Expand online service audience with apt application servers

Shawn P. McCarthy

A few years ago, smart Internet service providers began expanding their core business by hosting Web sites and processing transactions.

The providers already had the necessary high-end computing power and bandwidth.

Smart ones are still expanding, but their new frontier is application services. Cost-conscious government agencies no longer need to hire consulting firms to outsource site hosting or database development. They only need an entrepreneurial provider willing to build and host an app server.

The trend might sound like the old mainframe time-sharing days, but there are big differences. Nowadays you need an established intranet in your office that can mesh nicely with the app server, wherever it is located.

Think of an application server as consummate middleware. In a three-tier hierarchy, it sits between the client and the databases or other services, collecting input from client browsers and querying multiple data sources. An app server might interface with Open Database Connectivity, SQL Server or Oracle Corp. database servers, then turn the results into Web pages on the fly.'

Double duty'

In many cases, the middle tier is in fact two machines, a Web server and an application server. A good provider can host both. The view from the client end is browser-based and relies on forms for data input as well as data mining and report generation.

Application servers are a far less complex part of the mix than the legacy back-end data sources maintained by government agencies. It's easy to integrate app servers with existing configurations because all they do is send calls in a standard format.

The market for this type of service is the small to medium-sized government office that wants to develop its own custom applications. If your office needs such a server, and you already have a decent intranet in place, here are the next steps to take.

' Approach the contractors that supply your Internet access. Do they have development services for Web applications? Can they host them? If you buy access from one of the Federal Technology Service contracts, chances are good that they can.

' Make sure a provider's local loop has enough open bandwidth during business hours to handle your needs. Run tests if you have doubts.

' Keep in mind that heavyweight developers such as IBM Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Sybase Inc. are moving into this space by working with providers. Tap their development expertise more cheaply through a provider than if you hired them as consultants on your own.

' Make a commitment to a set of application development tools. You might already have favorites from an intranet project. If not, look for a rapid app development environment such as Allaire Corp.'s Cold Fusion, at

' Commit to an object framework. Check out JavaBeans and Enterprise JavaBeans at This is the way to go if you're interested in Common Object Request Broker Architecture compliance. If you're a Microsoft shop, look into the three-tiered Component Object Model architecture at

' Install Java-capable browsers if necessary to ensure that your client machines are equipped to handle interactions with the server.

' Make sure the provider understands your business needs and the user interface that your employees will see.

Here are other software resources to consider for setting up an app server:

' Sapphire/Web, a Java-oriented server for Microsoft Windows NT from Bluestone Software Inc., at

' SilverStream, an app server and development environment for NT, SunSoft Solaris or Hewlett-Packard HP-UX, from SilverStream Software Inc., at

' HAHTsite Application Server from Haht Software Inc. at

' GemStone/J, a commerce-focused Java system from Gemstone Systems Inc., at

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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