IBM signals maturity of enterprise mash-ups

An assortment of vendors released enterprise mash-up development tools during last week's Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, but those announcements gained additional resonance from news that broke about two weeks ago, when IBM announced a pair of mash-up -related product releases.

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"Anytime IBM gets into something, it usually calms people down as something safe to use in their business," said Michael Coté, an analyst with Redmonk last week.

Generally speaking, mash-ups are applications that combine data from a number of sources and present them through a rich user interface. They are meant to be built quickly and easily, and in many cases accessed over the Web. The concept first took hold with consumer-oriented applications that mashed publicly available data sources, such as Google Maps and event listings.

Today, there are a plethora of APIs (application programming interfaces) available, and an array of companies -- including large players like BEA and TIBCO -- are selling enterprise-focused tools.

The market is even showing subdivisions. Some vendors, such as SnapLogic, are focusing on data integration. Many others, often lumped into the RIA (rich Internet application) category, deal more with the presentation layer.

IBM's entry centers on two products: Mash-up Centre, a development environment aimed at non-technical business users that entered beta on April 15, and WebSphere sMash, a more robust toolset for developers that enables the use of dynamic scripting languages. It is based on the previously announced Project Zero effort. IBM will release the commercial product later this year.

While the products may not offer anything fundamentally new and follow years of work by other companies, the fact that a vendor of IBM's weight is pushing a broad set of mash-up tools could be proof the space has truly arrived, company officials and observers suggested.

"There comes a time when you have to place your bets," said Larry Bowden, vice president of portals at IBM. "With the force of our announcement, we're making a bet here."

"IBM's announcement substantiates the market," said John Crupi, chief technology officer of JackBe, an enterprise mash-up vendor that is launching the 2.0 version of its Presto platform this week.

But JackBe is well-prepared to compete, he said. "We are built as a pluggable part of the stack. We're very lightweight and very agile and can play with heterogeneous vendors."

JackBe has managed to get some heavy-duty customers to use its tools. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency created Project "Overwatch," a dashboard-like application that integrates and correlates various intelligence-related data.

Bob Gourley was chief technology officer at the US Defense Intelligence Agency during the project's creation. The DIA was drawn to mash-up -style development due to one of the concept's central promises -- speed.

"For the end-user, it is speed in getting data. We don't want to wait hours for data to end up on someone's desktop," said Gourley, who is now principal of Crucial Point LLC, a consultancy.

"Another component of speed is the speed to deliver something," he added. "In the military and intelligence community, we have been pioneers in displaying information over terrain and maps and letting people interact with it. But that was all hard-coded -- that would take years to build something like that."

While the DIA found a place for mash-ups within its IT strategy, enterprises shouldn't buy first and develop later, said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst with Zapthink, a consultancy focused on SOA (service-oriented architecture).

"[Mash-ups are] really a solution looking for a problem," he said. "It's great to be able to put your pizza places on a Google map, but what good is it?"

One clear-cut role for mas-ups has emerged, he said. "Mas-ups are becoming killer-use cases for SOA," Bloomberg said. "You can show a mas-hup -based solution to an executive and they'll get it."

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