With Prices Dropping, App Servers Become Just Another Commodity

When Peter Hazlehurst needed an application server last year, he did what most people would do. Hazlehurst, chief technology officer of software vendor Mercari Technologies, looked at IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic, the two application servers which together account for roughly two thirds of the market, according to Gartner Dataquest.

Mercari, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, makes software that helps large retailers figure out the best mix of products to put on their shelves. The company wanted to build its product on an Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) compliant application server. But Hazlehurst wasn’t pleased with what he considered the high cost of WebSphere and WebLogic. And Mercari, which is a small company, wasn’t getting a lot of attention from either IBM or BEA. “Trying to get anyone from sales in those firms to talk to you is really difficult,” says Hazlehurst. “They’re just not interested in smaller customers.”

So earlier this year, Hazlehurst decided instead to use an application server from Pramati Technologies, a Hyderbad, India-based company which has been selling a J2EE-compliant application server in Asia for several years. Pramati opened U.S. headquarters in San Jose, Calif., last year, and is now making a push into the U.S. market.

Pramati’s application server ranges in price from $2,500 to $5,000 per CPU, for the enterprise edition. That’s significantly less than the $14,000 list price for BEA’s WebLogic Server.

The Pramati application server meets the latest Java standard, J2EE 1.3, according to the company. Compliance with that standard is what is really driving the change in the application server market, says Joe McKee, a Chicago-based writer and J2EE consultant. “Since all the players offer essentially the same functionality,” he says, “it’s become totally a commodity business at this point.” To differentiate themselves, McKee says, the vendors are turning to adding functionality such as portals and integration tools to their application server offerings.

That is making it a buyers’ market, says Hazlehurst. “Pramati has all the same features as the other application servers, and it’s much cheaper,” says Hazlehurst. “As a CTO, all I care about is, does it work, and is it economic?”

Heyday Is Over

Plenty of other companies are thinking along the same lines. “WebLogic is a great product, but a lot of our clients are shying away from the cost,” says Chris Pernicano, president of systems integrator Blue Frog Solutions, in Pompano Beach, Florida. “It seems like I’m getting a lot of calls from companies asking: where is the low cost alternative to BEA?”

For its clients, many of whom are insurance companies and mutual fund companies, Blue Frog frequently builds Web applications using the open source Java servlet engine Tomcat. The company is also starting to see a lot more interest in Microsoft’s .Net, says Pernicano. “With so many low cost alternatives pushing in,” he says, “the heyday of the high end app server is over.”

That is not being lost on the vendors. Prices of application servers have been dropping steadily for the last several years, driven in part by vendors fighting over market share. IBM frequently bundles WebSphere at reduced prices with other software products. Sun and Oracle have been known to do the same, with their SunOne and Oracle 9iAS application server products.

The stiff competition has already largely driven several contenders, including ATG and Hewlett-Packard, out of the application server race.

It has also led the existing application server vendors to introduce lower cost versions of their products aimed at smaller companies. IBM’s entry, WebSphere Application Server Express is due out later this year. Sun’s Platform Edition of its SunOne application server, due in September, will be bundled with its Solaris operating system. Versions for other operating systems will be available from Sun as free downloads.