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Tools May Be Sun's New Forte

  • December 1, 1999
  • By Dan Kara
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December 1999

Tools May Be Sun's New Forté

Deal for Forté Software, a maker of development tools, holds promise for Java developers
By Dan Kara

Hardware vendors can be inept when they try to be software vendors. When hardware vendors succeed with software products, it's usually through some type of strategic acquisition. There are some exceptions to this rule—system software such as operating systems and clustering technology come to mind—but in general the axiom holds. Notice I didn't mention development tools. In general, the development environments produced and sold by hardware vendors, especially those targeting corporate application development, pale in comparison to those offered by vendors at large (IBM's VisualAge line is the exception).

Sun Microsystems recently bolstered its reputation as a tools provider by acquiring two IDE vendors. As Sun is the prime patron of Java, and is a key "architecture" player in the industry along with Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, the acquisitions could have a resounding impact. The products from the two vendors, namely Forté Software Inc. of Oakland, Calif., and NetBeans Ceska republika a.s. of the Czech Republic, fall at opposite ends of the capabilities spectrum. Sun plans to combine the development products from the two companies, along with other Sun technology, to create a portfolio of three different product sets targeting multiple development constituencies.

The Forté acquisition was more strategic than the NetBeans deal, and its price reflected it. According to the terms, each share of Forté common stock was converted into 0.3 shares of Sun stock. Based on the price of Sun's stock on the day of the closing, the Forté acquisition was worth about $700 million.

It's easy to see why Forté captured Sun's fancy. Forté boasts more than 500 customers, including many package solution providers. But more important, Forté has years of experience delivering enterprise systems and it has recently begun applying this expertise to Java-based systems, including the mainframe. Prior to the deal, Forté had licensed Sun's Java virtual machine and other Sun technology.

The products
To fully gauge the ramifications of the Sun purchases, it's important to understand exactly what changed hands. NetBeans offers the more tactical product line of the two. NetBeans Developer is a multiplatform IDE consisting of a visual designer, editor, compiler and debugger, that is intended to work with, as well as extend, the Sun Java Developers' Kit. The product supports Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and the Java Platform component technology, including Java Server Pages (JSP), Enterprise JavaBeans and Java Servlets. NetBeans supports other de facto industry standard technology such as Corba and XML, and runs on the leading development platforms—the Linux, Solaris, Windows 98 and Windows NT operating systems.

Support for Linux is significant. The developers of NetBeans Developer say their product is the leading Java IDE among Linux users. Though Sun's immediate interests are served by favoring Sun's boxes for its software products, its best interests are served by supporting Linux. Linux has joined Windows and Solaris as a must-port for development tool vendors. Also, the Linux community contains a high proportion of developers—and, I suspect, a high percentage of Java developers.

I don't use the term "community" lightly. Linux users, of course, tend to be strong advocates of the open software movement. NetBeans is not published, but its APIs are, allowing the product to be extended and integrated with other third-party tools. The product is also downloadable. (NetBeans claims it has had more than 100,000 downloads of its product.)

The Forté product suite is more extensive, longer-lived and was engineered to support the largest system development efforts and the most exacting systems. Forté released its first product in September 1994 following more than three years of development. At the time, the Forté Application Environment was the leading exemplar of a then-new class of development tools known as "second-generation" client-server, object-oriented 4GLs. Rather than being focused on providing a graphical user interface to existing rela- tional database management systems, the Forté Application Environment was intended for creating highly scalable, server centric, fully distributed systems.

The ability of the Forté application environment to generate applications where application logic resided on multiple client and multiple server machines using a variety of middleware (application partitioning) stood in sharp contrast to the majority of first-generation client-server tools that built applications that were deployed strictly on the client. The other hallmark of the Forté approach to system building was environment-independent application development. With Forté, the deployment environment was disconnected from the development environment. Forté developers built a single logical application, then deployed it to various platforms. That is, with Forté logical applications were separate and distinct from their physical implementation. Environmental, independent development and fully distributed applications were radical notions at the time the Forté application environment was released, and even today represent the state-of-the-art in corporate application development.

Better performance, scalability
With its emphasis on the server, including the ability to split applications across multiple servers, the Forté Application Environment could generate and run applications that offered high performance and scalability. The basic Forté approach is to generate all the interapplication and support code required for creating strategic distributed applications (database access code, GUI navigational code, interapplication communication code, etc.). Forté also provides performance enhancement functions, application management and integrity services, and security services.

The two other key products that Sun picked up with Forté are SynerJ, a Java IDE and deployment environment for corporate development, and Forté Fusion, an XML-based Enterprise Application Integration toolset (EAI). SynerJ is a suite of tools comprising development, server and deployment modules. The SynerJ Developer module is a standalone environment for creating Java component software such as EJB, servlets and JSPs. SynerJ is a repository-based, multiuser environment that provides much of the high-end collaboration functionality of its progenitor, the Forté Application Environment, including configuration management, distributed debugging, version control and component management. SynerJ is extremely graphical, sports wizards galore, and supports all of the leading de facto industry standards, including EJB 1.1, J2EE, Corba, and XML. With SynerJ, Forté applied the expertise it had acquired building the Forté Application Environment platform, to deliver a toolset capable of generating enterprise-class systems, but systems that made use of de facto industry standards such as Java, Corba, and EJB for the underlying technical architecture.

Sun plans to create a product line consisting of distinct editions of toolsets applicable to, and optimized for, different types of development efforts, as well as various classes of developers. The first of Sun's Java Technology IDEs, termed Forté for Java, Community Edition, is based on the NetBeans product. Sun is targeting the Community Edition at Java newbies, many of whom work for line-of-business managers. Like NetBeans, the product is available free for download.

The second IDE edition, which Sun calls Forté for Java Internet Edition, is targeted to smaller organizations building simple Web applications. It will be based on the as-yet-unrelased NetBeans Pro. NetBeans Pro will be a graphical Java IDE capable of building classic CRUD applications in a manner similar to other midtier corporate IDEs (graphical screen painter, mapping screen object to database tables, etc.). Unlike the Community Edition, the Internet Edition will support JSP and Java applets.

The final Sun Java Technology IDE, Forté for Java Enterprise Edition, is Forté's SynerJ product with a name change. It's targeted to the development of Java-based business systems requiring high performance, scalability and robustness.

Sun now has too many products, with a great deal of functional and operational overlap among some of them. (With the Forté acquisition, Sun now offers three application servers—four, if you count the Forté Application Environment runtime). Clearly, something has to give. Forté has pledged to continue support for the Forté Application Environment and will release a new version in mid-2000. While many Forté customers use this product, look for Forté to push new customers toward the Java Technology Enterprise Edition toolset as an enterprise solution and nudge existing Forté Application Environment customers toward the same.

The application server situation is even thornier. The application servers picked up by Sun from NetDynamics and Netscape (the Kiva app server) are being merged into Sun's iPlanet server. iPlanet consists of the Netscape server runtime environment (which scales well), with some NetDynamics Java classes and tools tossed in. Sun promises continued support for both of these products, but look for iPlanet to eventually subsume both. While the SynerJ app server is newer than iPlanet and offers compelling advantages over the older technology (J2EE support, for example), the SynerJ server should be replaced with iPlanet server, though the product will still deploy to other market-leading EJB servers.

No room for Workshop, Studio
In keeping with other hardware vendors-come-tool providers, Sun's Java Workshop and Java Studio were not commercial successes. The products didn't work at a high-enough level of abstraction for corporate developers, requiring much hand-coding and technical expertise to build the fully distributed, multi-tier systems.

With the Forté and NetBeans acquisitions, the future for Java Workshop and Java Studio is clear: They have no place in Sun's new world order. Sun already announced it is making the source code for these products available under its community source access program, and it has dropped them as commercial products. This is good news for corporate developers. Sun has strengthened its hand as a tools provider and now has a product suite suitable for developing simple corporate applications in Java.

Also, Sun now has the product—and the expertise—to take Java into the enterprise.

Dan Kara is CTO of the Intermedia Group, a research and analysis firm in Westborough, Mass. He is the co-editor of Kara/Rymer Enterprise Java Perspectives, a newsletter focused on the role of the Java platform within the enterprise. He can be reached at dkara@intmedgrp.com.

© 1999 FAWCETTE TECHNICAL PUBLICATIONS, all rights reserved.

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