App development tools ease move to the Web

Organizations such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, Calif., have found that one tool won't fill all their needs. As a result, vendors have begun to assemble groups of tools, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Studio, IBM Corp.'s Visual Age and Sybase Inc.'s PowerStudio.

"The best tools enable users to share information and components, not just a common look and feel," said Steve Clark, vice president of enterprise application development tools at Sybase, Emeryville, Calif.

Los Alamos runs a broad mix of systems, databases and desktop client systems. For several years Los Alamos has turned to PowerBuilder, from Sybase's Powersoft Division, to build client/server applications.

One of these applications, a procurement program called Procurement Desktop, developed by American Management Systems Inc. (AMS), Fairfax, Va., was renovated extensively so the requisitioning, workflow and reporting components could be migrated to the Web.

The contracting module was not converted because only 100 users write contracts. Instead, all 7,000 users at Los Alamos wanted to order supplies, check on the status of orders or monitor their supply expenses.

"They needed access to subsets of the function in [the] procurement application to gain better insights into their procurement needs," said Jeff Modell, Los Alamos' AMS project manager.

Because the users had a variety of client systems with Windows, Unix and Macintosh operating systems, a new solution had to be found. "We moved the key pieces of the PowerBuilder code to a middle tier and then developed a front end in Java," Modell said. That way, all the users could run the application through their browsers and access the procurement application functions, which now reside as PowerBuilder components, on an application server. Meanwhile, the rest of the procurement application remains on a back-end relational database.

Los Alamos renovated its procurement application with the help of at least three PowerBuilder tools that have since evolved into Sybase PowerStudio. The Sybase PowerJ Java tool, for example, enabled Los Alamos to "write once and debug everywhere, which is still simpler than writing the code over and over for each client platform," Modell said.

And Los Alamos also incorporated a middle-tier transaction server, Sybase's Jaguar, to handle business transactions of the system.

The Flexibility Factor

The advantages of the Internet and intranets in terms of cost, speed and flexibility have led to an explosion of their use. International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm, predicts there will be 133 million intranet users worldwide by 2001. Also, 59 percent of U.S. organizations have an intranet, and by year's end that is expected to increase to 77 percent.

Web deployment of former client/server-based applications is beneficial because it makes an application accessible to multiple client platforms, eliminating the need to worry about Windows 95 vs. Windows NT or Unix clients. This cross-platform functionality enables users to access functions from anywhere, unlike a traditional client/server environment.

Also in contrast to client/server applications, all changes to an application on the Web can be done on the Web server, which saves time and resources because newly coded programs don't need to be loaded on each desktop system. Instead, the browser on each client system allows applications to be run over any Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol network from the Web server. This feature is what has enabled the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop and maintain a Web-based list of lead assessment and abatement contractors in the last two years.

The information on certified contractors in all 50 states is compiled daily from data collected in a variety of formats— including client/server databases and even Microsoft Word documents— from each state. HUD provides this critical information to the public via the Web, and there is also special phone and fax access to update the public about new contractors and regulations regarding lead levels.

When the project was started more than two years ago, Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and its Domino development environment "provided the only reliable means to compile the information from each state and translate that into [Hypertext Markup Language]-readable pages on our Web site," said Matthew Ammon, technical assistance specialist for HUD's Office of Lead Hazard Control.

Several vendors said there is almost no difference in programming when a user deploys an application on the Web vs. on a standard client/server platform.

Oracle Corp.'s Designer/2000, for example, was built for developing client/server and Web applications, said Abinash Tripathy, technologist at Oracle Government, Education and Health, Bethesda, Md. Programmers do not need to write additional code to deploy a client/server application on the Web. Of course, this means Web applications do not support any platform-specific standards, such as Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding technology.

"Oracle's goal is to be able to run on any hardware/OS platform that supports Java," Tripathy said.

Depending on an agency's needs, Web-enabling a mainframe-based application may take place even before the application can be re-engineered for client/server deployment. The Government Printing Office, for example, has taken a legacy requisition system and deployed it on the Web, replacing the mainframe-based, green-screen technology with a new graphical user interface.

"This way, we can leverage our mainframe systems investment and replace older applications in an orderly fashion while at the same time extending their life and usefulness via Web deployment," said Pat Gardner, director of GPO's Office of Information Resources Management.

Using Opal from Infresco Corp., a Sarasota, Fla., subsidiary of Computer Associates International Inc., GPO replaced an educational course that had been in use for the past 10 years on how to check the status of a requisition. Now users can navigate through an intuitive window into the application, which sits on a Windows NT server and performs mainframe-based transactions in the background to respond to informational requests.

To build the application, GPO teamed a mainframe programmer with a person schooled in Windows, sent both to Opal training and then let them work together to build the new interface for GPO's requisitioning system.

More than just a screen-scraper, Opal will enable programmers to make changes to the application at the server level rather than writing hundreds of lines of Cobol code on the mainframe, Gardner said. "Why spend millions [of dollars] rewriting mainframe applications when we can find a way to make them user-friendly and Web-enabled?" she said.

Sources also cited the lower learning curve for Web technology combined with user-friendly development tools, which have enabled a greater number of contributors to help build Web applications.

The Pitfalls

But the new characteristics of Web application development bring their own difficulties.

The increasing number and types of developers of Web applications also increase the complexity of building, installing and managing those applications, said Edan Kabatchnik, chief technology officer for Eventus Software Inc., San Francisco, the maker of Control, a Web application management system. Kabatchnik cited a recent IDC survey that placed the number of people working on Web application development at 50 million, a number the research firm expects to double by the Year 2000. Interestingly, this compared with only 7.5 million developers worldwide for client/server applications.

Also, the migration of client/server applications is still a relatively new process. The reliability, scalability and robustness of Web development for mission-critical applications remains to be tested, analysts said.

Because most Web applications are designed to support a single Web server and a single back-end database, there must be precautions built into the system as it grows to multiple Web servers that are connected to multiple databases to ensure that if a single server goes down, the application continues to operate.

Given the uncertainty of the new environment, many agencies take a two-step approach to Web-enabling their applications.

With five main offices and maintenance facilities in a 15-state region, the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), a federal electric power marketing agency under the jurisdiction of the Energy Department, understands that the Web could enable better, faster communications among the various sites.

But Ken Maxie, chief financial officer for WAPA, said the organization's first step is to move its current legacy financial application to a client/server system, using Oracle's Federal Financials application suite. As competition heats up in the electric industry, WAPA needs to replace the 9-year-old Cobol-based application with a client/server system designed to streamline operations and improve business processes, Maxie said.

The jump to Web-enabling that new application will come later, Maxie explained, referring to the summer release of Oracle's Web client functionality.

"We couldn't wait for Web capabilities when we awarded this contract, so we plan to go with the current version of Oracle's Financials and will closely examine the Web component once that is made generally available," he said.

Yet another challenge users face when migrating applications to a Web environment involves maintaining connections. Client/server applications are built to assume a constant connection to an application's back end, typically a database.

Meanwhile, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which governs communications between Web clients and servers, is known as a stateless protocol: When it connects a user to a Web page, it establishes a connection and then forgets the user, moving on to the next task. This becomes a problem if a system crashes because information can be lost.

"In a Web environment, there is a need for user-state management to assist in remembering the state a user was in at the time if a Web client system connection goes down," said John Menkart, regional sales manager for Netscape Communications Corp. Netscape's Application Server resolves the problem primarily through server clustering, which improves fault resiliency, and also deals with state management issues and load balancing among Web servers.

Choosing a Migration Path

Analysts maintain that migrating current applications to the Web creates several choices for users to consider.

First, they can move a small portion of an application, offering that to untrained users over the Web. According to Tom Gormley, senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., this is much like a bank's automated teller machine, which provides about 20 percent of the functions normally provided by a bank teller.

Meanwhile, some suppliers have taken the same application and made it deployable entirely over the Web, which is like putting an entire bank teller application on the Web. That is Oracle's strategy behind the Web client that is due out in Oracle Release 11 later this summer, Gormley said. Another option is to offer two tools: one that develops applications for casual users and one for highly trained users, both with access via the Web.

There also is the option of developing application components that are geared to each user's requirements. No vendors offer this option yet, but such tools would examine information about the context of the user's job and evaluate how much the user needs to know in order to funnel information to that user via an easier-to-use interface, driven by information and content.

"This option creates a new opportunity for new players to create still more tools for application development," Gormley said.

-- DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at bdepompa@aol.com.

AT A GLANCE

Status: Popular application development tools now allow agencies to deploy client/server or mainframe applications on the Web.

Issues: The tools make it easier to move applications without rewriting code. However, questions remain about the scalability and reliability of Web-based applications.

Outlook: Good. Although weaknesses remain, major product vendors are developing the middleware and other technology needed to make Web applications a viable solution.While client/server computing has dramatically improved the productivity of application development in most organizations, the Internet is providing the wide-open network needed to deploy those applications to a wider audience.

In fact, the idea of enabling existing applications to run on the World Wide Web is fast becoming a kind of information technology holy grail for most organizations, although the hunt for a solution can be exhausting.

That is partly due to the wide array of choices that organizations must make when selecting an application development tool that migrates current applications to the Web. They may want to open access to legacy data and applications, build and maintain client/server applications and develop new applications while at the same time extending current applications to the Web.

And because a single application development project can encompass many of these developments, organizations often are forced to wrestle with incompatible development tools, languages and methodologies, according to analysts.

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