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Transition: Enabling Applications Below the Bar

Transition: Enabling Applications Below the Bar

We are all using WebSphere and other application server platforms to build our sophisticated Web presence - portals, portlets, and ultra cool applications to support the enterprise. But what about those applications that fall below the bar - e.g., departments within the enterprise that could benefit from Web publishing or have Web application needs but don't have the resources to implement them or the budget to pay for them. You have a major investment in your application server technology, but many in your organization may not be reaping the benefits.

Consider the following examples:

  • Meeting planners in the marketing department that farm out event registration sites to outside vendors
  • Benefits administrators that are answering the same questions from employees over and over again.
  • The human resources department spamming the organization with a plethora of e-mails about organizational and program announcements that go largely unread
  • Divisions within your organization that have a lot of information to share, but not the budget to share it
  • Departments within your organization with the need to collect information but that don't have the resources to develop the appropriate applications
  • Organizations such as publishers, who need to create similar sites over and over again with limited funds
  • Companies that want to control communication and interaction with vendors or suppliers but don't have the budget for the required applications

    Wouldn't it be great if we could get additional return on our investment in an application server platform like WebSphere to benefit all within the walls of the enterprise? Well, fortunately, there are tools available that represent a trend to implement another layer between the application server platform and the user. The purpose of that layer is to move the power of application server technology closer to those who can benefit from it, by allowing users to more directly participate in the development of applications. Let's call these tools Web application enablers (WAEs). They are not intended to replace developers but merely to leverage them so that more can benefit from the power that the Web brings to business.

    Web App Enablers - Benefits/ROI
    The obvious benefit of end-user development is a dramatic decrease in development costs and a concomitant improvement in ROI. When delivered effectively, this concept radically changes the ROI model so that sites that previously were out of the question financially now become justifiable. Aside from development cost, a large component of the site cost of ownership is maintenance - particularly the maintenance of content. In order for sites to remain fresh, accurate, and timely, constant maintenance is required. An effective WAE will allow users to attend to this maintenance themselves. This not only empowers them - it also eliminates the costs associated with IT involvement in these recurrent, mundane tasks, while freeing technical resources for more mission-critical work.

    Another potential benefit of WAEs is that they can provide the ability to enforce adherence to standards. Dollars spent on branding could be easily undermined by the proliferation of nonstandard or amateurish sites, even if they are only visible to suppliers and distributors. Once standards compliance is achieved, some of these tools allow standards such as style guides and look and feel to be changed easily across multiple sites.

    Tools that enable Web application development fall into a wide range of categories and provide an equally wide range of functionality over a broad range of prices. For ease of discussion, let's divide WAEs into the following categories:

    • Site-generation tools/templates
    • ECM (Enterprise Content Management) solutions:
    • Site development platforms
    The goal here is not to evaluate the individual tools within these categories or even to judge the categories of tools themselves in some overall way. The aim is to look at these categories of tools and determine how they can provide aid to those users and applications that are below the bar In order to accomplish this, these categories will be evaluated at a high level as to:
    • How ROI is affected by Web applications that are built
    • How effective end users can be with these tools
    • Whether these products are useful in providing adherence to standards
    • Whether there is a positive impact on content management
    • Whether implementation costs are high or low
    The key to liberating those applications that are below the bar is the degree to which the tools and methodologies discussed will allow direct end-user involvement. I discuss them in the order in which they facilitate this end, starting with site-generation tools and moving through ECM to site-development platforms.

    In the beginning, rudimentary site-generation tools made it easy to develop simple sites. Then our focus moved to managing content. Sites are still created by sophisticated and talented Web developers. Users focus on managing the content. With site-development platforms, the focus shifts back to the creation of the sites, but in a more sophisticated manner. Web developers' skills are leveraged across multiple sites by embedding the site rules and rendering instructions and standards into the site-development platform itself. Let's start from the beginning.

    Site-Generation Tools/Templates
    Tools in this category include Web templates provided by most Web authoring tools, e.g., MS FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver, ISP scripts, Easy WebSites, et al.

    These tools cover a broad range; however, the common feature that links them is that they generate HTML. Although this type of tool is not actually a layer between the application server and the user, it has potential to provide some of the same benefits (see Table 1). Many of the popular Web development tools supply this type of functionality as site templates to provide novice users with an easy way to develop sites. These templates provide a starting point for neophyte developers; as the developers gain experience, they depart from the templates, gradually negating their value.

    ISPs, ASPs, and others involved in site hosting offer site-generation tools as a means of providing businesses with a low-cost Web presence by eliminating the cost of site development. These tools essentially fill in the blanks. A standard template is provided where the user simply provides text and pictures to create a custom version of the template or a custom site. Some of the tools are simply scripts that generate a standard set of HTML pages, while others can be more sophisticated, providing multiple templates for specific types of sites or pages and also allowing use of standard forms for capturing information from end users via questionnaires, registration forms, feedback forms, or surveys. In general, all of these tools provide only a starting point. Web development tools provide a great deal of functionality and flexibility. The more you take advantage of these features, the less value the templates provide. As with most software, ease of use - as in Web templates - falls easy prey to increased flexibility.

    The impact of these tools on ROI tends to be minimal in all but the simplest scenarios. In the case where a site is needed without any modification to the standard pages, the impact on ROI is great. But as anyone who has dealt with business users can tell you, this is almost never the case. Typically, departure from the standard happens very quickly, negating the value of the script/ template in terms of ROI or the ability to enforce standards. Once that happens, the potential for end-user development is also lost, since no HTML editor can be considered an end-user tool. This approach has virtually no positive impact on content management because moving content from a user's hard drive to a static HTML page does not represent a net improvement in content organization or accessibility. ECM tools in this category include Vignette, Interwoven, and MS Content Management Server.

    Enterprise Content Management systems (see Table 2) are very powerful tools that have broad-range impact across the enterprise. On the development side, Web pages can be built from cataloged content that users define and maintain, and pages are served dynamically. Some of these tools allow content to be personalized based on user profile or behavior, browsing device, or even language preference. Workflow is a major component of many of these tools, establishing and enforcing complex rules regarding who can create specific content and maintain it, as well as tracking content changes and applying specific taxonomy to categorize content.

    On the deployment side, the best of these tools can provide scalability, reliability, and extensibility, as well as load balancing and failover. Some serve content in XML, and enable XML-based Web services. All of these features promote the delivery of mission-critical Web applications.

    But what about those applications that fall below the bar? Content management solutions could provide many benefits to users in terms of organization and accessibility of content, and many provide application-enabling tools to facilitate the delivery of this content via the Web, and promote adherence to standards. These tools vary in their complexity; but in general, for Web site creation they are the territory of content managers and Web developers, not end users. ECM has been portrayed as the latest in a long list of IT panaceas, but despite all of the hoopla we hear about these products, in reality a large percentage of valuable corporate information remains unsafely ensconced on PC hard drives.

    Although content management solutions are a great idea, they are usually expensive and require a buy-in from many within an organization to be successful. This approach requires a lot of money, planning, political support, and time to bear fruit. The benefits to end users are typically at the end of what could be a multiyear process. Since the price range of these solutions varies greatly, the ability to get the ROI benefit described above will depend on the amount spent and the number of applications that expense can be spread across. In many cases, predicting an effective ROI model for ECM may require the aid of a crystal ball.

    Site-Development Platforms
    Tools in this category include SiteTelligence and Microsoft Web Author Client (see Table 3).

    While Content Management solutions promote the automation and management of site content, a new category of solution - site development platforms (SDPs) - focuses on the automation and management of the site itself. Site development platforms enable users to quickly develop, deploy, and maintain their own Web sites with little or no IT involvement using WebSphere or other J2EE-compliant application server environments. These tools contain a set of applications that can render site content and forms dynamically from information stored in data sources created for this purpose. They provide a rendering engine that retrieves content and rendering instructions from a database and displays content for Web sites in a predefined standard manner dictated by a corporate style guide. The content gets into the database via development tools that walk users through a simple process to create and preview sites. Users basically cut and paste information from relevant documents to create sites. The user activity here is focused on the content as it relates to the site. Unlike ECM, there is no overarching effort or methodology focused on organizing or cataloging the content intrinsically. Users or administrators can deploy sites depending on corporate policy. After sites are deployed, users can come back at any time to update the content. They can also create forms for feedback, registration, questionnaires, or surveys. On the deployment side, these tools leverage application server technology such as WebSphere - already in place - to deliver highly reliable, scalable, fault-tolerant applications.

    SDPs, in many cases, are not shrink-wrapped products, but rather a set of tools and processes delivered in conjunction with the required services to make the rendering engine capable of rendering the required sites.

    These solutions allow for hidden data assets to be moved from PC hard drives to a centrally maintained repository, permitting access to content by others who might need it. While this is not content management per se, it can be regarded as a precursor to ECM. Getting the data off those hard drives and onto a database platform is an important first step and will make the work required to implement ECM down the road somewhat easier.

    With that said, SDPs are not content management systems. They do not provide any of the content-focused functionality mentioned above. They are also far less costly and do not require users to buy expensive software or buy into complicated or arcane methodologies.

    Since sites can be displayed by a single rendering engine, all sites will conform to the same style guide, forcing adherence to standards. This eliminates the need for the "style police" to enforce corporate style guides across the enterprise. This feature also makes changing style guides or the look and feel for multiple sites extremely simple. The content is in the database, but it's the rendering engine that implements the style guide. Therefore, to change multiple sites, all you need to do is modify the rendering engine, and all of the sites are effectively changed at once.

    This solution is geared to a business need in which multiple sites are required to conform to a standard look and feel. In this case, the impact on ROI is great because end users can both develop sites and maintain content. The model becomes less compelling when used to develop individual sites. In those cases, while maintenance costs are still dramatically lower, the initial cost of the software and services to adapt the rendering engine is not diluted across multiple sites.

    The tools compared in this article represent a very broad spectrum and may seem to be an odd group to put together; however, all of these tools provide potential to bring the power of the Web closer to end users - to enable those applications below the bar. Site-generation tools will only provide benefit in the simplest scenarios. ECM, however, is very powerful technology; and organizations that implement ECM effectively will no doubt reap benefits down the line. The challenge is to leverage not only the investment in software and services but also to justify the installation of personnel and procedures to support the requisite methodology. These factors make ECM an unlikely solution for below-the-bar applications, unless it is already ensconced in your organization. SDPs, while providing far less benefit in the content management area, seem directly aimed at enabling below-the-bar applications.

    In order for organizations to take full advantage of sophisticated application server technology like WebSphere, it is critical that these tools accommodate the needs of end users without every business requirement becoming an IT development project with associated costs and complexity. Tools that utilize application server technology and benefit from its scalability, reliability, and performance - yet also enable users to create and maintain sites - will change the way organizations view the Web and Web development.

  • More Stories By Don Berman

    Don Berman is CEO and cofounder of CS Strategies Inc., based in Upper Saddle River, N.J. CS Strategies is an IT product development and services company specializing applications that extend enterprise applications. Prior to cofounding the company, he served as manager of Consulting Services for InSci, and technical marketing consultant/sales for Viewpoint Systems and KnowledgeWare. Since 1989 Don has spearheaded the introduction and adoption of legacy extension, client/server, and internet/intranet technologies for many Fortune 1000 companies, serving in roles ranging from architect/designer to senior technology advisor.

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