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Oracle architect advocates agnostic Ajax approach

There is a significant difference between the way Ajax applications are built at consumer companies typified by Google Inc. and what can be done in enterprise Web 2.0, says Oracle chief architect Ted Farrell.

Enterprise Web 2.0 is more complicated than just putting a pretty Ajax face on aging legacy applications, says Ted Farrell, chief architect and vice president for tools and middleware at Oracle Corp.

In the Ajax space, JavaScript access to portlets and data sharing is very difficult and in a lot of cases, it's actually impossible.
Ted Farrell
Chief ArchitectOracle Corp.

The complex mix of legacy systems and the variety of new Web 2.0 technologies faced by enterprise developers requires a "UI framework that's implementation technology agnostic," Farrell said in an interview prior to his keynote at today's opening of AJAXWorld in Santa Clara, Calif.

In his keynote entitled, "Why Web 2.0 for the Enterprise Is Far More Than Just a Facelift," Farrell will explain the differences he sees between building Ajax-style interfaces in the enterprise as opposed to what is being done at consumer Web companies such as Amazon and Google.

"If you look at the consumer space, the problems are much simpler, the environments are much simpler and you can create functions that you can't create in the enterprise space," Farrell said.

In consumer companies such as Google and Amazon, the user interface is what the business is all about, so they have attracted programmers with skills in the very latest Web 2.0 languages, he said.

However, in the enterprise space where the business may be about something like building auto parts, Farrell said that enterprise developers typically do not have "bleeding edge" programming skills.

Another difference between consumer Web 2.0 applications and the enterprise is the scope of what can be done with legacy applications, which were designed for a pre-Ajax world, Farrell said.

"A lot of people talk about mashups and Ajax where they'll just have everything exposed as Web services with user interfaces built on top of them to mash the information together," Farrell said. "That's not always possible in the enterprise space because a lot of the legacy systems haven't broken up the data that way or the UIs are so complex you can't really separate the two. In those cases you generally want to use something like a portlet in your page. In the Ajax space, JavaScript access to portlets and data sharing is very difficult and in a lot of cases, it's actually impossible."

He said enterprise developers tell him that while they have been able to create Web services to access data from their legacy backend systems, they are still stuck with older UIs that do not lend themselves to easy conversion to RIAs. As they have developed RIAs, they find that when a different Web 2.0 technology, such as Flash, needs to be added to an existing Ajax-based interface, they have to re-write the UI to accommodate it, he said.

"What we've found to be successful and what we recommend is sort of a UI framework that's implementation technology agnostic," Farrell said. "What I mean by that is being able to build Web pages mixing and matching content regardless of how it's implemented. So I could build a Web page and drop in a JavaScript Ajax table that's talking to a backend database. But in that same page I could also drop in a Flash pie chart that's talking to a backend business intelligence system showing a slice of my business statistics. And then on that same page I drop in a portlet as well that's running PeopleSoft, which includes tools with a proprietary language. I can wire all these up in a single user interface. As a developer the goal would be to do that without getting involved in those three separate technologies, meaning JavaScript for Ajax, ActionScript for Flash or the PeopleSoft tools."

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Farrell said Oracle has standardized on a JavaServer Faces (JSF)-based RenderKit, which allows the developer who has learned JSF to assemble disparate components into a Web 2.0-style mashup.

"That way they are dealing with the components and not the way they actually render," he explained. "It's the RenderKit that takes care of the different technologies. So I could drop a component on a page and it might be rendering in Ajax, and I could drop another component on a page and it might be rendering in Flash. The developer is abstracted from those technologies. You don't have to teach your developers JavaScript or ActionScript to do these things. And I can mix and match all using the same skills."

If a new technology comes along that needs to be incorporated into the RIA, the agnostic framework can be extended, so the UI doesn't have to be re-written, he said.

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