Skip to main content
Icons of Progress


IBM100 Websphere iconic mark

In 1997, most companies were just beginning to understand how fundamental the web would become to the way businesses operated. Meanwhile, one of the key components of web operations—software to build, run and manage web-based applications—was just beginning to take shape. The way the web would work, and how people could work through it, was about to change profoundly.

A small team of IBM developers, working as fast as possible in just a few months, built what they would call—at the last minute, before a developer conference—IBM ® WebSphere ® .

The rise of the WebSphere brand—beginning with the WebSphere Application Server in 1998—parallels the evolution of the web itself from static pages, sites and content to today’s landscape of dynamic services, programs and real-time processing of all kinds of data and media. Application servers, with WebSphere Application Server as a leading example, are how the web has been transformed into a platform for actual computing.

From Wall Street to Main Street, application servers paved the way for virtually all commerce to become electronic, and for every dimension of business operations, including customer relations, accounting, and HR, to become web-enabled.

In the late 1990s, IBM called this big shift “e-business,” and started remaking itself around the idea to better help its clients make the transition as well. The WebSphere brand was one of the key catalysts for IBM’s evolution from a hardware-centric company to one focused on software and services.

Over the next dozen years, the WebSphere brand of products evolved far beyond its start as an application server. It became IBM’s foundation for the layer of software known as middleware that enables web applications and computer operating systems to interoperate. And it would become a cornerstone for a new enterprise computing paradigm known as service-oriented architecture, or SOA.

Today, the WebSphere line encompasses almost all areas of business: application integration, business process management and e-commerce, just to name a few.

As Steve Mills, senior vice president of IBM Software Group and the executive who oversaw WebSphere product development notes, “It’s far more than just a product. The mechanism is so fundamental to the way in which commercial applications work that you’d be very hard pressed today to think about IBM strategies without WebSphere.”

In late 1997, Mills—then general manager of IBM Software Solutions—brought his senior leaders together to consider the new application server business taking shape.

At the time, the first wave of dot-com startups were igniting interest in the disruptive power of the web, but existing businesses and industries were not yet certain how such new technologies and IT infrastructure would flow into the mainstream.

One of those unconventional technologies was the open-source Apache Web Server. In 1997, it had become the leading choice for web developers. Meanwhile IBM had embraced the open-source Linux ® operating system and the broader open-source movement. Those trends and tailwinds led the team to make an unconventional decision: to build the WebSphere Application Server on top of the collaboratively developed, non-proprietary Apache software. The radical idea underlying that choice was that customers would pay for open-source software if valuable functionality was added to it.

As Mills told CRN magazine in 2005, “We wanted to leverage [Apache] as a standard and move beyond it by adding value through open- and non-open-source code to deliver a more complete application server. It is a model we have repeated over and over.”

Within IBM, the choice to anchor WebSphere Application Server on Apache was somewhat controversial because of work by IBMers to develop a commercial web server.

Another surprising strategic decision was for the WebSphere Application Server to support the Java ® programming language, which had been developed by a competitor, Sun Microsystems. But the ability for Java applications to be written once and then run on different operating systems was another sign of how open standards and open-source software were changing the IT landscape and IBM strategies. In fact, IBM would not only build the WebSphere products to work with the Java language, it would eventually develop a sophisticated reference specification for the language, Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE™).

The WebSphere Application Server began taking shape in early 1998 with a team of a few dozen IBM developers in Raleigh, NC, led by Chris Wicher and Sue Wallenborn. IBM Research also began work on a key component, the “servlet” engine. They made remarkably fast progress, building the first version in just four months. And they turned around a second version only three months later.

As Mills recalls, after the team delivered the first version of WebSphere Application Server, “we decided to incorporate both sophisticated transaction processing and message brokering functions into the product.” Over the next decade, the WebSphere line would evolve from its application server roots to become a broader brand for handling the most complex integration challenges.

That array of tools and technologies helps companies manage the rules and logic built into their business processes, as well as the messaging and communications systems to coordinate increasingly complex IT infrastructure. These capabilities are providing the backbone of many Smarter Planet projects today and helping businesses embrace cloud computing.

By 2006, the WebSphere brand helped IBM become the leader in the US$18 billion middleware business. And it led IBM’s march to become the world’s second largest software company today.

For the WebSphere brand’s tenth anniversary in 2008, Craig Hayman, then vice president of WebSphere in the Application and Integration Middleware Software Division, told E-Week: “In the early days we took WebSphere from an idea to a product, then from a product to a platform, and then from a platform to an SOA [service-oriented architecture] portfolio.”

Today, middleware is essential for integrating new capabilities into existing business systems, or linking different applications together for better performance or cost savings. And it’s why more than 100,000 companies worldwide use WebSphere products and more than 10,000 companies build applications that work with WebSphere products.

As the WebSphere line has expanded into a global ecosystem of users and developers, the way in which it continues to be revised and extended has also evolved. Today WebSphere is a product portfolio that is enabled by global integration, with more than 6000 IBM developers in 80 locations collaborating on new capabilities in business analytics and optimization.

“In terms of technology,” said Steve Mills, “it truly has turned out to be one of the more important ideas that we ever had as a company.”