4GLs discover the Web
Integrating Web with traditional database applications a hot topic for database tool makers
If Hollywood produced computing documentaries, some movie house would be working on "The World Wide Web: The Sequel." Or perhaps more accurately, "The Web and SQL," for there is little doubt that second-generation Web application development tools will be intimately commingled with client-server database development tools. Traditional 4GL tool vendors, as well as more innovative cross-platform application tool vendors, are well positioned to deliver ground-breaking development environments that dramatically increase the ease with which database applications are transformed into Web-savvy windows into workgroup and corporate data.
Until building and deploying truly distributed object-based applications becomes an easy, reliable process for mainstream business computing users, the focus of client-server database applications will remain on the transition from a two-tier to a three-tier application architecture. Tools vendors have been hard at work creating products that provide platform independence and flexible application partitioning between the client GUI, application server, and database server. The ability to write an application once, using one core application development tool, and then easily move modules between the application tiers to optimize performance, is helping make three-tier applications a reality for mainstream users.
Simultaneously, the Internet has skyrocketed in popularity. Many application architects recognize its potential as a pervasive, platform-independent middleware layer to support client server computing. These two distinct trends map onto one another nicely. The three-tier application architecture is roughly equivalent to Web sites that have been painstakingly built by hand using HTML and CGI scripts -- in Internet parlance, browser, Web server, and database.
The paradigm match has not been overlooked by tool vendors. In November and December several firms announced new products scheduled for release in the first half of 1996. Others are making it obvious that announcements are right around the corner.
"Everybody in the 4GL market will begin offering either add-on modules or a separate tool to create Web-savvy client-server database applications. Soon it will seem like there is a new announcement every day of tools that generate Java code, or HTML and CGI scripts," said Gregory Dorman, vice president of R&D for New York-based Information Builders.
According to Rich Finkelstein, an analyst and president of Performance Computing in Chicago, there is a great deal of interest in what he calls the "incredible shrinking client." Pushing application logic back onto the server and providing access via platform-independent browsers over the inherently distributed infrastructure of the Internet offers very exciting possibilities, he said.
By the middle of 1996, integrating the Internet's World Wide Web with traditional client-server database applications will be a very hot topic for mainstream business users, said David Kelly, a senior consultant with Hurwitz Consulting Group (Newton, MA). The key will be delivering tools that make it easy to build and deploy applications that bridge the gap between cross-platform tools and the Internet.
Developer 2000, which now generates three-tier applications with flexible partitioning capabilities, will enable users to generate PowerBrowser-savvy application front-ends and Oracle 7 database links for Oracle WebServer, all from the same design, said Denise Moore, Oracle's vice president of product marketing.
The product suite also include a number of innovative features, such as Network Loadable Objects (NLO), Client-Side Processing (CSP) modules, Personal Publisher mini-server, and WebServer-enabled database stored procedures.
Network Loadable Objects provides a framework for running third-party network-resident applications within PowerBrowser. NLOs allow new applications like Adobe PDF viewers, Java applets, and VRML scripts to run natively in PowerBrowser.
Client-Side Processing gives developers a way to create and execute OS-specific program modules on the Web client. With CSP, developers can write code that integrates the features of the client operating environment with PowerBrowser.
With the Oracle WebServer option, hypertext links in any HTML document can now point directly to an Oracle stored procedure, allowing the Oracle7 Workgroup Server to build a HTML document on the fly using PL/SQL, Oracle's procedural extension to SQL. The procedures developed are complete applications, and can be managed within Oracle7.
At that time, Vision will fulfill three important criterion, said Mikailli. First, the ability to develop all tiers of a Web application from within the same tool. Second, the ability to generate platform-independent code. And third, browser interface components that automatically map into the database, connecting form fields to database columns.
The County of Riverside California has been using Neuron Data to develop information kiosks now deployed at five locations to serve 1.3 million residents. The County is also building and deploying a Web site so that citizens can grab data via the Internet. Until now, however, those development efforts were completely separate projects, said Greg Stoddard, systems manager of the Distributed Processing Team in the County's IS Department.
"The addition of the Web Element will enable us to build one application interface with Neuron Data that works with the kiosk system on the client-server LAN/WAN, and then generate the same application module as a browser interface," Stoddard said. "That will greatly simplify our work."
Similar to Oracle's Client Side Processing, ND's Web Element offers ObjectScript Applets -- player programs that run in or with a Web browser and interact intelligently with relational databases and other distributed objects. ND's architecture expects these applets will be stored on the Web server and downloaded to browsers at runtime.
Java is a strategic technology for the Sybase, said Mitchell Kertzman, executive vice president, Sybase, Inc. and CEO of Powersoft. Incorporating Java support into Sybase's web.sql is the first step, he said, "but we also anticipate using Java for database, middleware and other development tools" planned for 1996.
What the Internet development tool landscape will look like in six months is difficult to pin down. One thing, however, is sure to be the case. Mainstream business users will have a variety of development tools offering to help them generate Web-ready database applications.
--Barry D. Bowen
About the author
Barry D. Bowen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a business computing analyst and writer with the Bowen Group Inc. (http://www.nas.com/~xeno). Reach Barry at email@example.com.
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