Reporter's Notebook: Application Development and Web Services

Software Quality

Is software quality improving or getting worse? More attention is being paid to it these days, but quality is actually deteriorating, says Yochi Slonim, CEO of Identify Software Ltd. (formerly Mutek Solutions). Identify Software provides tools to pinpoint the root cause of Java application problems. The company has headquarters in Or-Yehuda, Israel, and Raleigh, N.C.

The problem is that software complexity is racing ahead faster than the quality efforts, Slonim says. "It's not extremely visible, but ... with multiple-tier and Web applications, the tools are not catching up to the complexity," he says.

Consider Web commerce, where the application is "exposed to thousands or millions of customers," says Slonim. "The need to understand all of the possible scenarios that an end user can possibly go through [adds to the complexity]. If there is a path that leads to failure, the users will find it."

Slonim is a big believer in Murphy's Law.

"It's like the whole world is searching through this maze -- which is your site. So very quickly, all of the possible paths that you've created are exhausted and tried out by users," he says. "The first challenge for application developers is to realize that if something can go wrong, it will."

He says programmers can no longer rely on the hope that a single user playing with the software won't get to a particular function because it's so remote -- and that the bug will affect only one desktop. "Now, all users are exploring at the same time, stress-testing your [Web] site, and one failure can affect them all.

"The impact for your company is very severe -- the punishment is quick," Slonim says. "You lose revenue."

The second problem is the complexity of the architecture of Web sites and Web applications. "There are multiple tiers involved, Web servers, application servers, databases, clusters, load balancers, network accelerators -- it's a maze that is two orders of magnitude greater than what people were dealing with before," Slonim says. "And there is a total lack of tools that understand this new architecture and provide the information that programmers need in order to tune it."

Graceful Retirement

Analysts at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. are asking the question: Are you managing your application portfolio, or is it managing you?

In many IT shops, legacy applications consume 75% to 90% of the funding available for applications -- and can crowd out the resources needed to absorb new technologies. If this portfolio isn't managed wisely, it could cripple the IT organization, Gartner analysts say.

Of course, those legacy systems have the advantage of being time-tested and mature, but they also become "ever slower, less agile and, eventually, even shaky on their feet," says Gartner analyst Matt Light. It may be possible to extend and "repurpose" those legacy applications well beyond their original intentions. But at some point, it's time to consider retirement (for the application, not you).

In a series of reports, Gartner analysts describe how to avoid "portfolio entropy" and use the following three-point test for evaluating systems: "Tolerate, integrate or eliminate."

Web Services

There's a good deal of skepticism in the user community about the hype surrounding Web services. There are concerns about security, reliable messaging and Internet transactions, for example.

Byron Sebastian, senior director of product management at Web services vendor BEA Systems Inc. in San Jose, acknowledges those concerns and says the vendor community needs to develop standards and do a better job of describing the business problem that Web services can solve today. Then, he says, vendors need to provide a road map for how Web services will evolve to solve new and different problems.

"The biggest problem users are facing today is internal integration between enterprise systems that they've got, particularly integration among fiefdoms -- the organizational, geographic or technology islands within an enterprise," Sebastian says. "That's where users see the biggest value of Web services, because the requirements for security, transactions or reliable messaging are either less rigid or [because] there are existing technologies they can use behind the firewall to solve those problems."

Sebastian agrees with industry analysts who say Web services will be deployed in three phases: integrating systems behind the firewall, integrating with business partners and conducting electronic transactions over the Internet.

He says vendors are working to develop standards for reliable messaging, and there may be an initial standard out this year. In the meantime, he says, it's possible to use the Java Messaging Service (part of Java 2 Enterprise Edition) behind the firewall.

Security is the other user concern that's a top priority at BEA, Sebastian says. "It's really a business decision for enterprises to decide how much [security] is enough. Today, you can encrypt Web services messages [using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and HTTP over SSL], and some of our customers have found that's sufficient for their needs. Other customers are interested in deeper support for client authorization and authentication, so we're working with partners on standards. It's really a customer decision, and it's our job to provide as many security options as possible so they can pick the best one for them."

Mobile Application Development

Jim Acquaviva, CEO of Kada Systems Inc. in Burlington, Mass., has a simple message for corporate IT managers considering mobile application development: Don't be scared.

"Mobile applications should be viewed as an extension of the enterprise applications to the mobile worker -- not as something entirely different," he says.

Acquaviva says the No. 1 myth is that mobile is an entirely foreign technology for IT shops and requires a new staff of mobile experts. "You can use your existing skill sets to produce these applications," he says.

Kada provides tools for building Java-based mobile applications. So what does Acquaviva think of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Project Monty, the Java Virtual Machine for mobile devices?

"Monty validates our need for a virtual machine of the appropriate size -- smaller is always better. Even as the device capacity grows, the developers and service providers want that capacity available for more applications -- not a virtual machine," he says. "Monty also focuses on improving performance, recognizing that speed just thrills, and it always will. It can never be fast enough."

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