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Vendors look to Ajax to make SOA shine

Integration and development vendors are racing to put an Ajax face on an SOA body. Customers can expect a steady stream of new products to hit the market in 2006.

For anyone who thinks they've seen dynamic, Ajax-rendered Web pages, you ain't seen nothing yet.

In 2006 a wave of Ajax (short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) products are planned to hit the market, giving IT shops their choice of tools to build front ends to their Web services that mimic desktop functionality. As it turns out, the companies building these tools are also the companies building out service-oriented architecture tool sets, marrying application layer Web technology to presentation layer Web technology.

If you can start to connect your user interface to your services on the back end, then you've really got something. It would [bring] the possibility of service reuse into a vendor-neutral client tier.
Pieter Humphrey
Senior Product Marketing ManagerBEA Systems Inc.

"Ajax is the way Web applications are going to be built," said Steve Benfield, vice president of strategy at ClearNova Inc. "In a very short time, that's pretty much become a given."

ClearNova plans to release the second beta of its ThinkCap JX rapid application development platform this month. The product puts a client-centered application program interface on the server, allowing programmers to make user interface changes in Java rather than in JavaScript, broadening the number of developers who can take advantage of Ajax functionality.

Microsoft has put out the beta of Atlas, which implements Ajax in ASP.NET. BEA Systems Inc. is building Ajax functionality into its portal product and adding Ajax APIs to its runtime tools. Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to wed Ajax to Java Server Faces. Enterprise service bus vendor CapeClear Software Inc. plans to add Ajax tools to its SOA-centric product as well.

"Putting the two together makes sense at a programmatic level," said David Clark, CapeClear's executive vice president. "A lot of the principles around Ajax, namely its asynchronous model, are similar to the ESB model. It's an extension of what we would consider good ESB patterns."

Tibco Software Inc. first married a Rich Internet Application front end to middleware when it bought General Interface last year. According to Kevin Hakman, General Interface founder and director of product marketing, the beta of the 3.1 version has seen 100% quarter-to-quarter growth in downloads.

Hakman's team has been trying to measure the burst in interest around Ajax. They've been tracking Google searches around Ajax since the summer. As of July 18, Ajax had 3.2 million Google hits, but by October 28 that number had risen to 23.8 million.

"People envisioned doing this for a long time only to be disappointed by the limits of HTML and the browser," Hakman said. "I think the spike in interest stems from them seeing that now this can be done."

Yet, like any rapidly expanding technology, Ajax implementations will run into some bumps along the way.

"Maintaining Javascript code is difficult," said Jeet Kaul, executive director of Java EE (Enterprise Edition) and the Sun Java Application Server at Sun Microsystems. "You have lots of dependencies to deal with and every browser handles it differently."

Sun's plan is to "hide the complexity of Ajax" with the 2006 release of Java Studio Creator Web development integrated development environment. It will make Java Server Faces components Ajax-aware inside a drag-and-drop tool. Sun also plans to build Ajax support into the 2006 release of its Java Standard Edition product, code-named Mustang.

BEA demonstrated an alpha version of Ajax functionality for its WebLogic Portal 9.0 product during its user's conference in September. Yet Pieter Humphrey, BEA's senior product marketing manager, looked beyond portal APIs to Ajax support inside frameworks like Beehive as the real sweet spot for application vendors.

"If you can start to connect your user interface to your services on the back end, then you've really got something," he said. "It would [bring] the possibility of service reuse into a vendor-neutral client tier."

ClearNova has been one of the first companies to attempt to bridge that gap. Benfield said Ajax won't proliferate as anticipated if it remains a pure client-side play.

"You need to be able to build business applications with Ajax, not just pretty Web pages," he said. "Now you're dealing with much more complex sets of data and you're not going to rewrite a lot of code to do this."

Hakman noted that Ajax developers are also in short demand.

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Learn more about ClearNova's Java and Ajax integration

"It reminds me a lot of 1998 with Web site development," he said. "Everybody's looking to do this and there aren't enough skilled developers to go around. Benfield noted that ClearNova is getting 80-100 registrants for its weekly Ajax webinars.

Kaul noted that Ajax has become one of the highest hit pages on Java.Net.

"For what it does, it's just awesome," he said.

Clark made no bones about the importance of the Ajax movement.

"Ajax is going to be a big part of the future SOA, no doubt about it," he said. "We expect that if you're doing the one, you'll be doing the other."

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