Cyber Networks Need A Lot Of Spackle

Cover Story: Information Technology Annual Report

At the heart of every network is the acre of coding that is software--the stuff that makes the bytes run on time. As corporate computing evolves from the mainframe-centric to the client/server model, the software running it all has had to become an extremely clever jack-of-all-trades, operating on machines from a variety of vendors and processing everything from huge data files to optically scanned images to video presentations. Getting the software right is one of the most important challenges for companies hoping to live the networked life. Here are three kinds of software--middleware, groupware, and security programs--that make it all happen.

BROKERING BABEL: Programs that give networks one voice

The great promise of computer networks has always been flexibility--that they would provide easy access to all sorts of information and electronic services--both within companies and, increasingly, across corporate boundaries. But that very flexibility creates monumental problems for programmers. And where there's a problem, there's an opportunity to create a whole new category of software--or at least a buzzword.

In this case, it's called middleware. The nebulous name relates to its role as a critical middleman, mediating among the many kinds of hardware and software now found on large networks. It is a creature born of chaos, for most corporations today have built, without quite planning to, what the folks in computing call "heterogeneous networks"--sprawling setups containing all sizes and brands of computers and software. In the past, a billing application, say, would have been run on a single mainframe computer and would have relied on software supplied mainly by a single company, most likely IBM. Today, the networked version of that application may need to call on software from a dozen suppliers, whose products may or may not be compatible with one another.

Middleware aims to give this hodgepodge at least the appearance of harmony, even as its individual components change and expand in number over time. That looks to be the main programming challenge of the '90s. Without middleware's ability to pave over the incompatibilities among computers and to accommodate the shifting complexities of big networks, client-server computing networks would grind to a halt. So middleware is hot: Market researcher International Data Corp. forecasts a middleware market that will grow from $50 million last year to as much as $1.7 billion by 2000.

GLOBAL COHABITATION. The more complex the network, the greater the need for middleware. By now, getting a sales department's two-dozen PCs to share files on a small server is practically a no-brainer. All the software one needs can be found at the local computer store. But try getting more than 2,000 computers, ranging from mainframes to all sorts of desktop workstations, to cohabit on a worldwide network--itself made up of numerous subnetworks.

That's the very problem New York investment bank J.P. Morgan & Co. is tackling in an attempt to turn itself into a "real-time operation." Says Jeffrey G. Chittenden, Morgan's chief computer architect: "We want all of our information to be available anytime and anywhere." That means heavy use of middleware, Chittenden says, to help Morgan's programmers create complex new information systems on the fly--in a few minutes, if possible. If historical data can be grabbed from one computer, an econometric analysis pulled in from another, and current pricing information taken from a third, for instance, the company might capture a fleeting trading opportunity or price a new derivative before the competition can. But only if a new set of links can be set up almost immediately.

Morgan's programmers would never get the job done on time if they had to keep track of exactly how each program names, stores, secures, and delivers the data it manages. So Morgan is installing middleware products such as Connection, from Belmont (Calif.) startup Open Horizon. In essence, these products provide programmers anywhere on the network with a menu of "services"--such as data security and directories to locate network resources--that any new program can call on. By delivering common services in a standard format, middleware may raise programmers' productivity by as much as 30%, Chittenden says. Mark Teflian, CEO of Covia Technologies, a leading middleware supplier spun off from United Air Lines' reservation system, agrees: "You want to be able to write applications as if the network weren't there."

"SCREEN SCRAPERS." Making the complex appear simple becomes increasingly important as new types of networks, such as wireless setups, add more protocols to the corporate networking stew. Plus as laptop computers increasingly become a key tool for workers on the road, corporate networks must be able to deliver vital information at unpredictable times and to unpredictable locations--another job for middleware. What's more, these programs can help applications survive network failures by ensuring that important messages don't get lost and--of particular interest to banks processing cash-machine withdrawals--don't get delivered more than once.

Middleware becomes even more crucial as corporate networks start interacting with one another. In building a system to collect clinical health data electronically from thousands of independent doctors, hospitals, laboratories, and pharmacies, for instance, Kaiser Permanente has turned to IBM's MQ Series software. Based on work originally done by New York-based Apertus Technologies Inc., MQ creates a sort of postal system that can move messages and coordinate tasks between 18 incompatible types of computers--including those from IBM's major competitors. At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, MQ helps some 75 member firms, using a variety of computers, exchange trading information with one another.

In fact, many different software products are coming out under the middleware sobriquet. These range from so-called screen scrapers, which let PCs pretend to be mainframe terminals, to AT&T's Top End. That program, a so-called transaction monitor, keeps track of transactions between computers to make sure they are completed the way they are supposed to be.

All of these programs try to marry the old to the new, the near to the distant, and the proprietary to the open--and, of course, to make networks easier to program. If a network starts delivering on that promise of easy access to any information anywhere at anytime, you can bet middleware is on the case.

GROUP THERAPY: Why IBM paid all that loot for Lotus

How much is it worth to own the software that really lets groups of workers take advantage of computer networks--to collaborate as easily across the globe as down the hall? Try $3.5 billion. That's what IBM is shelling out for Lotus Development Corp., the roughly $1 billion software maker best known for its popular 1-2-3 spreadsheet. The prize is Lotus Notes, the defining product in an emerging category of software known as "groupware," so called because it's designed for sharing information among members of a group.

What's the big deal? IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr., a devout Notes user himself, sees an opportunity to turn the competitive focus away from operating systems--where IBM has had little luck slugging it out against Microsoft Corp.--to building the computer industry's next generation of networked information systems.

SEAMLESS PACKAGE. Groupware is actually a catch-all term encompassing products ranging from fancy E-mail systems to scheduling programs to electronic bulletin-board software. The most sophisticated groupware packages have advanced features for automating the flow of work, routing documents, or allowing far-flung people to collaborate on a single document at the same time.

So what makes Lotus Notes stand out in the world of groupware? While many products tackle pieces of the puzzle--scheduling or shared databases, say--Notes is a comprehensive, seamless package. It can also be customized and used as a "platform" upon which to build additional applications--for managing a remote sales force, for instance. That has attracted many large organizations--such as Price Waterhouse, General Motors, and Compaq Computer--that need to connect widely dispersed workers but want a system tailored to their needs.

Take Andersen Consulting. The $3.45 billion consulting firm built a system based on Notes called Knowledge Exchange, which serves some 20,000 consultants around the world. When Andersen had only a few people working in a particular area, it was easy to know which one of them to call for advice, explains Charles M. Paulk, Andersen's chief information officer. Today, Andersen has over 30,000 employees worldwide, and the Notes system, says Paulk, "is how we keep up with ideas and developments around the world."

QUICK SOLUTIONS. Knowledge Exchange, which Andersen launched three years ago, now consists of over 2,000 databases that consultants can tap into. Each specialized group has a database on the system and a "page" summarizing its contents and any relevant news. As employees add to their database, they build a library to store the group's collective experience and knowledge. So when a question relating to a project arises, consultants can check the Notes database to find an answer quickly. Employees can also use Notes for electronic consultations with each other. The result: Problems that once took two weeks and thousands of dollars to figure out are solved overnight, says Paulk.

No wonder sales of groupware programs are taking off. Workgroup Technologies Inc., a Hampton (N.H.) researcher, predicts that sales of groupware packages of all types will more than double, to $4.2 billion by 1999, from just over $2 billion in 1994. Why? Because "every networked PC," is a potential customer, says Raymond E. Ozzie, the programmer who created Notes and the president of Lotus' unit, Iris Associates. So, the groupware gold rush is on. Startups like Collabra Software and Mesa Group, as well as giants Novell, Oracle, and Microsoft are jumping in. Microsoft's Exchange groupware package is due out by yearend.

Notes, on the market since 1990, has the edge. A whole industry of developers, consultants, and systems integrators has evolved to help customize and install the program for some 1.5 million users. And IBM is prepared to back the product with its global sales force and legions of consultants.

In theory, that could propel Notes into a central role in thousands of corporate networks--giving it greater strategic importance than any PC operating system. In reality, for Notes to compete with the Windows juggernaut, it must become a standard. Notes Version 4.0, due later this year, will help. The upgrade will give Notes a sleeker user interface and make it easier for network administrators to manage. But more important, it will be better suited for sharing information beyond one company, whether over the Internet or over private networks. The new version will be able to serve thousands of users and make it easier for one company to grant another access to its Notes server.

The big boost, however, could come from Network Notes, a version being adapted to work across AT&T's long-distance network. Call it groupware on steroids. Already, companies such as Compaq and Egghead Software are testing Network Notes to share information with customers, partners, and field offices. IBM plans a similar system, pairing Notes with the IBM Global Network, which serves 25,000 corporations.

The lure of Notes on these private networks, says Lotus, is that it will provide the far-flung access of the Internet without the chaos or risk. Like the Internet itself, Notes is now mainly a means for disseminating information--say, product and pricing data to customers. But in its beefed-up, long-distance version, it could be used for electronic commerce--for buying and selling everything from industrial goods to the latest fashions.

The biggest competition from Notes may not be other groupware programs, but the Internet. The Net's World Wide Web is already being used as a sort of poor man's Notes. "The World Wide Web will do more than Notes," says Robert D. Kutnick, chief technology officer at Quarterdeck Office Systems Inc., which is developing Web-server software. And it's cheap. For less than $500, he says, you can set up a Web server for an entire corporate network--much less than $275 per workstation it would cost with Notes.

Still, no Internet setup has yet matched all the useful features of Notes. One of the most difficult to duplicate is replication, which ensures that even if there are thousands of users, they all have the latest version of a document or database. And like everybody else in the high-tech world, Lotus has figured that the only way to beat the Internet is to join it. Notes 4.0 will tap into the Net and convert Notes databases into the Web format known as HTML (hypertext markup language). The payoff of combining groupware and the Internet--two of the hottest technologies around--could even be worth a $3.5 billion bet.

HACKER HEAVEN: So many computers, so few safeguards

Ever since armed men guarded the "electronic brains" that cracked Nazi codes, securing data against theft and tampering has been a concern in computing. With today's distributed computing networks, though, it's enormously more difficult to keep unauthorized users out and data secure. Networks, as the Office of Technology Assessment reported to Congress last year, "can make every user essentially an `insider"' with the potential to clobber vital information systems.

It's enough to make you want to yank out those network wires. But that won't be necessary, experts say, if businesses adopt a new approach to network security. With so many modems and local-area network (LAN) connections installed on so many PCs, and with private and corporate connections to the Internet proliferating, companies must take it for granted that every computer on the planet can now reach and possibly meddle with any other--and will, if appropriate protection isn't in place. "We assume that everyone is a hacker," says Carmine Villani, vice-president of information management at McKesson Corp., a drug wholesaler. "That's the only way."

The range of security measures for PCs and LANs is expanding daily. Devices originally designed for spy agencies are now standard corporate issue. Security Dynamics Technologies Inc. and LeeMah Datacom Security Corp., among others, supply pocket-size cards that generate a brand new password every minute. Biometric devices can now identify people by the size of their hands, patterns in retinal blood vessels, or the dynamics of their voice or handwriting.

Connecting your network to the hugely popular Internet opens it to potentially millions of largely unidentifiable visitors--of whom, you can be sure, at least a few are malicious, and even criminal, hackers. To keep the bad guys out while still allowing insiders full access to the Internet, many organizations are setting up "firewalls"--gateway computers programmed to block unwanted traffic arriving from the Net. "It's like having a big bouncer at the door," says Rick Tinsley, assistant vice-president at the Vivid Business Unit of Newbridge Networks Inc., a maker of networking hardware.

To keep information away from prying eyes as it moves beyond the local network, companies are also encrypting their traffic with secret codes, or keys. This raises a new issue: When millions of individuals and corporate entities are doing business in cyberspace, each using a unique key, who will manage all of those keys? Who'll keep official record of them? A government agency, perhaps, such as the post office, or a private company? "No one's done this for 100,000 people, much less a million," says Geoffrey Baehr, chief network officer at workstation maker Sun Microsystems Inc. "It smells like an opportunity to me."

One company that has seized the opportunity is Northern Telecom Ltd. The phone-equipment maker now sells a program called Entrust that, besides helping manage large numbers of keys and protecting network traffic against snoops, makes sure messages arrive intact and verifies that senders are who they say they are.

Indeed, network security is a field rife with opportunity--and unknowns. Baehr and his colleagues at Sun are working on strategies for countering so-called denial-of-service attacks. Using a powerful computer, an adversary could effectively shut down a company's Internet server by bombarding it with false messages. One solution: a new breed of firewall system programmed to continuously look out for and then block such threats. It just shows: For every solution in cyberspace, there's always another problem to solve.

Groping For Groupware

IBM After years of trying to create its own groupware programs, Big Blue is purchasing the king of groupware: Lotus Development. Notes, Lotus' crown jewel, is now used by 1.5 million customers,making it the clear leader.

MICROSOFT The PC software powerhouse is still struggling with the development of its own groupware contender,


NOVELL Leveraging its strength in networking, Novell is building programs, such as Groupwise, to work over


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