Betting on BackOffice?

In the high-stakes game of Windows NT Server suites, Microsoft's BackOffice is the standard by which all others are measured. But Microsoft faces stiff competition from such big names as IBM, Netscape, and Oracle (for information on other vendors that are looking for a piece of the action, see the sidebar, "Breaking into the Server Suite Game"). To follow the game, you need to know what IBM, Netscape, and Oracle have to offer and how Microsoft is prepared to maintain its kingpin status.

Playing Your Best Hand
Although server products form the foundation of today's enterprises, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, and Oracle offer a host of other products that go beyond traditional server suites. Table 1, page 72, lists the major product lines for each vendor. These vendors know that if they can get you to buy their server solutions, they can probably sell you other components down the road. Although you can mix and match vendor products to a limited extent, getting one vendor's products to work together is usually easier than mixing products from several vendors--at least you know where to point the finger if you have problems. But where does that leave you? In the end, you're the one holding the cards and you have to decide which hand to play. So is choosing a server suite a gambling proposition? It doesn't have to be if you can make an informed decision about what suite suits you.

Anyone But Microsoft
IBM, Netscape, and Oracle are all part of the unofficial ABM (Anyone But Microsoft) alliance, and each vendor has strong commitments to the NT platform. IBM is training its sights on NT throughout the company. DB2 honcho Janet Perna, general manager of data management in IBM's Software Solutions Division, says that IBM's sales force is focusing on NT. Gian Carlo Bisone, IBM's software marketing general manager, is working with channel resellers and distributors to provide training on IBM products such as Lotus Notes and DB2 running on NT. Bill Reedy, IBM vice president of integrated solutions, puts IBM's NT strategy succinctly, "Whatever the market says counts."

Microsoft's arch-rival, Netscape, recognizes the importance of the NT market for its servers. According to Ben Horowitz, Netscape's group product manager of server product marketing, Netscape's servers are a better investment because of the price, packaging, and architecture. Horowitz notes another advantage: "We don't charge extra to install our servers on different systems."

Even Oracle is hopping on the NT bandwagon. The company now has a special 150-person NT sales force and is porting its Oracle Open Gateways to NT. With this commitment to the NT platform, IBM, Netscape, and Oracle are significantly adding to and improving their product lines. Let's take a closer look at each vendor's offerings.

IBM has embraced NT and open systems with a vengeance. According to Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's Software Solutions Division, with its Software Servers (originally code named Eagle), "IBM offers more NT products, with better performance and more functionality than any other vendor in the marketplace." However, not all seven Software Server components are available for NT yet. The components are Communications Server, DB2 Database Server, Directory and Security Server, Internet Connection Server, Lotus Domino 4.5 Web Server, Systems Management Server, and Transaction Server.

With its Software Servers for NT, IBM hopes to gain new customers, provide easy connectivity to host data, and provide a clear path for NT customers to upgrade to AIX. IBM sees itself as uniquely qualified to offer true enterprise solutions that release content from mainframes and minicomputers, RISC systems, and PCs into workgroups. IBM hopes to capitalize on its experience to glue together its worldwide business applications.

IBM's Software Solutions Division, which is responsible for the Software Servers, knows it must simplify installation and ensure the products work together (out of a wish list of almost 200 products, IBM consolidated 57 into the seven servers in its suite). To that end, IBM has established a new Integration Lab and focused on usability.

In the database arena, IBM offers DB2 on everything from an Intel box to a mainframe (to learn about DB2's position as a BackOffice alternative, see Elizabeth Lindholm, "Is DB2 Right for You?," ). The company also has a high-end, transaction-oriented Information Management System (IMS)database and several data warehouse and data mart products. IBM has data mining and online analytical processing (OLAP) products, but has primarily left the development of DB2 vertical applications to its partners.

IBM's approach to Internet commerce is more hands-on. IBM's family of CommercePOINT products, which includes Net.Commerce, helps companies host storefronts. IBM has also formed alliances with banks to support home banking. IBM will rent space on its secure IBM Global Network (IGN) as a value-added network (VAN) alternative to traditional long-distance carriers. And unlike the Internet's well-known free search engines, IBM's search engine for use in its commercial Internet services, infoSage and infoMarket, will be fee based.

IBM's Communications Server competes head to head with Microsoft's SNA. The company's new Transaction Server for NT will give NT users access to the mainframe mainstay, CICS applications, and IBM's Transarc Encina TP monitor. IBM's Transaction Server seems poised to offer more functionality than Microsoft's forthcoming Transaction Service (formerly code named Viper).

IBM has hundreds of other products to support its Software Servers for NT. They range from imaging tools (such as FlowMark and ImagePlus) to programming languages (notably its VisualAge family). One product that is especially important in IBM's overall software strategy is Lotus Notes. (IBM cites an International Data Corporation report that says IBM gained 1.61 million new Notes users in the first half of 1996.)

For many potential IBM Software Server customers, the Lotus Domino 4.5 Web Server will be the plum. Domino is a Web server and messaging server in one. It provides an integrated, enterprise-ready client/server messaging and groupware solution that lets users develop, deploy, and manage a Web site that leverages Domino's infrastructure. The infrastrucure is powered by Notes and includes security and replication functionality and workflow and application development capabilities. Although IBM is pursuing its own efforts to keep up in the Web wars (the company recently introduced a Web browser terminal), IBM hopes new users will join more than 7 million Notes (and Domino) users by choosing IBM as their Internet/intranet groupware solution--the one through which they do their browsing, scheduling, messaging, and collaboration.

IBM is hedging its bets in the distributed objects arena by announcing support for its own OpenDoc/Common Object Request Broker Architecture (COBRA) standard; the Microsoft-centric ActiveX/component object model (COM) architecture; and Sun Microsystem/JavaSoft's Java Beans, the beta, platform-neutral set of APIs for software components that will interoperate COM, Open- Doc, and Netscape's plug-in architectures. "IBM will continue to support OpenDoc, Java Beans, and future technologies that let developers incorporate information into applications running throughout the enterprise," says Steve Mills.

Why Lotus persists in promoting its not-quite-pure ActiveX Lotus Components is a mystery. Similarly, Lotus needs to abandon its Visual Basic (VB)-compatible LotusScript in favor of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and Visual Basic Script (VBS). This same advice goes for Oracle's Oracle Basic.

Whether IBM's Software Servers for NT can steal market share from Microsoft's BackOffice as it moves down-market is hard to say. IBM claims to have a different value set that the company has developed from its reliability, collective wisdom based on decades of experience, and the IBM logo. However, IBM's Software Servers for NT will probably cannibalize its OS/2 customer base (John Thompson, IBM's senior vice president in charge of the Software Solutions Division, says IBM has about 14 million OS/2 users) and perhaps some of its AS/400 customers. On the plus side, IBM's Software Servers for NT may pull in new customers from Novell sites.

Netscape's SuiteSpot server suite originally included six components: Enterprise Server (Netscape's popular Web server), LiveWire Pro (a toolkit for building Web sites), Catalog Server (for indexing, searching, and browsing Internet or intranet sites), Proxy Server (for replicating and filtering content across the Internet), Mail Server (for managing email), and News Server (for maintaining secure discussion groups).

Netscape is developing some additional crucial components for release as part of SuiteSpot 3.0 (for information on Netscape's plans for SuiteSpot, see John Enck, "Netscape and the Suite Scene," page 93). The SuiteSpot 3.0 series includes nine servers (Enterprise Server 3.0, Messaging Server 3.0, Catalog Server 1.0, Certificate Server 1.0, Collabra Server 3.0, Directory Server 1.0, Proxy Server 2.5, Media Server 1.0, and Calendar Server 1.0) and LiveWire Pro 1.0.

The Netscape Directory Server is a lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP)-compliant server that will offer a universal directory service for enterprisewide management of user, access control, and server configuration. (LDAP is a subset of X.500, a directory services standard that the International Standards Organization and International Telecommunications Union--formerly CCITT--published in 1988.) The new Certificate Server lets you issue and manage public-key certificates and security keys crucial to doing business across the Internet. The Netscape Calendar Server lets you schedule people and resources so you can manage time, events, and to-do lists. Finally, Collabra is a groupware product that supports ad hoc discussions, searching across forums, and virtual forms. It runs as a standalone product, but Netscape will integrate it to run as an LDAP process.

Netscape has forged major strategic alliances with vendors such as Sun Microsystems/JavaSoft for Java and Andersen Consulting, EDS, and GE Information Services for building and supporting commercial sites. Netscape has also reached agreements with relational database management system (RDBMS) vendor, Informix Software (Informix OnLine Workgroup Server); search engine vendor, Verity (Topic); and NetObjects (Fusion, a Web site builder), and bundles these vendor products with Netscape Enterprise Server. Netscape has also announced a new partnership with Oracle to use Oracle7 Workgroup Edition as an alternative to Informix in LiveWire Pro, to provide its Netscape Navigator Web browser with Oracle's new line of Network Computers (NCs), and to use the Oracle7 Enterprise Server for Netscape's high-end commercial applications.

Netscape's main claim to fame and brand identity is its Netscape Navigator browser (approximately 40 million users), but Netscape's servers and commercial applications represent a growing portion of the company's revenues (browsers represent more than 50 percent of Netscape's revenues, and 80 percent of Netscape's revenues come from corporate customers). Most IT professionals scoff at the notion of a Johnny-come-lately such as Netscape competing for basic infrastructure services. Marc Andreessen, cofounder and senior vice president for technology, likes to put a positive spin on Netscape's youth, emphasizing the recent changes that the Internet has brought to everyday computing. "When there's a major paradigm shift, it's easier to build something new than to retrofit the old stuff," he said (Fortune, July 8, 1996).

Netscape's Catalog Server, a document manager optimized for managing Web content, is a good example. With Catalog Server, companies can keep an online catalog of documents and email addresses and set up search services (similar to Yahoo's) for their Internet and intranet sites. Although Catalog Server is a document manager, it's comparable to index and search engines such as Microsoft's new Index Server.

Netscape also announced an innovative AppFoundry program that bundles third-party applications with Netscape servers. At the September 1996 launch, Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale said that Netscape plans to have 100 AppFoundry tools by year's end. These tools capitalize on the success of Netscape's plug-ins, which let vendors add functionality to the Navigator browser. Plug-ins work like Excel add-ins and are similar to Microsoft Visual Basic custom controls (VBXs), OLE custom controls (OCXs), ActiveX controls, and Java applets.

SuiteSpot, despite the bundled Informix or Oracle Server, lacks a tightly integrated database. Its mail server is oriented toward Internet email and supports Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP), Post Office Protocol Version 3 (POP3), and MIME, which traditional messaging servers such as Exchange and Notes are just beginning to incorporate. But Netscape does not support enterprise-related standards such as X.500 (Netscape plans to incorporate this support when it releases its new Directory Server). Additionally, Netscape has acquired advanced groupware technology from Collabra that will begin to appear in SuiteSpot 3.0.

Netscape does not offer a competitive solution for host connectivity. Where SuiteSpot shines, though, is in its support for doing business on the Internet, or via intranets available to selected outsiders ("extranets"). And because the business of so many new businesses is the Web, Netscape wants to make a case for creating a niche as a backbone provider. Starwave's SportsLine site, for example, relies on Netscape Merchant System and Publishing System. Netscape's commercial applications (which include the Merchant System, Publishing System, and Commerce System) start at about $45,000 and use an Oracle7 database under the hood. Netscape and IBM offer the strongest product lines for businesses wanting to set up commercial Internet sites, but Microsoft and Oracle will roll out similar solutions in early 1997.

Microsoft and Netscape continue to exchange blows, particularly in the well-publicized browser wars that pit Netscape Navigator against Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But both companies also have competing Web servers. Most tools vendors support both the Netscape Server API (NSAPI) and Microsoft Internet Server API (ISAPI).

Microsoft and Netscape also butt heads over scripting languages. Whereas Netscape wants developers to use JavaScript, Microsoft promotes VBS and supports its version of Jscript, which differs slightly from Netscape's JavaScript.

Perhaps most important in the long run is Netscape's announced Open Network Environment (ONE), a grandiose cross-platform architecture with an object model (Netscape Internet Foundation Classes) and support for distributed objects through the CORBA-compliant Inter-Object Request Broker Protocol (IIOP). Although ONE competes directly with Microsoft's OLE/ActiveX/DCOM architecture, ONE will include ActiveX technology and be compatible with Oracle's NC Architecture.

Oracle's mantra seems to be database-centric or NC-centric depending on the day of the week, and the company doesn't even have a formal server suite. Nevertheless, Oracle's strength in the database and vertical applications marketplaces lets the company offer its clients almost everything except the operating system. Oracle's vision of one-stop shopping includes Oracle7 Server running on everything from Windows laptops to mainframes (for a closer look at the Oracle7 Server for NT, see "Exploring Oracle7 Server for Windows NT," page 81). But Oracle sees Oracle7 as an interim product (don't worry, it's plenty robust) en route to the much ballyhooed Oracle 8 Universal Server.

Oracle's strength is in its ability to provide tightly integrated client/server applications such as its popular Oracle Financials and new Web Employees. These products, with Oracle's recently acquired OLAP engine, Oracle Express (Web-enabled with a Relational OLAP--ROLAP option), combine to make Oracle look like an attractive infrastructure vendor. Oracle's challenge, like IBM's, is to be more price-sensitive. Each company needs to convince its respective sales force to accept smaller margins in favor of more sales.

Oracle's product line isn't complete in the suite sense. Oracle has a mail and workgroup product, Oracle InterOffice, but it's based on a relational mail store that isn't efficient for messages and, therefore, not a strong alternative to Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange.

Oracle doesn't have any products that compete in the systems management or transaction server arenas. However, it has some other interesting products such as the Oracle7 Spatial Option, which supports the Environmental Systems Research Institute's (ESRI's) popular mapping software ArcView GIS, and ConText 1.1, a smart search engine that can summarize long documents. For multimedia, Oracle has a video option that primarily delivers training videos for its Oracle7 Enterprise Servers, and the company recently released a Web plug-in that uses CompCore Multimedia's SoftPEG without MPEG hardware. The latter will probably compete with Microsoft's video server (code named Tiger). Also, Oracle is partnering with Intel for online videoconferencing.

Oracle also has a good line of developer's tools including the venerable Oracle Forms, Oracle Reports, and the new Developer/2000 and Designer/2000. At an average of $3995 per developer seat, these tools are not cheap. However, unlike Oracle's general-purpose Power Objects, these tools are Oracle-centric, so they tightly integrate with the Oracle API and other Oracle tools. To add to this new set of tools, Oracle has announced a new object-oriented developer tool, Sedona, that will enter beta in the first quarter of 1997.

Consistent with its goal to provide one-stop shopping, Oracle has a Web server, Oracle WebServer, and Web browser, Oracle PowerBrowser. But in the face of daunting competition, Oracle's strategy for Web-enabling its applications and easing Web-savvy Oracle application development will not be in Oracle WebServer sales nor in grabbing browser market share from Netscape or Microsoft, but simply in selling Web-enabled versions of its 30 plus high profit-margin client/server applications. Whether Oracle's forthcoming commerce server, Apollo, can rejuvenate interest in Oracle's WebServer product line and the success of the company's Oracle/VeriFone payments cartridge remains to be seen (Oracle has designed the Oracle WebServer API to accept plug-in cartridges that work like Java servlets or ActiveServer controls and interact with each other via the Oracle Inter-Cartridge Exchange--ICX). ICX is just part of Oracle's ambitious Network Computing Architecture (NCA), which the company unveiled in October and bases largely on the emerging CORBA-compliant IIOP for distributed objects.

Like IBM, Oracle seems to be sitting on the fence in the object model and component wars. Oracle's NC Architecture will support CORBA and IIOP, Microsoft's ActiveX controls, and COM and distributed COM (DCOM).

Are BackOffice shops likely to abandon SQL Server and Internet Information Server (IIS) for Oracle? Probably not. But Oracle-centric shops will want to consider Oracle's expanding line of NT products and pester the company's sales force for better deals. Shari Simon, vice president of Oracle's NT Solution Sales Division, acknowledges Oracle's customer needs by saying, "Our customers depend on Oracle's expertise and track record for delivering reliable business solutions on NT, from the workgroup to the enterprise--whereas BackOffice is a generic product bundle that doesn't address specific business solutions such as data marts and electronic commerce." NT shops might even want to look at Oracle7's ConText option to harness its power for delivering data summaries.

So how is Microsoft responding? Not surprisingly, it is promoting its growing server suite as the best-integrated solution of the bunch. What is, surprising is that Microsoft sees IBM's AS/400 as a bigger threat than IBM, Netscape, and Oracle server suites. The 400,000 AS/400s, which reportedly generate some $14 billion per year for IBM, have a reputation for incredible reliability and are host to thousands of vertical applications. IBM recently unveiled a complete AS/400 Web server as an alternative to UNIX and NT Web servers (UNIX servers still dominate the market, but NT-based Web sites accounted for about 12.5 percent of the market in August 1996, according to Netcraft Ltd. in Bath,

In addition to competition from AS/400s, Microsoft sees the mix-and-match approach to buying server software as the most formidable threat to BackOffice dominance. According to Murari Narayan, BackOffice product manager, Oracle's database-centric approach has major limitations, especially in scaling as a mail server. Netscape doesn't have an operating system or a true database. Nevertheless, Microsoft is fighting Netscape tooth and nail for browser market share and on the server, protocol, and object model fronts. "We heavily evangelized ActiveX, DCOM, and the forthcoming NT-based Microsoft Management Console," says Narayan about Microsoft's November Professional Developer Conference (PDC) in Long Beach, California.

NT 4.0 anchors Microsoft's six-component, best-of-breed BackOffice Server 2.0 suite with support for file-and-print, communication, Internet, database, messaging, groupware, host-connectivity, and systems-management applications. To keep pace with the competition, Microsoft is adding to its server suite: a new Index Server search engine (code named Tripoli) and Microsoft Proxy Server (formerly the Internet Access Server, code named Catapult), which are already shipping.

Microsoft will add three other applications to the BackOffice lineup. The first application is a media server (code named Tiger) that promises to deliver video on demand, starting with support for streaming video in phase one of its rollout. A second application is the high-end Commercial Internet System (CIS--code named Normandy) Web site suite, which consists of personalization, chat, email, news, membership services, indexing, commerce, and content replication servers for corporate site builders, independent software vendors (ISVs), and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) including CompuServe. The last application is Falcon, store-and-forward messaging middleware reminiscent of IBM's MQSeries of message-oriented middleware.

Most of Microsoft's other new servers are Internet related. Microsoft's much-anticipated Merchant System for Web commerce, which is turbo-charged with eShop technology that Microsoft acquired in June 1996, and the forthcoming Transaction Service (code named Viper), which is a blend of TP monitor, distributed database commit and rollback, and legacy connectivity, both have Web ties.

Microsoft is making strides on the object model and component front. The company is establishing new standards, including Personal Information Exchange (PFX) for moving public key information between media, and the controversial Common Internet File System (CIFS), which Microsoft hopes will succeed FTP and NFS.

Support for different object models, development tools, and scripting languages is extremely significant because of the effect on the developer community. All four vendors recognize the importance of gaining the developers' allegiance (Microsoft's Nathan Myhrvold even goes so far as to refer to developers as Microsoft's volunteer army). To that end, the vendors offer several programs and conferences to keep developers happy, informed, and on the vendors' respective teams.

Microsoft believes it offers the most comprehensive, integrated, and easy-to-use suite--easy to use perhaps, but confusing to buy. Microsoft, like IBM, needs to work on better packaging so that customers who buy BackOffice 2.0 don't have to pay to upgrade NT 3.51, for example, to NT 4.0.

Stacking the Deck in Your Favor
Now is the time to place your bets. But how do you know whether you have a winning hand? Deciding which suite to buy or even which vendor to pledge allegiance to is difficult at best. Mixing and matching various vendor components is possible but can be hard. Knowing what cards to keep in your hand and what cards to throw away is a very serious business.

Chances are you already have email, host connectivity, and Internet server components established. That still leaves some crucial components begging to be installed: a site search engine and indexing server, perhaps an Internet server for electronic commerce, a transaction manager to handle load balancing and job requests in a distributed environment, and the all-important directory services manager. Selecting these components may force you to choose sides, especially in the object model arena, before you'd like to.

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