Application servers fuel e-gov

Thomas Kyte of Oracle said application servers can handle features needed for e-government, such as portals, business intelligence, personalization software, security tools and others.

Olivier Douliery

New capabilities help integrators, agencies get services online

A new e-government tax program helped 50,000 Californians last year, though they'll never know it. That's because the program prevented the state from mistakenly sending them stern reminders to pay their taxes.

The California Franchise Tax Board, which processes 14 million tax forms a year, has 40 investigators tracking down delinquent taxpayers. Because they must sift through 260 million records spread across 50 federal, state and local systems, they inevitably make mistakes and contact people whose paperwork was misfiled or who had legitimate reasons for not filing, said Cathy Cleek, California's director of filing systems bureau.

To cut down on unnecessary contacts, IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., installed a solution based on its WebSphere application server that tightened up the data trail. The application server was able to coordinate data from many different sources and make them readily available to caseworkers.

"We didn't use any data cleansing techniques," Cleek said.

WebSphere provided the capability of combining records of people that otherwise would not have been linked. As a result, the board made 50,000 fewer calls in 2002.

And since caseworkers are spending their time on more appropriate cases, they were more successful in finding errant taxpayers, bringing in an additional $200 million since May 2001.

Application servers such as the one used in California are fast becoming a staple of e-government programs throughout the United States. As e-gov grows tasks that are larger and more complex, integrators may turn to application servers to simplify the architecture of the agency's services.

The servers allow integrators to easily upgrade individual services without bringing the whole system to a halt, said Eric Stahl, director of product marketing for BEA Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif.

And because Web-server vendors are facing stagnant sales in the business market, government integrators may find them more accommodating, offering a wide range of features from ease of use to legacy interoperability to make the integrator's e-gov tasks easier than ever.

COMPETITIVE MARKET

The two biggest vendors for application servers are BEA Systems and IBM, according to IT consulting firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. IBM holds almost 38 percent of the market, while BEA Systems holds about 30 percent.

Yefim Natis, an analyst at Gartner, said the application server market reached $1.1 billion in 2002, and it is shrinking slightly because of the sluggish economy and a trend of application servers being bundled with related products, such as portals.

Despite the stagnation, application server vendors are finding sales with government agencies.

"Our government sales have picked up dramatically in the past 12 months," Stahl said, noting the push for e-gov services is helping drive the increase.

While Oracle Corp. is mostly known as a database company, it increasingly pitches application servers as an essential component.

"Every customer prospect I go to, it's not just a database sell. Rather, it's a [sale for an] applications server that can front-end a database," said Thomas Kyte, vice president of core technologies for Oracle of Redwood Shores, Calif.

In this competitive market, most application vendors differentiate themselves by offering feature-rich enterprise editions.

"BEA Systems has significantly invested in ease of use, making their product accessible to people without programming backgrounds," Natis said. Likewise, IBM has focused efforts on easing enterprise application integration, or the sharing of information across large software platforms.

Others are carving out their own turf as well.

THE BREEZE OF EASE

BEA Systems, which reported $934.1 million in 2002 revenue, has sold application servers to most civilian agencies and military services, Stahl said.

For instance, e-business service provider Advanced Software Design Inc., San Francisco, is using BEA System's WebLogic application server as part of a pilot project that might pave the way to cutting $20 million form logistics expenses each year. The project will automate the supply chain interaction between vendors and the service's own logistics operation.

Stahl said a typical application development shop can reduce the number of trained programmers needed for a project. For example, a shop with 300 coders may only have 20 fluent in the Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, or J2EE, which is used for developing applications that can be accessed via a Web browser. But BEA Systems offers a graphical user interface that would allow the other 280 programmers to contribute to a project.

"J2EE programmers are hard to find and very high-priced, because they are doing low-level complex programming," Stahl said.

Oracle also touts its Oracle9i Application Server as being easy to use, Kyte said. The company offers integrators a unified platform that handles features needed for e-gov tasks, including a portal, business intelligence, personalization software, security tools and others.

"Our solution can tie all these things together," Kyte said, adding that this bundled offering can help integrators cut down on implementation time and installation headaches.

"Compatibility issues are what thwart systems integrators," Kyte said.

One version of portal product may have an essential feature, but it may not mesh with the version of another product also instrumental for an implementation. Oracle offers a one-stop solution with components designed to work with one another.

Sacramento, Calif.-based systems integrator Delegata Corp. used Oracle application servers for the California Public Employee Retirement System, a public pension fund with $150 billion in assets serving 1.2 million people. California wanted the self-serve Web applications to save money by reducing paperwork.

LEGACY INTEGRATION

Sybase was one of the earliest entrants into the application server market, introducing a product in 1997, said Loren Corbridge, senior product manager for Sybase Inc., Dublin, Calif.

Corbridge said one of the chief competitive advantages to Sybase's EAServer is that it can incorporate components written in protocols other than J2EE, such as Corba, the C and C programming languages and Sybase's own PowerBuilder platform.

"It allows us to support many different components at once, unlike some of our competitors, which can support only Java," Corbridge said.

The company has found a healthy market with government agencies that don't want to replace older, but still working, systems just to add new functionality.

Such support "allows our customers to reuse their existing code instead of rewriting everything from scratch," Corbridge said. "It's cheaper, it's faster, there is less risk involved."

DynCorp, recently purchased by Computer Sciences Corp., used EAServer as part of its work for the Securities and Exchange Commission. This system, called Edgar, allows companies to submit company filings over the Web. It also allows the public to view these files by the Internet.

IBM also stresses enterprise modernization tools that help integrators bring older applications in to the newer, more network environments.

"As most integrators very well know, you rarely walk into to a clean environment. There are always systems there," said Stefan van Overtveldt, director of WebSphere technical marketing for IBM.

IBM's tools convert older applications into a Web services, make them interoperable with other applications and even use them as a basis for new applications.

"This gives organizations that have significant investments in existing applications and infrastructure a degree of flexibility that they never had before," van Overtveldt said. "They can now very quickly define interactions between these existing applications without needing to do any new coding." *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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