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By | Austin Modine 11th February 2010 07:02

Can Sun's GlassFish turn on master Oracle?

More like IBM than you know

In Hand of Orlac, a plastic surgeon replaces the crushed hands of a pianist with those of an executed murder. What at first is a godsend for the ruined musician may in truth be an agent of its former owner's insidious will, compelling its inheritor to murder his own father.

We wonder if that works for corporations. Will the dissected bits and pieces of free-software loving Sun Microsystems - once they're grafted to the Oracle beast - drive the proprietary database giant into unusual acts of business?

There already exists one chimera out there: a creature named IBM, offering open- and closed-source products in its middleware range. It's notable that Oracle's management is comparing itself to IBM now that it owns Sun, saying it can out-IBM Big Blue.

But how well has IBM actually done from bringing open-source into the fold, and what's in store for Oracle?

Free, meet paid

IBM keeps both a proprietary and paid for and an open-source but free application servers in its ponderously expansive WebSphere brand.

WebSphere Application Server (WAS) is IBM's flagship application server. It was built using Java Enterprise Edition (Java EE) and XML, and it features top-end architecture features like clustering and massive amounts of scalability.

On the open and free side, IBM has WebSphere Application Server Community Edition (WAS CE) was built on a completely different code base yet is also a Java EE container. It's based on Apache Software Foundation's (ASF's) Geronimo project and uses technology from the former Gluecode Software, which IBM bought in May 2005.

How does IBM reconcile these two and convince users to continue paying for one and not be tempted by the other?

IBM has positioned WAS CE to address departmental needs, while WAS proper is targeted enterprise customers requiring more performance and scale.

Over at Oracle, there also now exists two in-house application server products: WebLogic, a proprietary Java EE container the company bought with its $8.5bn acquisition of BEA Systems and that became Oracle's app server flag carrier, and Glassfish, also a Java EE platform and based on source code that was donated by Sun from its old proprietary product to the community.

GlassFish is free to download, while WebLogic starts at $10,000 per CPU for Standard Edition and hits $45,000 for the suite.

In the wake of Sun, Oracle has boasted it will be more like the IBM of the 1960s, when everything was integrated and simple. When it comes to application servers, Oracle is certainly starting to sound a lot like the IBM of the 2000s in the way it tries to position its two app servers.

GlassFish is being repositioned as something for lower-paying contracts and open-source purists, while WebLogic will be sold as Oracle's "strategic" application server for enterprise applications. It's a plan that mirrors IBM's WAS versus WAS CE.


How well having both a free and paid for application server has done for IBM on a market share or sales basis is hard to tell. After repeated efforts, IBM was not able (or unwilling) to provide us with any WAS CE numbers.

One theory has it, that if Big Blue thought WAS CE was stealing business from WAS, it wouldn't have kept offering the free option since 2005.

The other view is that if WAS CE is indeed taking business from WAS, IBM is still a winner because it owns WAS CE rather than Gluecode still being an independent player. IBM therefore retains customer accounts and can continue selling its related middleware, applications, and services.

Such a play could also benefit Oracle. Again, it's difficult to accurately gauge actual uptake of Glassfish. The old Sun would only give out download numbers, which were no indication of actual use. In February 2009, for example, Sun claimed 192,776 downloads of the GlassFish software development kit in a single month.

But none of the developers or middleware companies The Reg has ever talked to say they have ever come across GlassFish in the market.

The big question is what happens next with GlassFish?

Balancing act

Sun took the lazy way out on GlassFish - putting the code into the community from its previously closed EE application server and hoping people would bite.

Oracle has promised to be more proactive: adding features from WebLogic. Depending on what features Oracle does add, this might make GlassFish a more compelling proposition and mean it finally sees some genuine uptake in real business scenarios.

That makes GlassFish a balancing act for Oracle: Making it fast enough and sufficiently easy to manage to attract open-sourcers and developers, but not so good that it becomes a threat to WebLogic. To stop developers getting too enthusiastic about a future GlassFish, Oracle may be forced to offer the app server "off menu" - where you need to know the right code word as you do at US burger chain In-N-Out Burger to get the secret menu.

What remains to be seen is exactly how sincere Oracle is in keeping GlassFish alive and well inside the database giant's host body, and whether that project will finally turn on its father. ®

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