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Liferay evolving beyond portals – the app server vacuum – Quick Analysis

Liferay West Coast Symposium, Day 1

A new Liferay portal releases provides a good chance to ponder the state of runtimes in the Java world.

Open source portal vendor Liferay has just released a new version, building out the platform around the popular portal it’s been putting out for years. CMS Critic has a good wrap-up of the features in the new 6EE release. As with much of the Java world now, the ideas of an application server, a portal, a container, and a general platform have run together nicely for Liferay. The same is true for many others in the field since the iron-grip of the J(2)EE went arthritic awhile ago.

Think of the bucket of everything that Spring does, the opening up of the VM to run other languages, like the darlings of last year, Scala and Erlang. JEE has turned into a buffet finicky programers can pick from, not a suite of The Frameworks Ye Shall Use. On the whole, this is good as the standard, official Java world wasn’t really keeping pace with the fast evolving ideas coming from the consumer web – from the non-enterprise world.

The Motherhood and Apple-pie

Liferay vs. Brand X

Liferay seems to have done well with it’s strategy of keeping pace of “social” and the basics of portal needs. This is probably due to being open source and, as a company and project, scrappier than it’s rival products from Oracle, IBM, and JBoss. There’s a refreshing sense of simplicity in their messaging, e.g., a 215 meg runtime instead of “boxes of DVDs.” And, of course, there’s the promise of being cheaper than Brand X, often much cheaper. Their client list – with no shortage of big names – would seem testimony to the success of that strategy.

Being here at the Symposium in Anaheim, I can see that the Liferay folks and community itself (represented in something over a 100 attendees, I believe) have a nicely evolved open source warm-and-fuzzy feeling, at the same time being unashamedly open core. They’re all nicely earnest. (And, hey, it’s always nice to be in California to get one of these.)

From speaking with the Phurnace pholks before they were acquired by BMC, there’s a brisk business going on migrating from closed-source portals (IBM’s and Oracle/BEA’s) to open source ones, JBoss, Liferay, and co. CMO Paul Hinz used the phrase “end of feature” life as a jab at incumbent portal offerings that may not be End-of-Life, but are stagnant in their development. Clearly, in the portal space, Liferay is looking to pick up migrate-to-cheap portal projects. At the same time, they’re hoping to offer a harbor for Java developers, most of which are casting about for the platform to standardize on.

Write once, configure everywhere

As James pointed out recently, Java is far from “dead.”. Indeed, Java is finding much use as the basis for new middleware:

So the cool kids aren’t using Java. Or are they? One of the hottest trends in tech right now is NoSQL (If you’re a software developer get acquainted with it). Many of the hottest NoSQL technologies are written in Java.
MapReduce – one of the core technologies Google and Yahoo use for fast response times across large data sets is Java-based. A whole new industry ecosystem is growing around Hadoop, Apache’s MapReduce implementation. Ask our client Mike Olson fromCloudera if Java is dead. What about HBase? Java… Neo4J? Java. And so on. Of course we’re also seeing innovation from the new hotness – thus Erlang underpins CouchDB and RIAK. But Java is certainly core to the innovation. Lets look at RabbitMQ for example – which though written in Erlang was acquired by SpringSource as a messaging engine to underpin a Java-based programming model.

And that’s just the category of NoSQL. Sure, there’s plenty of folks who are happy to be liberated from Java – the post Rails world blew that sentiment door off the hinges.

What’s clear, though, is that Java is being used as a base language for larger runtimes and middleware, rather than a ends-to-itself, a walled community of its own. The idea of an “application server” is being eliminated, component by component. In eliminating that idea there’s a huge vacuum when it comes to the runtime developers use to house their projects.

Liferay, like so many others, is starting to move into this vacuum. The likes of VMWare/SpringSource are betting the farm on it (and looking good), while RedHat/JBoss, IBM, and Oracle/BEA/Sun are casting about to keep up. (An interesting non-Java example is MindTouch.) It’s clear that a highly component-driven runtime is needed (OSGi seems to have won out, if by sheer exhaustion in the Java Modularization War, largely forgotten): a “stackless stack,” as us RedMonks wickedly like to repeat. Open source seems required as well, if only to drive that extreme simplicity that, for whatever reason, commercial middleware is deadly allergic to. Hint: enterprises will pay cash-money for complexity, tragically, they’ll pay little, if anything, for simplicity. And once bought in, the pace of innovation isn’t always the same as that frenzied period of finding a “solution.”

PaaS and Mobile

In-n-out dug outs

In the wider spectrum, the ongoing evolution of Platform-as-a-Services and mobile drives both this application server vacuum and the search for a replacement. In the PaaS world, the PaaS is your runtime:, Intuit’s Partner Platform, Azure, Google App Engine, and various other apps ecosystems. In mobile, while there are several frameworks out there, it’s too early for developers to coalesce around a short list of them: rolling your own is still popular and, let’s be frank, until Android produces an app-bubble, developing in Object-C is the top concern of mobile developers. (Object-C!)

And, to call on the distinction between ISV and corporate developers from earlier today, while ISVs as always (well, since the web, at least) can sort out their own needs, the sense I get is that corporate developers are further out to sea when it comes to PaaSes, mobile, and even the search for a runtime. For vendors, this means it’s a great chance to insert your foot into the runtime door – when things are in flux is the time to cement your future shackles of success.


Disclosure: Liferay is a client and paid my travel and hotel to here. IBM, VMWare, RedHat, SalesForce, MindTouch, and IBM are clients as well. See the RedMonk client list for related folks as well.

Categories: Conferences, Java, Quick Analysis.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] I wrote up more on Liferay right after their West Coast Symposium, where this video was […]

  2. […] the “good, old fashioned” portal features in the most recent Liferay offering.Also, I wrote up more on Liferay right after their West Coast Symposium, where this video was shot.Disclosure: Liferay is a client, […]