Frameworks and Blueprints Put Business Apps on Fast Track: Page 2

Posted November 14, 2000

Lynn Haber

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Ultimately, the company opted for a framework that would provide generic building blocks for its server. RespondTV developed its interactive shopping cart and multidimensional catalog using BEA's recently introduced WebLogic Commerce Server 3.1. Included in the BEA product are what the developer calls pipeline components, or out-of-the-box commerce functions, that include user management, catalog, search/browse, shopping cart, order management, shipping address, tax and shipping calculations, payment services, event tracking, and logging. In all, WebLogic Commerce Server 3.1 includes more than 80 integrated components designed to provide a range of pre-tested commerce functionality.

RespondTV developed a list of criteria for its framework, says Sadler. For example, the framework had to support open standards--in this case J2EE. In addition, it needed to run on Sun and include a scalable database platform, as well as best-of-breed services. In addition, RespondTV wanted a scalable framework that could support interactive TV, which, Sadler points out, has greater scalability demands than building a Web site (for an example of RespondTV's interactive shopping cart, click "View the Image" below).

RespondTV Inc. wanted a scalable framework that could support interactive TV on its Web site.

Over Time, Frameworks Pay Off
Unquestionably, the use of well-tested frameworks saves application developers time and money. Less clear, however, is the question of how much time.

"Vendors will say that their frameworks provide developers with 80% of what they need to develop applications," says Michael Blechar, vice president of application services at Gartner Group Inc., of Stamford, Conn. "But, that depends."

It depends entirely on the application in question. For example, if there are a lot of customized business rules, the development team may end up writing 85% of the application, says Blechar. "Or in the case of a simple application, 85% of it may be automatically written for you if the other 15% is the business logic you need," he says.

Another factor regarding time savings and the use of frameworks has to do with reuse. The bottom line: The more you get involved with developing the framework, the greater potential for reuse. Likewise, says Blechar, the more projects you use the framework for, the greater the productivity.

The company slashed its list of possible vendors after it realized some frameworks were too proprietary, others were not completely J2EE, while others didn't offer broad operating system support, Sadler explains.

Thanks to its use of a framework, RespondTV has immediate access to between 25% and 40% of its application infrastructure, he says. "The rest is what we build and has industry- and business-specific functionality," Sadler notes.

By purchasing a framework, RespondTV gets low-level infrastructure, a caching engine, a container for Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs), and components the company can--and did--extend. RespondTV's e-commerce project is currently in beta, and the company expects completion [in 2001], according to Sadler.

Like RespondTV, companies must determine the problem they're trying to solve before purchasing a framework, say industry experts. Gartner Group, for example, gives customers a list of criteria for framework selection, such as platform or geography issues, deployment language, cost drivers, support, and the vendor's reputation and vision, says Blechar. "Ultimately, one or two products will fit a company's requirements," he says.

In fact, depending on what problem a company is trying to solve, choosing a framework is secondary to other chores, such as making the primary choice on platform, says Thomas Murphy, program director for application delivery strategies at the META Group Inc., Stamford. "If a company builds on a Microsoft platform, they automatically choose a Microsoft Framework, or if it's Java there's a different evaluation process," he says.

For example, on the J2EE side, companies can evaluate core application servers from BEA, Bluestone Software Inc., IBM Corp., iPlanet E-Commerce Solution, or Oracle Corp. "After selecting an application server, IT has to examine how the framework will fit its needs," says Murphy.

The MIS department must investigate scalability. It also must determine whether it has the internal capabilities to look at that framework for holes, documentation, the ability to extend or mold the framework, as well as to examine if the framework makes use of well known, well documented patterns, he adds.

Evolutionary Market

Today, the focus for many frameworks is e-commerce. However, industry watchers predict frameworks, components, and patterns will evolve from programming tools to solutions.

In the meantime, companies that carefully select their framework investments will find few limitations to using them, says Murphy. "A good framework should shoehorn a developer into a good design and eliminate doing things poorly," he says.

Sylvia Berens, Apunix vice president

Of course, no technology is perfect. For example, Apunix' Berens has one complaint: "Linux support is still limited. We'd like to see more robustness and greater frame speed," she says.

For his part, RespondTV's Sadler says that because the basic building blocks in frameworks are designed to be general purpose, developers might have to redo some of the basic bricks to work the way they want it to work. "[Sometimes] you have to work around the framework," he says.

Ultimately, frameworks make for happy developers because they give each developer a sense of ownership for the piece of the framework that he or she is working on. "Using frameworks gives each developer a distinct responsibility for development," says Tse, adding that the ability to focus on a particular task makes developers experts in that task, thereby making them more productive. "They don't have to write code for things they don't know about, nor do they have to be a jack of all trades," he says.

Even with the challenges and shortfalls, companies using frameworks today wouldn't turn back the clock and work without them. As QuinStreet's Tse says: "It's a lot better than CGI coding."

Lynn T. Haber reports on business and information technology from Norwell, Mass.

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