IBM Takes On Microsoft Over Modeling Tools

UML support is a key distinction between Microsoft's VSTS and IBM Rational's "Atlantic" tool suite.

With the Texas panhandle as the backdrop, IBM called Microsoft Corp. out for an old-fashioned shootout last week when it unveiled its "Atlantic" tool suite.

With Atlantic, the code name for the next version of IBM Software Development Platform, IBM plans deeper integration among its components for designing, modeling, developing, testing, deploying and maintaining applications. Atlantic promises greater integration with the Java-based Eclipse open-source development platform and tight support for UML (Unified Modeling Language) 2.0.

One key issue separating IBM Rationals tools from Microsofts VSTS (Visual Studio Team System) solution is the approach to modeling. UML is the OMG (Object Management Group) standard for modeling. IBM said it is necessary; Microsoft said it is not.

Rick LaPlante, general manager for VSTS at Microsoft, said UML represents an unnecessarily complex model for many developers and is not a strategy Microsoft will explicitly support. "Ten years from now, modeling wont be reserved for the priests in the organization," LaPlante said. "Nor will it be this thing done on the side that requires a special organization that is the only people who do modeling. I think it will become pervasive."

Atlantic is due by years end, IBM officials said. Microsofts VSTS will ship by the middle of next year, with the "Whidbey" version of Visual Studio and the "Yukon" database.

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Microsoft made its mark by catering to the masses and making development easier. The team system product seeks to deliver a solution for a broader audience, while Rational, whether deserved or not, has had a reputation for complexity, experts say.

"UML continues to have a steep learning curve, making it most appropriate for seasoned architects and senior developers. While UML 2.0 is far more complete than earlier versions, it is still not possible to completely define software functionality in UML," said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst with ZapThink LLC, in Waltham, Mass. "In contrast, Microsofts approach in Visual Studio has always been an inclusive one—create a tool easy enough to use for the beginner yet powerful enough for the power developer."

IBM Fellow and co-creator of UML Grady Booch said Microsofts strategy takes the nonstandard route. "Is that a long-term, sustainable strategy? Hard to say, except that IBM Rational is placing its bets on the open marketplace, primarily because in the kinds of applications people are building these days, there is a far greater need for interoperability," Booch said.

In the end, however, some said the moves indicate a convergence of sorts. Forces are driving Microsoft to move up to support enterprise application development more broadly and Rational to integrate and simplify its solutions. Cort Bucher, a software architect at The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. who uses both Microsoft and Rational tools, said he sees such a shift.

"To the extent that the project merits the design and modeling using UML to architect a solution, were definitely using UML," Bucher said. "There are several ways we develop our UML modeling, either directly through [Microsofts] Visio or through IBMs Rational Toolkit. UML is extremely helpful in visualizing the application and any associated pitfalls. As for whether its a must-have, I would argue that it really depends on the complexity of the system and a companys desire for documentation."

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