IBM snags DataPower for app-level networking

DataPower may help Big Blue disperse XML technology across the network

In case you haven't noticed, IBM's WebSphere group is building a one-stop middleware conglomerate, adding products and acquiring small companies at a furious pace. Today, the WebSphere brand doesn't just refer to IBM's J2EE application server but to a full-fledged middleware integration platform.

Last week, the WebSphere group announced its intention to acquire Web services appliance maker DataPower. At first glance, this acquisition simply adds another tick mark to the WebSphere feature set. There are some interesting twists, however.

To begin with, it's not every day that a software group purchases a hardware vendor. DataPower's appliances are basically application-level routers for Web services. In fact, DataPower's primary piece of intellectual property is a chip set for XML processing, and its products center on that chip set. Furthermore, DataPower's heritage is networking -- and that heritage shows in InfoWorld's review of three XML firewalls. DataPower's offering was clearly the most datacenter-ready of the bunch.

With IBM's entry, the idea of combining XML-based Web services with networking gains more credibility. Web services are unique in providing a standards-based view of application-level APIs, enabling messages between applications to be managed by intermediaries. If you believe Gartner, Web services will provide the basis for 80 percent of new software development projects by 2008. WSIs (Web services intermediaries) will be critical to most of those -- and hardware appliances are an important part of that mix due to their perceived simplicity of operation.

The key word is "perceived," because configuring multiple devices scattered around the network can be a real headache. So here's the synergy in this deal: IBM could add real value to DataPower's appliances by using WebSphere as the integration infrastructure for DataPower devices. On the flip side, DataPower's XML-savvy chips and software could migrate out of appliances and into other form factors such as blades, widely dispersing application-level routing across the network.

This emerging market hasn't been lost on Cisco and others. Last June, Cisco launched an AON (application-oriented networking) initiative. Intel is also in this game, having recently purchased Sarvega, another XML appliance vendor. IBM's decision to buy one of the leaders in this space signals its intention to compete head-to-head for this future business. (Interestingly, IBM's press release on the acquisition doesn't mention AON, perhaps in an effort to try to maintain its friendly relationship with Cisco.)

Not surprisingly, other vendors in the WSI space see IBM's acquisition as legitimizing the market in a big way. As Frank Martinez, chairman and CEO of WSI vendor Blue Titan remarked: "Application-level service networking just became incredibly valuable and interesting."