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November 13, 1997updated 03 Sep 2016 6:49pm


By CBR Staff Writer

Has a group of ex-Sun computing jocks crafted the ultimate systems integration platform? Given that little more than one in ten information systems projects is completed on time and within budget, it can be safely asserted that systems integration, the art of making disparate computing elements work together, remains a challenging and capricious exercise. The increasingly complex and fast-changing nature of the systems that corporations are implementing, however, has generally discouraged vendors from developing complete, packaged software that might take the sting out of large-scale integration. Instead, most companies are left grappling with a confusing mix of middleware products from multiple suppliers, many of which need to be managed by armies of expensive consultants – often with dismal results. That is why Santa Clara-based Active Software, a 45-person software company specializing in the automation of systems integration tasks, claims its closest competitors are not middleware companies such as BEA Software or Iona Technologies, but the big consulting companies such as Andersen Consulting and IBM Global Services, which thrive on large integration projects.

By Graeme Burton

Set-up in November 1995 by veterans of Sun Microsystems’ distributed computing labs, Active Software claims its ActiveWeb systems integration package can help users cut the cost of integration projects to a tenth of that charged by the consulting giants, with typical implementation times measured in months rather than years. At the heart of ActiveWeb is Information Broker, a server-based platform for hooking together client/server applications, legacy systems, databases and more modern systems based on object request brokers. It mediates requests to and from networked clients, automatically queuing, filtering and routing ‘events’ and guaranteeing the delivery of each event. At the same time, ActiveWeb Adapters tie in various information resources – such as SQL databases – to the Information Broker, mapping the native format of the resource to ActiveWeb events. The overall aim is to cut the complexity and volume of coding involved in system integration projects – users buy plug-in modules to do most of that work and configure them accordingly using Active’s suite of tools. The product itself has to be flexible because every integration is different and so it’s constructed like a set of building blocks. People buy the building blocks they need and plug them together, explains Jim Green, Active Software’s co-founder and CEO. It is an attractive set of claims, but one that is drawing some skepticism from analysts. Active’s cost and time calculations are overstated, says Roy Scholte, an analyst with the Gartner Group. I think the real benefit of using their approach comes after [the installation of the

system] when you want to add additional applications and when you want to make changes to the original set-up, he says.

Building blocks

But if the reference to building blocks is meant to make the technology sound easy to use, again, Scholte of Gartner disagrees. There’s a lot of configuration and there’s a lot of writing custom bits of program logic that will interface between the application program and the ActiveWeb software, he says. Venture capitalists seem unconcerned by such criticisms. Green says he was able to find funding for the company in just two months. We gave presentations to four venture capital companies and three of them – Kleiner Perkins, Enterprise Partners and Sierra Ventures – wanted in, he says. That seed capital amounted to $4m, while a second round of funding in April this year raised an additional $7m. However, its funding has led to one common misconception. Because the company was one of the first to receive money from ‘the Java Fund’ established by Kleiner Perkins with money from Oracle, Sun and IBM among others, many observers assumed its software must be entirely written in Java. Not so. Depending on what we’re attempting to do we might program in a variety of languages, says Green. Kleiner Perkins invested in us because we can integrate Java with the enterprise, he says. To date, ActiveWeb’s building blocks are mainly written in C, C++ and Cobol rather than Java, but all of its tools are Java-based. According to Green, ActiveWeb’s small, direct sales staff have typically been targeting large IT departments, trying to show them the folly of using large systems integrators: The integrators say, ‘Well, it will take about two years and about $2m’. Then we go in and say: ‘We think it will take about two months and about $200,000’, says Green. Big US customers captured in the first year include Boeing, Federal Express and the US Department of Transportation.

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Green is reluctant to reveal exact revenue figures to date, beyond claiming expected sales of several million dollars for this year. With the average contract bringing in about $200,000, though, it is unlikely to have more than 25 to 30 customers by the end of the year. But Scholte believes that the potential market for Active could be huge. I have to say, the whole area is very hot, he says, but I think that the market will be highly competitive and Active aren’t that unique. The company will face stiff competition, for example, from Neon Software, he says, which markets a middleware suite called NeoNet. I think Active has a very good technology vision. The hard part is going to be marketing, because only the leading edge enterprises understand this type of technology, says Scholte. If Active can get that marketing message right, the rewards could be substantial. The growth rates in this area can be geometric, says Scholte.

This article originally appeared in Computer Business Review.

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