Java component development heats up: Page 2

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Although the volume of work required during the second phase exceeded that of the first project, it, too, took only three months to complete. "By this time we had the technical skills and know how, and we had already built the infrastructure," says Kamatkar.

When all was said and done, Kamatkar reports application response times for this feature, which was well above the industry standard of eight to 10 seconds, was more than cut in half.

Recently, Managemark began working with Wireless Knowledge Inc., in San Diego, Calif., a joint venture of Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. It delivers wireless Internet solutions, including software wireless data technology and services, to port its ExpenseAble application to a wireless device.

Development effort aside, Managemark believes it has also saved at least $100,000 in application maintenance costs alone since using Java. Looking at the total cost of ownership, Kamatkar estimates that his company is saving between 30% and 40% compared to the old Microsoft-based system.

The case for reuse

"For some companies, component-based development is not a choice, it's a necessity. "

Of all the promised benefits of component-based development, perhaps the most hyped has been reusability. The promise is that a building-block approach to application development will provide developers with a cheaper, faster, and better way of getting critical applications up and running. According to Flashline.com, an online marketplace where users can purchase packaged software components, organizations that focus their component-based software development efforts around the notion of reuse realize these benefits throughout the software lifecycle.

At this early stage in the market for component-based software development, there aren't many companies designing software with reuse in mind. "The reality of the component-based software market is that it's rare to find a company not doing this type of development; however, if there's still any hype in this market, it's about reuse," says Standish Group's Boucher. "It's happening to a degree, but not to the degree it should be."

One place where software component reuse has been key to the business' success is New York-based Firstborn Multimedia Corp., a creator of interactive Web presentations. A $3 million company with four programmers, Firstborn began relying on reusable components in January 2000. "We're dealing with clients that have compressed development cycles," says Robert Forras, vice president of technology at Firstborn, noting that many client projects include features and functionality that are "standard stuff."

For Firstborn, reuse enables the company to leverage the same code across its client base, differentiating it for each customer by mapping in new fields. The company's technology of choice is EJB. "The beauty of reuse is that the code has already been battle tested and doesn't need to be retested, saving time and money," says Forras.

The company has turned to several vendors for some reusable Java components, including BEA Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif. According to Forras, Firstborn's developers use more than half a dozen components that come as part of BEA's WebLogic Commerce Server. The product contains a full suite of Java-based components for e-commerce, including an online catalog, shopping cart, inventory management, order entry, order management, and shipping components. Forras says he buys components from other vendors as well, but can't discuss them at this time.

Adopting a reuse strategy for application development has put Firstborn 50% ahead of the game in terms of how much business it has been able to take on, he adds. The Standish Group's Boucher notes that the ROI of reuse jumps to about 10% for second and third projects and to 60% savings by the fifth and sixth projects.

Uncharted territory

Because components are not quite a mainstream technology yet, companies doing component-based software development often feel like trailblazers. Their biggest complaints are a lack of industry standards and a lack of components.

"Instead of being touted as 'write once, run anywhere,' the motto for reusable components should be 'write once, test everywhere,'" says Firstborn's Forras. Forras finds the exceptions to the rule--or those companies that don't adhere to standards--can make your life miserable.

While there has been a lot of COM development on the front end, for example, COM+ on the back end is still progressing. "The back-end server technology for Microsoft relies on multiple products, and they're in different stages of development," says Boucher. On the other side of the coin is Sun's EJB standard, which is still evolving.

Regarding the lack of components, Forras says, "I often can't find the specialized components I need in the EJB market, but that's largely because it's a market just getting off the ground." However, he expects the pool of available components to grow over time.

That's not to say that software components aren't available, because they are. ComponentSource.com and Flashline.com are two marketplaces selling components from third-party vendors. Andrew King, vice president of market development at ComponentSource.com, an online components marketplace, says his company offers more than 3,000 components in its catalog. The bulk of the products are COM components (2,700) and the rest are Java components. Flashline.com offers JavaBeans, Enterprise JavaBeans, and COM components, with the lion's share of approximately 600 being Java components, according to company president and CEO Charles Stack.

While both companies offer products and services and serve as industry evangelists for component-based development, other enterprises have mixed feelings about purchasing third-party components. "What the industry is dealing with at this point is a comfort level," says Tracy Corbo, senior analyst with the Hurwitz Group, a consulting company based in Framingham, Mass.

For example, says Corbo, before buying components online, users want to know such things as: Who provides a guarantee of service? Is there a return policy? Is there source code? What about pricing models? And are the components downloadable, maintainable?

It's an opportunity

Most users remain skeptical of third-party components. "I kept my eye out for third-party components, but I didn't feel what I saw bought me enough to warrant the risk," says Empire's Yust. For example, he says he wonders about long-term vendor stability and the availability of source code.

Firstborn's Forras, on the other hand, says he is always on the lookout for third-party components. "Being able to find the components is crucial to being able to deliver solutions to our customers on time," he says.

That's not to say that Forras has always been a satisfied customer buying from the third-party market. "We've looked in the marketplaces, but they're not robust enough in the number of solutions available. However, we'll look again as our needs grow. We have to," he says.

According to the companies in Boucher's research, most will buy components rather than build them whenever they can. Today, however, they're doing more development work because the component suites aren't out there.

Despite the bumps in the road, companies on the forefront of component-based development agree that there are more benefits than disadvantages. Besides faster time to market and lower costs, Empire District Electric reports that other utility companies are expressing interest in Centurion.

Says Yust: "We started our project as an act of desperation, and we're seeing it turn into an opportunity to generate revenue." //

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

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