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AJAX on the Enterprise

Enterprise Matters

Plotting a Course for Rigel 7

XForms and Schema-Driven Programming

As a technology evangelist, one of the things that I have to be very sensitive to is to recognize those technologies that are still in their infancy but that have the potential to be much more. XForms definitely fits into this category. XForms, another W3C standard, originally was started to create a somewhat more robust set of controls for the Web that could take advantage of the newly emergent XML standard.

One of the first things that came from this was the realization that such components were ultimately mechanisms for handling data-binding (assuming, as has proved prescient, that XML would likely be the ultimate expression of that data). This in turn implied the existence of a data-model, and by extension a control/binding layer that serves to both map content to the controls and constrain what the content can be.

What emerged from this effort was the XForms standard, which was released as a 1.0 standard in 2003 and is scheduled to be released in 1.1 form later this year, designed to handle use cases and ambiguities that arose with the original specification. This specification includes supports for a number of features:

  • XPath Mapping. All components are populated either directly or indirectly using XPath expressions.

  • New Form Elements. Including <output> and <range> (slider) components

  • Repeating Component Groups and Contextual Toggles. Making it possible to generate repeating tables, wizards, and similar components.

  • Add/Delete Capability. Items (and complete substructures) can be added or removed from the data model using components without an explicit need for imperative code.

  • Auto-updating via XML. The XForms data-model will, on submission, post the relevant portions of the data model as XML to the server automatically without losing the page state.

  • Constraint Modelling. Constraints are applied to the data model, not the components, though the reaction of components to changes in the value or validity of the model can change the UI.

  • Abstract Component Model. XForms components are abstract, and are intended to be subclassed or otherwise bound via some form of presentation layer. All implementations provide default bindings, of course, but the XForm should ultimately be “skinnable.”

XForms implementations have been around for a couple of years, with a number of different approaches being taken. Solutions such as IBM’s Workplace Forms (formerly PureEdge) and x-port’s FormsPlayer are standalone solutions existing in a separate (albeit embeddable) application space from the normal browser. Orbeon is an open source AJAX implementation, while the Mozilla Foundation is creating an XForms extension that should be natively installed with Mozilla Firefox 3.0.

While there are other XML aspects that play a part in the SOA/AJAX space, ultimately they are all moving towards a form of application in which the data (moving around typically as XML, or in the case of lighter-weight messaging as JSON) moves from point to point in a distributed network, one where the client becomes far more important, and where the same client architecture is likely to be rendered on-the-fly in response to a state contained in the user profile and experience.

Extending Tractor Beams

The Importance of Bindings

Several speakers have made the pronouncement that while AJAX is powerful, it’s not QUITE there yet. And I’m inclined to agree for a number of reasons though perhaps not the ones that people had in mind. In 2005, Tim Berners-Lee gave a keynote address at the World Wide Web Conference in Japan where he pointed out that the insecurities plaguing Web browsers were a direct result of the introduction of scripting language within the confines of the Web browser.

Understanding why such a blanket statement, one perhaps at odds (though in the long run I don’t think it is) with what was covered at the AJAX conference, should be both made and be true can go a long way towards understanding where the Web itself is going, and certainly where Web development is heading. There are a number of key insecurities about immediate scripting that make the Web more fragile:

  • Platform Incompatibilities. Each incompatibility offers both a chance for code to break and for rogue code to get through. While a common framework here would be desirable, vendor differentiation makes that framework difficult to achieve.

  • Cross-Domain Scripting. As AJAX programmers, we want to have the freedom of getting out of the sandbox, but the security restrictions involved in such sandboxing make certain sense.

  • Intermingling and Poor Code Reuse. Too much JavaScript is cut and pasted, often out of context or without consideration of side effects. Toolkits help, but even they can be used as crutches and limit the options of what a developer can do, especially in an enterprise context. Managed code in the business environment is important, if not critical, which is part of the reason that uncontrolled coding in a Web environment makes IT managers as leery as Scotty with a misaligned transporter coil.

  • Lack of Validation. With such cut-and-paste code, it also makes it far more difficult to validate the code, because it’s typically developed in a production environment at production deadline speed.

  • Poor Abstraction and Maintainability. JavaScript code is more susceptible than most when it comes to the generation of unmanageable code, and such code management is the lifebread of enterprise IT.

Given all these factors, is there any real alternative around there? I believe that there is, and it’s one that many third-party vendors have of course twigged onto. This alternative is XML Binding, which can be thought of as the following:

An XML Binding is the association between an XML element in a presentation environment and some form of functionality from an external “binding document” that persists beyond a single presentation generation. Properties for the bound element can, in turn, be set via attributes, or from associated methods defined from the binding itself. Such a binding is also known as a behavior.

What this means in a nutshell is that you can introduce XML tags into your presentation documents (XHTML or otherwise), define a binding or behavior on those tags then let this underlying behavioral functionality control the interactions with clients in the application.

Such XML Bindings can cover a lot of different functionality. A short list of such bindings include such things as:

  • Page Layout Elements. This includes oriented boxes, containers, flexible spring controls, stacked boxes, tabsets, wizards, and similar components.

  • Data Fed Elements. Undisplayed data providers (both static and dynamically refreshing, such as a news feed reader), dynamic tables, XForms data models, Live treeview components, and so on.

  • Graphical and Animated Elements. Defined or complex generated shapes, charts, graphs, bound image components, animated clocks. and other widgets.

  • Secondary Applications. Some tags may also contain whole applications – slideshow widgets, image selectors, IM windows, and so forth.

In short, such XML Bindings give you all you need to effectively create either primary applications (an insurance application) or subordinate infrastructure (such as a notification widget in a Web page) and can do so without necessarily requiring an extensive amount of server-side programming.

Most commercial and open source XML frameworks are built on the notion of bindings in one fashion or another, although whether the ability to define subordinate components from those frameworks is implementation-dependent. Languages such as Mozilla XUL, Adobe FLEX, Microsoft XAML, Laszlo SystemsLZX, and so forth are all built in this same way, though being able to build components (which is what XML binding is all about) that can be directly integrated into Web page flows varies considerably from app to app.

There are a number of different languages for handling binding, the most notable of which, Mozilla’s XBL, can be used to create components directly in Web pages as well as in the Mozilla application itself. Most of these languages create a one-to-one association between the XML object and a given class written in a language such as JavaScript, with the additional notion that the component constructors, methods, and properties are aware of (and shadow) the XML element being bound. The class, in turn, becomes responsible for rendering the content to be seen in the tag (I’ve often found that coupling such a binding with XSLT works miracles here).

Such bindings offer a huge win for enterprise development in particular:

  • Standardized Library. Code can be created in isolation and then added to an enterprise library of useful objects, making it much easier for IT managers to control code workflow.

  • Separation of Skillsets. A component developer is a considerably more difficult person to find than Web designers and developers, so by creating specialized XML bindings you can keep such developers focused on building components rather than spending all of their time marking up code.

  • Security. Such components, being tested in isolation, can be introduced independent of production timeflows and can be made appropriately secure. Moreover, such components can also perform secondary implementation – bootstrap code that pulls in what should be private coding will only function if the page is within the appropriate security context, so people can’t follow a URL to get a source code library.

  • Code Maintenance. With XML Bindings you can keep your XML contained in a single block without the need for additional inline scripting. This abstracts the application, making it easier to read and change under the hood so long as you’re not changing the XML interface, making it much easier to maintain in the long run.

  • Platform Flexibility. An additional side effect of such bindings is that in limited-capability devices the XML from the source code can be transformed directly on the server, and the bindings themselves can be amended to handle device-specific implementation details. This masks the need to have a common development framework, something that’s currently limited with AJAX.

What is perhaps most significant is that it’s possible now to create binding layers for most, if not all, browsers by using JavaScript. In some cases (specifically Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer) native binding languages do exist. In the short to mid-term, this points to needing to create specific bindings for each platform, though effective use of the XBL (or emerging XBL2) standard can mitigate the actual work considerably.

I see XML Bindings as being the logical progression of AJAX over the course of the next two years although the technology exists today in somewhat disparate form. It’s likely that the adoption of such XBLs will actually take place more in the corporate sphere where browser use can be mandated and the component use consequently not limited by the need to build “super-controls” than it will in the wider Web, at least first, but over time many of these components should move into the mainstream of Web development just as JavaScript “framework” libraries are used today.

The Final Frontier

The efforts going on in the Web right now are not a radical revision of the past, but rather a refinement and “refactoring” that is at the heart of nearly every software endeavor, and it is this refactoring, far from obvious for those in the thick of it but profound nonetheless, that is insuring the integrity of the Web. We are moving to a model where we have both an imperative model for power and a declarative model for structure, something near and dear to an old engineer’s heart, and it will be both glorious and, more to the point, elegant, when it is done. May you, gentle reader, boldly go where no one has gone before.

* * *

At AJAXWorld Conference & Expo 2007 East, delegates will hear and learn not only the history, process, and inspiration behind AJAX, they will also be helped to design actual AJAX applications using JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the Document Object Model (DOM) and XMLHttpRequest Object.

Delegates can hand-pick sessions from six tracks pitched at a a variety of levels from Beginner to Advanced.
Rather than staying at the platform-agnostic level, developers and IT professionals will find among the 100+ sessions at AJAXWorld real-world examples in all the main server-side technologies such as PHP, Java, .NET and ColdFusion.

The first International AJAXWorld (a registered trademark of SYS-CON Media) Conference & Expo generated record press coverage for any i-technology event in the past 6 years. A quick search on Google News brought 410 stories filed under the keyword search "AJAXWorld."

Typical of the coverage was the story from ADT Magazine, whose John K. Waters wrote, in a report titled "Nexaweb and JackBe Take Web 2 to the Enterprise":

"Last week's AJAXWorld Conference and Expo ... had the feel of an early JavaOne - which is to say, the place was positively quivering with possibility."

Click Here to Read More...

From the Team Behind AJAXWorld Magazine!
AJAXWorld Magazine is the pre-eminent independent vendor-neutral resource for the fastest growing new segment of the software business: entirely Web-based applications and experiences like Gmail, Google Maps, Live.com, MySpaces, and Flickr.

AJAXWorld Magazine recognizes that the next-generation user-centric Web is hurtling toward us and that it's a rich-media future in which AJAX, as the most talked about of all the Rich Internet technologies, is positioned firmly at center stage.

Click Here to Read the First Issue...

The first international AJAXWorld Conference & Expo which took place on October 2 - 4, 2006, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA is sponsored by Adobe, Amazon, Apress, Backbase, ComponentArt, Cynergy Systems, Google, Helmi Technologies, IBM, ICEsoft, ILOG, Infragistics, JackBe, Laszlo Systems, Nexaweb, OASIS, Parasoft, Sun Microsystems, telerik, TIBCO, U7 Web Technologies, Visible Measures, Zapatec; including media sponsors AJAX Matters, AJAXWorld Magazine, BZ Media, ColdFusion Developer's Journal, DevtownStation.com, Eclipse Developer's Journal, Eclipse Review, Enterprise Open Source Magazine, Integration Developer News, ITtoolbox.com, Java Developer's Journal, LinuxWorld.com, Methods & Tools, Network World, Open Enterprise Trends, Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Journal, SD Times, Software Test & Performance, SOA Web Services Journal, SYS-CON.TV, Web 2.0 Journal, and Web Developer's & Designer's Journal.

Typical of the coverage was the story from ADT Magazine, whose John K. Waters wrote, in a report titled "Nexaweb and JackBe Take Web 2 to the Enterprise":

"Last week's AJAXWorld Conference and Expo ... had the feel of an early JavaOne - which is to say, the place was positively quivering with possibility."

Click Here to Read More...

From the Team Behind AJAXWorld Magazine!
AJAXWorld Magazine is the pre-eminent independent vendor-neutral resource for the fastest growing new segment of the software business: entirely Web-based applications and experiences like Gmail, Google Maps, Live.com, MySpaces, and Flickr.

AJAXWorld Magazine recognizes that the next-generation user-centric Web is hurtling toward us and that it's a rich-media future in which AJAX, as the most talked about of all the Rich Internet technologies, is positioned firmly at center stage.

Click Here to Read the First Issue...

The first international AJAXWorld Conference & Expo which took place on October 2 - 4, 2006, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA is sponsored by Adobe, Amazon, Apress, Backbase, ComponentArt, Cynergy Systems, Google, Helmi Technologies, IBM, ICEsoft, ILOG, Infragistics, JackBe, Laszlo Systems, Nexaweb, OASIS, Parasoft, Sun Microsystems, telerik, TIBCO, U7 Web Technologies, Visible Measures, Zapatec; including media sponsors AJAX Matters, AJAXWorld Magazine, BZ Media, ColdFusion Developer's Journal, DevtownStation.com, Eclipse Developer's Journal, Eclipse Review, Enterprise Open Source Magazine, Integration Developer News, ITtoolbox.com, Java Developer's Journal, LinuxWorld.com, Methods & Tools, Network World, Open Enterprise Trends, Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Journal, SD Times, Software Test & Performance, SOA Web Services Journal, SYS-CON.TV, Web 2.0 Journal, and Web Developer's & Designer's Journal.

Typical of the coverage was the story from ADT Magazine, whose John K. Waters wrote, in a report titled "Nexaweb and JackBe Take Web 2 to the Enterprise":

"Last week's AJAXWorld Conference and Expo ... had the feel of an early JavaOne - which is to say, the place was positively quivering with possibility."

Click Here to Read More...

From the Team Behind AJAXWorld Magazine!
AJAXWorld Magazine is the pre-eminent independent vendor-neutral resource for the fastest growing new segment of the software business: entirely Web-based applications and experiences like Gmail, Google Maps, Live.com, MySpaces, and Flickr.

AJAXWorld Magazine recognizes that the next-generation user-centric Web is hurtling toward us and that it's a rich-media future in which AJAX, as the most talked about of all the Rich Internet technologies, is positioned firmly at center stage.

Click Here to Read the First Issue...

The first international AJAXWorld Conference & Expo which took place on October 2 - 4, 2006, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA is sponsored by Adobe, Amazon, Apress, Backbase, ComponentArt, Cynergy Systems, Google, Helmi Technologies, IBM, ICEsoft, ILOG, Infragistics, JackBe, Laszlo Systems, Nexaweb, OASIS, Parasoft, Sun Microsystems, telerik, TIBCO, U7 Web Technologies, Visible Measures, Zapatec; including media sponsors AJAX Matters, AJAXWorld Magazine, BZ Media, ColdFusion Developer's Journal, DevtownStation.com, Eclipse Developer's Journal, Eclipse Review, Enterprise Open Source Magazine, Integration Developer News, ITtoolbox.com, Java Developer's Journal, LinuxWorld.com, Methods & Tools, Network World, Open Enterprise Trends, Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Journal, SD Times, Software Test & Performance, SOA Web Services Journal, SYS-CON.TV, Web 2.0 Journal, and Web Developer's & Designer's Journal.

Typical of the coverage was the story from ADT Magazine, whose John K. Waters wrote, in a report titled "Nexaweb and JackBe Take Web 2 to the Enterprise":

"Last week's AJAXWorld Conference and Expo ... had the feel of an early JavaOne - which is to say, the place was positively quivering with possibility."

Click Here to Read More...

More Stories By Kurt Cagle

Kurt Cagle is a developer and author, with nearly 20 books to his name and several dozen articles. He writes about Web technologies, open source, Java, and .NET programming issues. He has also worked with Microsoft and others to develop white papers on these technologies. He is the owner of Cagle Communications and a co-author of Real-World AJAX: Secrets of the Masters (SYS-CON books, 2006).

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