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Application servers feed successful e-commerce


Application servers feed successful e-commerce

The application server provides a foundation for integrated e-commerce, allowing consistent Web site performance and quick retrieval of back-end data.

By Eric B. Parizo,

Profitable e-commerce companies know customers will keep coming back only if their transactions are processed quickly and efficiently. Even if an e-commerce server environment has more parts and pieces than the International Space Station, it is the application server that virtually transforms a distributed network into one well-oiled machine.

Understanding the role of the application server may be a prerequisite for success underestimated by many.

"The application server is the foundation for all other applications the business will be running in its e-commerce site," said Chris Dial, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

An application server is defined as a middleware server program that allows front-end, browser-based clients to retrieve data from back-end databases and legacy systems such as large server computers or mainframes.

Oftentimes, an application server is combined with a Web server, which makes retrieved data readable by client browsers, to serve as the middle tier in a 3-tier application structure. However, in large e-commerce operations where load balancing is a concern, an n-tier or multiple tier application may be distributed across a handful of application servers and several separate Web servers.

Consistent Web site performance is dependent on the application server, Dial said. "It's responsible for connecting to the data source and responsible for generating connection pools so when an application makes requests for multiple pieces of data, you don't use up all the connections on the database," he said.

Dial said implementing an n-tier structure with more Web servers than application servers is wise when many users are hitting a site but are retrieving a limited amount of information. Emphasis on application servers is advised when a finite number of users are taxing back-end databases with many individualized, one-to-one transactions.

Order flow management, fulfillment and updating product information are other crucial e-commerce tasks designated to the application server, according to Mike Gilpin, vice president and research leader with Giga Information Group in Boston, Mass. He said businesses determining available product quantities for customers in real-time also rely heavily on application servers.

Choosing a server

When choosing an application server, Dial said e-commerce companies should examine a vendor's product performance and reliability track records, market momentum as determined by revenue and reputation, technical support resources and partnerships with other independent software vendors and system integrators.

Since the application server is also an integral part of application development, Gilpin said ease of use should be considered so as to avoid the complexity and expense involved with building e-commerce applications. He said a framework of pre-build functions, in addition to associated engines and customer personalization capabilities, are key for rapid deployment.

"Increasingly, buyers are looking to get as many of those elements as possible from one solution provider," Gilpin said. "More and more companies like IBM, BEA, iPlanet, HP Bluestone, Sybase and Oracle are all putting together portfolios of software infrastructure for e-business that incorporate as many of the elements as possible."

Two widely popular application servers, BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic and IBM's WebSphere, are based on Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). It has been hailed as the next-generation application development platform, and experts predict it will reign in the enterprise for the next several years because of its expansive portability.

However, due to a recently settled lawsuit with Sun, Microsoft Corp.'s ability to use Java is now severely limited. The Redmond, Wash., company has instead focused its application server efforts on Windows-based solutions, supported by its .Net Web development framework and its new C# development platform.

Unfortunately, according to Gilpin, Microsoft's divergent path creates a decision-making quandary, especially for Microsoft devotees.

"Microsoft... doesn't spend much of its intelligence capital on figuring out how to make its technology work with every other platform out there," Gilpin said, adding that what they do spend is only to encourage Windows migration rather than long-term multi-platform support.

According to Dial, a purchasing decision should focus on the core competencies of a company's technology and development staff. "If your skills are (in) Microsoft, you should go with Microsoft," Dial said. "Other than that, for heterogeneous environments with multiple hardware platforms and operating systems, the Java-based application servers are a better bet."

Gilpin also said businesses integrating multiple platforms in a permanent yet flexible solution should lean toward a J2EE-compliant vendor, because a Microsoft implementation typically means committing all future development to Microsoft platforms.

Even though Dial said a great deal of change is still in store for the market as hardware and platform providers gain market share, he said it is always a good idea for executives to get their hands dirty and know how everything works.

>> has extensive Best Web Links on application servers.

>> offers a number of Best Web Links covering hardware and infrastructure management.

>> Looking for the nitty-gritty? offers a detailed definition of an application server and lists a variety of resources.

This was last published in May 2001

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