still not tuned to all applications, particularly HA transaction management. In addition to Geronimo and Tomcat, IBM uses MyFaces, OpenEJB, OpenJPA, Axis2, Derby, ActiveMQ, TranQL, HOWl, Yoko, and other OSS products under the covers of WebSphere Application Server Community Edition and contributes back to most.

In addition, the IBM version of this popular OSS product is bundled into Lotus Component Designer, Tivoli Netcool Impact, IBM TSM for Microsoft Sharepoint, WebSphere Portlet Factory, WebSphere MQ Bridge for HTTP, IBM Data Studio, and Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Red Hat JBoss
Just as Apache used as a noun almost always refers to the HTTP server, JBoss unmodified typically refers to the classic application server software put together by JBoss developers in the 2000-2005 period before other OSS communities were really paying attention to the application server layer of the midstack. Today, after Red Hat's acquisition of JBoss Group, JBoss refers to a whole enterprise middleware offering that can be used to build, deploy, integrate, orchestrate, and present web applications and services in a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). Some of the other software now included in JBoss is the Hibernate object/relational persistence and query service, JBoss jBPM BPM software, and the JBoss Rules engine.


The product series began in July 2007 with an overview of the ebizQ OSS Taxonomy, explaining the differences ebizQ sees between applications, mid-stack software, and operating infrastructure as well as between open and closed source products. The first article in the "Application" series covered business intelligence (BI) applications and subsequent research will involve OSS enterprise content management-ECM-software, OSS ERP, and so forth. In the "Mid-Stack" series a complete review of OSS MOM/ESB is already available on ebizQ in two parts, and future articles are planned on portal/integration servers, and business process management (BPM) middleware.

About the Author

Dennis Byron brings three decades of analyst experience to his role as ebizQ's Community Manager for Improving Business Processes. This community covers Business Process Management (BPM), Process Modeling, Process Analysis, and Business Alert Monitoring (BAM), among other topics.

As Community Manager, Byron will blog and podcast to keep the ebizQ community fully informed on the latest news and breakthroughs relevant to enterprise BPM. Byron will be responsible for bringing you breaking news on BPM daily, writing feature articles and sourcing content from other analysts, industry associations and vendors for publication on ebizQ. Finally, each week, Byron will compile the most important news and views in an e-mail newsletter for ebizQ's ever-growing BPM community.

Byron is ideally suited to the job, as he has researched and analyzed all areas of IT and information-systems use for the past 30 years. Byron looks at BPM market dynamics backed up by facts, while taking into account the perspective of the IT and business person. He is a frequent speaker and moderator on business processes, which will also be one of his roles as Community Manager.

Byron was the ERP and Middleware Analyst with the Datapro division of McGraw-Hill and IDC from 1991 to 2006. In these roles, he was the primary analyst for Business Process Management. He has conducted over 500 specific information-systems case studies. He has contributed to Application Development Trends, IT Business Edge, Research 2.0 and other publications.

Byron is also the principal of IT Investment Research, which is aimed at institutional and individual investors in IT, or anyone who enjoys peering under the covers of "the financials," where large companies and emerging IPOs like to bury their most interesting facts. His main area of interest is investment opportunities in enterprise software.

More by Dennis Byron

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