WebApp Server -- A database-centric approach that offers a Web database application development and deployment environment

By ServerWatch Staff (Send Email)
Posted August 10, 2000

Lots of Web application developers cut their teeth working on database applications. Of course, most applications on the Web are database applications too, but it's generally not a database-oriented environment -- unless the product in question is one like Data Access' WebApp Server. This is a kind of application server that acts similar to a database server. It can be used to create Web database applications using new or pre-existing database tables, and it provides the tools to manage the data, build the visuals, and incorporate business rules. It does this in an integrated development environment (IDE) consisting of the WebApp Server with its Administration module and the bundled WebApp Studio as the visual design component. Both applications look and feel like familiar database management tools.

WebApp Server and WebApp Studio use parts of another Data Access product: Visual DataFlex. This database application development system has been around a long time in various iterations (including DOS). The current version brings more or less complete object orientation and Web tools to the party. The question we pondered in this review though was, "Do you have to be a DataFlex developer to use WebApp Server or Studio?" Our verdict: no. Of course, DataFlex developers are a natural constituency for these two products, but WebApp Server also has features that may appeal to any Web database application developer.

The most difficult part of WebApp Server installation for development is deciding whether to put Server and Studio on the same computer (as is typical for development and testing). The program sets itself up as an automatic starter on the development server (which may or may not be desirable). We hooked WebApp Server up using Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 as the database of choice -- Data Access makes it clear that you can use any ODBC data source, DB2, and Pervasive SQL Btrieve, as well as the company's own DataFlex data manager.

When WebApp Server's manual says, "design a suitable database model" as the first big item in developing a Web application, we sensed right away that we were entering database-centric territory. WebApp Server and Studio contains the tools (i.e., Database Builder and Database Explorer) to: create tables, relations, and data dictionaries; set up Web Business Objects (WBO), which are views of tables; and link the data to a user interface through Active Server Pages (ASP).

WebApp Server/Studio makes extensive use of Microsoft technology to produce Web-enabled components including ASP, COM, and Internet Information Server (IIS). If you want to get under the hood with WebApp Server (and sometimes this is a necessity), familiarity with these technologies is important. As a corollary, WebApp Server does not yet have Unix or Linux versions, which can be construed as a limitation in some quarters.

In this scheme of development, WebApp Server's primary task is to run Web Business Objects (as COM objects) that communicate with the Web server through ASP. While this may not sound simple, Data Access has done an excellent job of making this model comprehensible and even facile. Much of this is due to the straightforward approach of Studio and the fact that so much ASP code (VBScript or JavaScript) is generated for the user.

At the heart of the system are WBO and its related Data Dictionary Objects (DDO). By using a data dictionary, WebApp Server centralizes and simplifies the tasks of organizing and entering business logic and other elements that control a Web application. The Studio component provides the developer with access to all database and business logic elements in an easy-to-use visual environment.

However, WebApp Server does have its drawbacks. The first that comes to mind is it does not provide a Web page development tool and thus expects the user to incorporate HTML pages designed elsewhere (e.g., Microsoft FrontPage). Debugging in this kind of environment can be complicated. WebApp Server does not (and perhaps cannot) provide debugging tools for HTML, VBScript, JavaScript, ASP, COM, and other components. Some application server environments, such as IBM WebSphere/Visual Age, do have integrated debugging -- and it is a big advantage.

Deployment of a WebApp Server and applications is not particularly tricky, but it can hardly be described as automatic. The installer must zip up the WebApp Workspace and export its registry entries, then install the WebApp Server, workspace, and registry on the production server and create a virtual directory for the application. This can be automated by third-party products, but we believe it really should be part of WebApp Server.

In some ways it's difficult to compare WebApp Server with other enterprise-level application servers. Although they all have various features in common (e.g., database connectivity, business rules, and session management), WebApp Server does not include other common features such as load balancing, various kinds of caching and connection pooling, failover techniques, and CORBA or other distributed objects management. WebApp Server does not emphasize scalability.

Enterprises looking for a full-scale enterprise application server, or a fully integrated development environment will not find it in Data Access' WebApp Server. However, within the realm of Web database applications running under Microsoft ASP and IIS, this is a highly optimized-and simplified-environment that many database developers will find appealing.

Pros: 7 Good database tools, 7 Well thought-out incorporation of data dictionary and business logic management

Cons: 7 Lack of an integrated debugging environment, 7 scalability is questionable

New in v3: Advanced scalability features that include load balancing, clustering, and process pooling technologies; enhanced the Web Business Object (WBO) interface to support WML; two new wizards allow the creation of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) display and entry applications; support for WAP/WML applications; support for XML processing; WebApp Integrator eases the process of adding interface calls in ASP pages; made the WebApp Studio IDE more powerful and easier to use with new features such as enhanced WBO modeling, improved code editor, improved ASP file management and editing support, new Print File operation, exposed WebApp Wizard source code, and easy, automatic migration from WebApp 2 to WebApp 3 applications; enhanced the WebApp Sample Application; Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 5

Version Reviewed: 2.1
Reviewed by: Nelson King
Last Updated: 3/19/02
Date of Original Review: 8/10/00

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