With an eye on the popularity of Microsoft's software development tools, which can be used to write code for any Windows operating system, IBM earlier this year released as open source the source code on which it is basing its current generation of software development tools.
Called Eclipse, the platform appears to be rapidly gaining momentum, both among software vendors who sell software development tools, and with users drawn to its open source model.
IBM released the code to the open source community in November 2001. Eclipse.org, founded that some month, is a consortium of software companies which includes both major tool vendors such as Rational, Borland, Webgain and Sybase, and open source leaders like SuSe, Red Hat and MontaVista. IBM competitor HP is also a member.
An IDE for anything and nothing in particular
Eclipse is an open source platform for building and integrating tools and middleware -- or, as it's described on the Eclipse.org home page, "a kind of universal tool platform - an open extensible IDE for anything and nothing in particular."
The goal is to provide a vendor-neutral platform that lets software companies -- and individuals -- develop tools that integrate with other tools "so seamlessly you can't tell where one tool ends and another starts."
For IBM, Eclipse was a way of creating an industry-wide platform for Java-based software development that could provide an alternative to Microsoft's development tools, and the looming popularity of .Net.
"One of Microsoft's biggest assets," says Scott Hebner, IBM's director of marketing for WebSphere software, "has been its community of developers. Eclipse is finally the answer to that."
IBM itself is in the process of standardizing all its server and middleware software development tools on Eclipse. The company's WebSphere Studio Java development tool -- formerly VisualAge for Java -- already runs on Eclipse, and Eclipse versions of tools for Lotus Domino, WebSphere Commerce, WebSphere MQ Integrator and other products are due shortly.
Opening up the code base allows others to write modules that supply functionality IBM may not have provided. The modular Eclipse architecture was designed specifically to allow programmers to write "plug-ins" for specific needs. Already, hundreds of plug-ins for various purposes can be downloaded for free from Eclipse.org or other sources.
That worked well for systems integrator Advanced Network Systems, of Annandale, NJ, which was migrating a customer's legacy COBOL manufacturing application from Hewlett-Packard's proprietary 3000 platform to an HP-UX Unix environment.
The firm's consultants used a COBOL compiler running underneath Eclipse to re-compile the code for the Unix environment. "We were then able to write some plug-ins to add functionality that the compiler lacked, which let us migrate databases and files without leaving the Eclipse environment. That cut down the customer's migration time from around three months to less than three weeks," says Advanced Network Systems' president David Thatcher.
Eclipse's open source status also encourages developers to share code they've developed. "We wanted to give a customer the ability to telnet," says Thatcher, "so I did a search on the Web and found a telnet plug-in. We didn't have to modify it at all, just downloaded it and we were up and running."
The modular nature of Eclipse is proving useful to other users. Long-time IBM customer LexisNexis, the Dayton, Ohio-based information publisher, has nearly 200 programmers using IBM's Eclipse-based Java development tool, WebSphere Studio Application Developer (WSAD). Prior to WSAD's release earlier this year, LexisNexis used its previous incarnation IBM's VisualAge for Java. "VisualAge was built around a particular JDK [Java development kit], which you couldn't change," says Bryan Lykins, a senior software engineer at LexisNexis. "With WSAD, the JDK is pluggable, which is an extremely useful feature. It allows our development teams to migrate to a new JDK without waiting for the whole IDE to be updated."