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20 years of innovation: WebSphere Application Server

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websphere application server innovationBack in 1998, during the Wild West days of the internet, a small team of developers saw an opportunity to take the IBM core competency of transactional processing and merge it with the then still-evolving World Wide Web. Back then, the majority of companies were only using the web for publishing purposes, but IBM sought to take this a step further and transform the web into a platform where businesses could run transactions and operate their services.

This revolutionary idea led to the launch of the WebSphere brand and helped propel the marketplace towards e-business solutions in the late 1990s. WebSphere would not only transform the marketplace, but also IBM. Big Blue was no longer just a computer hardware-centric company. It was now also a leading innovative software and services company.

Setting the standard toward digital transformation

During the launch of WebSphere, most companies were focused on creating their own proprietary platforms and ecosystems that just supported their own applications. This business model of selling proprietary, off-the-shelf software that comes with restrictive licenses did not allow for cross-platform compatibility and application interoperability. This made it hard for businesses to optimize their processes and work easily with each other.

For example, a healthcare provider would have struggled with different technologies, development languages and protocols while trying to do things such as exchanging medical information, pulling queries, providing verifications, implementing billing and more. WebSphere provided a solid and consistent Java foundation onto which these processes could be built into reliable and transformational mission-critical applications. In the process, IBM worked to drive open standards that facilitated an entire industry and ecosystem.

IBM made the critical decision in the ’90s to establish Java as a part of the enterprise landscape as co-authors with Sun and other companies on the original Java Enterprise platform. At that time the promise of e-business over the World Wide Web was constrained by the huge stress on the IT infrastructure. Web servers running serialized CGI scripts in front of the back-ends couldn’t scale. A middle tier was needed both to support a larger concurrent load delivered through the web servers and to reduce the work running in the mainframes. Mainframes and databases continued to house the real business data, but the cost of processing the data, combining multiple sources of data, and presenting it to a new sort of client needed somewhere less expensive to run. WebSphere Application Server put enterprise Java servers in a new, three-tier architecture and transformed the way customers did business, enabling the first steps of the digital transformation.

The launch of WebSphere Network Deployment (ND) in the early 2000s established WebSphere as a platform as a service before “PaaS” had even been coined as a term. It included centralized deployment, management and monitoring of enterprise applications and the virtualized WebSphere middleware that supported them. The mantra of “more with less” was established with dynamic clustering optimizing the use of middle tier hardware and caching to localize data near the applications to remove load and cost from back-end systems.

Robust and scalable support in WebSphere for enterprise transactions established it as the IBM platform for service-oriented architecture (SOA) in the 2000s with innovation layered throughout, from the underlying JVM up to the business process management, event and decision management and data processing solutions built on top. WebSphere Application Server became the foundational component of the IBM WebSphere brand, providing the application hosting environment for hundreds of IBM products and offerings.

Give me Liberty or give me death

Just as WebSphere was at the forefront of three-tier architectures and SOA, WebSphere innovation created the first commercially available componentized lightweight enterprise Java server, designed from the ground up for the best developer experience and for deployment to the cloud. WebSphere Liberty was first introduced in 2012 (as part of WebSphere V8.5).

Liberty continues to beat competitive enterprise Java servers on footprint size (less than 60 megabytes), startup time (three seconds) and highest throughput. It continues the theme of “doing more with less.”

WebSphere Liberty is the Java runtime for IBM Cloud, included with IBM Cloud Private as the core runtime for cloud-native Java applications. Liberty already made history by being the first commercially supported microservices runtime for Eclipse MicroProfile in 2017.

Open source runtime for Java microservices

Liberty is designed to be easy to use with Docker and, to date, WebSphere Liberty has more than 7 million Docker downloads. Last year, with input from customers and others in the industry, we decided to make our Liberty platform even more timely and responsive to developer and industry needs by open sourcing our Liberty Java EE and MicroProfile runtime. The creation of the Open Liberty project was the largest single open source contribution in IBM history and is where ongoing development of WebSphere Liberty happens.

At the same time, the IBM team moved ongoing development of the IBM Java Virtual Machine (JVM) into a new Eclipse OpenJ9 project to provide a completely open Java stack from the JVM all the way to the application. We believe the combination of Java, open standards and open source is the best way to enable millions of developers who take an open source-first strategy to create amazing applications. Solutions built with Open Liberty can be deployed with confidence into production and can be supported by IBM if associated with a WebSphere Liberty license.

The best way to predict the future is to create it

The main goal for WebSphere is to continuously break down barriers and help organizations succeed in today’s multicloud world. We have gone from successfully standardizing Java and changing how businesses create, build and deploy applications on premises to also doing so in any cloud environment. And with Liberty, we are developing in the open. Just one example of which is delivering Java EE 8 as part of the open source Open Liberty project.

The WebSphere of today enables companies to develop, launch and optimize applications across on-premises and cloud environments. It delivers the lowest total cost of ownership and continues to provide an environment for applications that can start simply and grow into mission-critical game changers for their companies.

Like a fine wine, WebSphere has gotten better with age and will continue to transform with industry-leading technologies. Cheers to the next 20 years.

To learn more about how WebSphere continues to innovate, register for an upcoming WebSphere Liberty 18.0.0.2 vPOT session to see the new things we’re doing with Java EE 8, Spring Boot and cloud environments.

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