Database apps move onto the Web

Choosing the right software tool is the key to successfully designing Net applications, writes Ian Murphy

Choosing the right software tool is the key to successfully designing Net applications, writes Ian Murphy

Building an online business requires more than just a few eye-catching Web pages. Users need to ensure that the front-end published to potential customers can interact competently with internal business systems.

The complexity of doing this is often overlooked during the design phase, as everyone rushes to create the killer Web site. Users need to think about a number of other areas, not least how information is collected, handled, stored and displayed.

In a business-to-consumer environment, users will need to provide fast access to the information their customers are looking for. It is also important to offer a variety of easy-access mechanisms and the site needs to assure visitors that any personal or credit card information is gathered and held securely.

For a business-to-business Web site between a business and its partners or suppliers, it is critical that users understand how the data handling will actually take place. Users also have to consider the security implications of traffic travelling to and from a company Web site through that business partner.

Even if businesses choose to outsource either the Web site or the credit card and financial components, users will still need to deal with connectivity, data input and security.

In short, building e-commerce applications is no different to building any three-tier client server application. The Web page becomes the client accessed by the end-user. There is a connectivity layer and a database system for the back-end. The key difference here is that the tools you used to build your internal applications are likely to be different to the tools you will now use to build your e-commerce applications.

In fact, those companies that have been doing the smart thing are already using the same tools to redesign their internal client server applications for the corporate intranet. This has enabled them to move more readily to the Internet. The key to this is the database and how data can be input, stored, queried and displayed with the minimum amount of code and data translation.

The software that the database suppliers have been so quick to equip themselves with is vital. Gone are the days when database suppliers differentiated themselves on database performance alone. Today a database needs performance, the latest buzz words and an entire raft of development tools to appeal to the corporate customer.

Making sense of the software from the different database suppliers can seem difficult. Yet, without exception, they have all been very active in ensuring that they have introduced the same features as the competition in order to avoid losing out on the tick box comparisons.

Despite this, there are differences that can make or break project plans. Support for the latest technologies such as XML has become critical, not least because XML is being seen as a platform-independent data query mechanism with little client overhead. It also provides developers with an opportunity to produce templates using XSL that can ensure the data is formatted for the target platform, be that a PC with a Web browser, a Palm Pilot, Pocket PC or Wap phone.

Business users are also seeing the widespread introduction of data mining technology in order to provide corporate customers with a single Web Application that can handle all of its data requirements.

Sybase is typical of where the different suppliers are moving. Instead of a single database for e-commerce, it offers four, depending on what the user needs to do. The entry-level Enterprise Application Server is designed to provide a stable platform on which developers can build and test their code. Deployment is through the Small Business, Adva-nced and Enterprise editions as your company grows.

One advantage of Sybase is that it does not own any of the Internet technologies. It is therefore able to be technologically agnostic, offering support for Com, Corba, Java, XML, HTTP and ActiveX among others. Sybase also has a well-developed Powerbuilder tools family.

It has been a struggle, but IBM has achieved its goal of reducing the footprint of DB2 without losing functionality. The latest release of DB2 Universal Database Version 7 underpins its Websphere application server software and provides access to many of the Internet technologies, including Com, Corba, XML and Java.

To make itself more attractive to companies looking to build applications for the applications server provider (ASP) market, IBM has recently announced a licensing model where they provide the software to the developers at a very low cost. The developers pay either on a per subscriber or per transaction basis. This is likely to be very attractive to companies worried about recouping high development costs.

Informix has spent much of the past few years losing out to the bigger players, but it has recently started to fight back. During its enforced reinvention, the company has moved away from its previous products and built a new infrastructure targeted at Web development, the Informix Internet Foundation (IIF).

The IIF consists of a number of different products including the Informix Dynamic Server 2000 and Informix J/Foundation. There are other integration products, but there is little doubt that Informix is probably more heavily focused on XML than any of its competitors.

While IBM can claim to have more data in its products worldwide than any other supplier, it is Oracle that has become synonymous with database technology over the past few years.

Oracle 8i release 2 is expected to introduce much needed performance impro-vements to JServer, including support for Java 2. XML support has been improved and the XML Parser for Java now supports Java 1 and 2.

Oracle Intermedia now allows documents to be stored in multiple languages as well as supporting Real Networks' Real Audio.

Microsoft has split its products. SQL Server 2000 can be enhanced with Biz Talk Server, Host Integration Server and several other technologies as required, to build as complex a solution as you need.

Alternatively, users could simply go the whole hog and buy Commerce Server, which contains most of the required technology as standard.

Ironically, it may just be this choice and overlap between offerings that will make some customers take a step back, along with the need to see Microsoft prove its new products over the next six months. While Microsoft is pushing its own technologies such as Com and ActiveX, it has also moved quickly to ensure that XML is seen as central to its Internet strategy.

However, unlike the other suppliers, Microsoft does not provide support for Java, although this may end up being resolved as part of the current legal case.

With everyone supporting XML technologies, and almost universal support for Java, the issue is really down to budget, availability of skilled developers and operating system platform - Windows, a variation on Unix, a more traditional mini or mainframe environment or a hybrid mix. Businesses also need to decide if they want to develop applications that support multiple databases.

Database supplier strategies

  • Sybase offers four databases for e-commerce depending on user requirements

  • IBM DB2 Universal Database Version 7 underpins the IBM Websphere application server software

  • Informix has built a new infrastructure targeted at Web development called the Informix Internet Foundation comprising Informix Dynamic Server 2000 and Informix J/Foundation

  • Microsoft has split its products. SQL Server 2000 can be enhanced with Biz Talk Server, Host Integration Server and several other technologies as required, to build complex Web applications. Alternatively there is E-Commerce server.

  • Oracle 8i release 2 promises improved performance. Its Intermedia technology allows a document to be stored in multiple languages and handles audio scanning

    Tips for a building an online business

  • It is critical that users understand how the data handling will actually take place over the Web

  • Building e-commerce applications is no different to building any three-tier client server application

  • If possible, use the same tools to redesign internal client server applications for the corporate intranet

  • Support for the latest technologies such as XML has become critical, not least because XML is being seen as a platform-independent data query mechanism with little client overhead

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