IBM WebSphere at 10

IBM's WebSphere application server turns 10 and adds Web 2.0, SOA and RIA capabilities.

ARMONK, N.Y.-IBM Senior Vice President and Software Group General Manager Steve Mills met with three of his top lieutenants in his office back in 1997 to discuss the "Webification" of IBM's enterprise tools. Out of that discussion the IBM WebSphere Application Server was born.

In an interview here at IBM headquarters, Mills told eWEEK how he and Danny Sabbah, John Swainson and Alfred Spector met in Mills' office in Somers, N.Y., to discuss IBM's future in the nascent application server space when the market competition was growing hot and heavy. Only Sabbah remains at IBM of the three lieutenants. Sabbah, who was Mills' CTO at the time, is now general manager of IBM's Rational business unit. Swainson is CEO of CA, and Spector is vice president of research and special initiatives at Google.

Mills recalled that at the initial meeting a discussion emerged about which HTTP server to use. "Besides a Web browser you also needed an HTTP server stack," Mills said. And while IBM had one of its own, "the most popular was the Apache Web server, and we made a decision to anchor our effort to Apache because it had 47 percent market share," he said.

Back then the competition in the application server space included companies like Bluestone Software, Silverstream, NetDynamics, Kiva Software, Allaire and WebLogic, which was an independent company then.

Following that initial meeting in his office, Mills sanctioned a small team of about 25 people in Raleigh, N.C., to begin working on the technology that was to become WebSphere.

Chris Wicher, who is now vice president of Mid-Market Solutions in IBM's Software Group, was the original WebSphere product development executive back in January of 1998 when the team began working on the technology.

"When we started WebSphere, the first two releases-in the second quarter of 1998 and the third quarter of 1998-were focused on rapid development and deployment of Web applications supporting HTTP, Servlet and JSP [Java Server Pages] apps," Wicher said. However, "IBM quickly extended WAS [WebSphere Application Server] to transactional applications and beyond, driven by customer needs, and anticipating where companies would want to have extensions to gain more value to their business."

Describing the initial setting, Wicher said, "We started WebSphere in the first quarter of 1998 at the request of Steve Mills, with a small team of IBMers who knew the emerging Web technologies and what customers were trying to do. ... Within six weeks of starting the project, we went back to Steve Mills with a prototype. He quickly absorbed what we had and where we were headed, gave us guidance on leveraging the Apache Web server, created the name, and asked us, 'How fast can you ship this as a formal IBM product?'"

Wicher said his team worked at a furious pace to deliver the first generally available WebSphere release.

"This cycle time for a formal product-from prototype concept to GA in less than four months-was fairly revolutionary in IBM in those days, so everyone on the team assumed multiple roles," Wicher said.

"The managers were working managers, including writing docs, testing, working with customers and doing the product planning. The 'developers' did it all ... design, coding, testing, quality certification, customer betas, pubs, etc. It was like being in an atmosphere where the team was on a quest-high energy, everyone passionate about delivering a real product to market which customers really liked (on an unheard-of schedule).

"The team turned right around and put out a second release three months later. Again, the energy, the 'quest passion' made all obstacles seem insignificant. This is not to say that people were not tired. In this time frame, the managers were bringing in pizzas every night to the team. And the days and nights were long, but the team-generated energy was contagious," he said.

However, despite delivering two versions of WebSphere in 1998, "by the end of the year, customers were saying, 'Our problem is not totally solved,'" Mills said. IBM customers said they wanted their transaction monitoring software and their component broker technology to work alongside their application servers, he said. "They said these three things are different and life could be easier if you gave us one thing." IBM had acquired Transarc, which was the maker of the Encina transaction monitor-which also is where Alfred Spector came from as founder and CEO of Transarc.

So IBM set out to deliver on this request and by 2002 had delivered all the functionality customers were asking for while also extending the technology, Mills said.