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Easily Created Mashups for Business Applications

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The new technologies available in Web 2.0 make it easy to combine multiple applications into a single interface.

 

In a recent article, I discussed JavaScript frameworks, tools that help you build JavaScript applications. Because JavaScript runs in the browser, not on the server, it allows you to do something you can't easily do from the server: get data from multiple applications. This is the secret behind mashups, but unfortunately, as with so many things in the Web world, it's not a silver bullet.

 

Mashups allow you to quickly and easily combine data from multiple applications into a single Web page. Combine that with the "no page refresh" capabilities of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technology, and you've got screens where a simple rollover can pop up an image from Flickr or a click can conjure a Google map. From an application design standpoint, the Web becomes a giant candy store. And this thrills the creative types who spend lots of time on the Internet blogging and twittering.

 

In the business world, though, none of these cool technologies make sense unless they  contribute to the bottom line, and they can't do that without data from your own application. In this article, I'll separate the overall hype about mashup technology from the realities of creating integrated business applications. For example, in the greater Web world, a movement is afoot proclaiming the advent of the "semantic Web." While the idea has perhaps more relevancy today than it did back when Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the WWW) coined it nearly a decade ago, the idea of a magic cloud where all data is accessible and easy to integrate still doesn't exist today.

 

Yes, APIs exist--especially within the realm of social software, the Flickrs and MySpaces and YouTubes of the world--that make it very easy to link pictures and videos from these Web sites  into your Web pages. And this makes sense; since such services exist only at the whim of their users, they must be as open to the world as possible. But is there really a lot of information freely available on the Web that is going to make sense integrated with your applications? Do you really want your business to depend on something that was posted on YouTube?

 

At the most, you might want to use those applications to get some free storage and bandwidth for pictures and videos, but in the long run, is that really a good idea? If you really want to offload your data, you have to think carefully about whether you want it on Flickr, where it is protected by no contractual obligations, or on a real corporate service such as Akamai, which has been doing exactly this sort of thing for a long time.

Mashups in the Corporate World

So let's skip the whole idea of making the content from your employee's MySpace pages available on your corporate Web site and instead focus on adding value to your business. Mashups can do that in one of three ways: linking multiple applications (combining data from two or more existing corporate sources), adding external formatting (using an external source to format your corporate data), or adding completely new external data.

 

 

Linking Multiple Applications

 

 

First, you can link together data from multiple applications. As you begin your foray into the world of Web presence, this is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of mashups technology, because it allows you to integrate different Web-enabling strategies. While normally it's all but impossible for a JavaServer Page (JSP) and a PHP-generated page to interact, by using the magic of AJAX, it's actually relatively easy to take data from the JSP, for example, and use it to invoke a PHP page. Why is this important? Because it allows you to pursue multiple technologies. That way, even if your strategic direction is JavaServer Faces (JSF), you can still take advantage of a canned PHP application or an RPG-CGI script.

 

The way you do that is to segment your application into individual components, each with its own interface. Then, you use data returned by one component of the application to generate the URLs used to invoke other components. You might have an RPG-CGI program that generates a list of hot orders but uses a URL to a quick and dirty PHP script to get the phone number for the salesman on that order.

 

Because all of the servers are under the control of your IT department, this often avoids one of the most vexing issues in the mashup world: cross-domain requests. A cross-domain request is one in which the primary page is loaded from one server, but it makes requests for services from a server in another domain. I'll discuss the cross-domain issues in more detail later, but they exist in all the rich-client implementations, including Microsoft's Silverlight and Adobe's Flex.

 

 

Adding External Formatting

 

 

This is an interesting opportunity to spice up your applications. I like to think of it as a transition option, much like screen scraping. With external formatting, your application sends data to an external server, which processes the data and returns it in another format. While you can write the formatting server yourself, what really makes this exciting is the existence of the Google Chart API, which is actually a simple URL-based Web service. You provide the data in the URL, and Google returns a formatted business graphic like the one below.

 

072808PlutaFigure1.png

 

 

While the service is not perfect, what this allows you to do is to embed business graphics into your applications almost immediately, without locking you into a specific architecture long-term. I stress that because using a service has some negatives. Foremost, of course, is the fact that you're sending your data out to an outside service; this potentially raises both security and performance concerns. The other issue is cost. While the service is free for now, Google can change that at any time.

 

However, this does give you a quick and dirty way to introduce the concept of business graphics to your Web audience to see its applicability and to gauge whether it makes sense to pursue the technology. Once you've done that, literally dozens of other options exist for embedding locally generated graphics into your application, thereby bypassing the issues raised above. However, each of those options has its own issues; using an external service like this buys you the time to do the due diligence required to select the one most appropriate for your business.

 

 

Adding External Data

 

 

This option gets the most air time, I think, because it has a high "Wow!" factor, especially among the bloggers and twitterers. And don't get me wrong: I don't deny the ubiquitous nature of the Web's social networking attributes. I just want this article to draw a very distinct line between social software and business software. This is not to say that the two never merge, but instead to say business decisions based on social networking phenomena tend not to be the best decisions. Don't believe me? Ask some of the major players how much money they've lost advertising in Second Life.

 

So, when I talk about adding external data, I want to focus specifically on the data that adds value to a business application, as opposed to gadgets that make an application more socially friendly, like a "Word of the Day" icon.

 

To me, it's hard to identify external data that makes sense to add. The single biggest one is of course Google Maps, which is why that particular capability is so popular. Every business can make good use of an icon that pops up a map with directions to a specific location. Any brick-and-mortar store needs a good store finder; the term "store locator" is pretty much a common part of today's online lexicon. And of course certain businesses, such as real estate, can no longer compete without this sort of technology.

 

But really, it's hard for me to identify external data that might actually be important to my users but that my company doesn't provide. Maybe you know of some situations that I'm just not seeing; I'd love to have an ongoing discussion about this particular topic because I think it's fundamental to understanding the requirements of the next generation of business applications.

 

And while I don't see a lot of generic Web services that make sense for every business, that doesn't mean these external services have no use for any business. As you get to specific businesses or job descriptions, you can probably find some services that provide some benefit. Your road warriors, for example, need icons that can give them updated weather information and flight status. These services can come from free providers like EJSE or from for-fee services such as FlightStats (technically, FlightStats has both free and fee services). My biggest concern with using any of these services is that you must design your application to handle the situation when that service is not available.

 

A Technical Caveat

The final caveat to this whole discussion is a highly technical one. Both the problem and its potential solutions exist way down in the bowels of the technical details of HTTP transactions, but they need to be discussed. The generic term for the problem is "cross-domain requests," and it has to do with the idea of running an application on one domain (the domain being the part that immediately follows "http://" in a URL, such as http://www.mcpressonline.com/ or http://www.plutabrothers.com/) that in turn requests data from another domain.

 

In the simpler world of pure HTML, this wasn't much of an issue; even if you did ask for data from another server, you would typically just be downloading images. Images rarely caused problems, and in any case, HTML-based cross-domain requests are allowed by browsers. But one of the primary restrictions to AJAX is that the underlying infrastructure (namely the XMLHTTPRequest function) has hard limitations in most browsers to disable cross-domain execution. I don't understand the exact reasoning behind this, but I think it's because the data from such a request is almost always used to change the contents of the page, and such changes could allow evildoers to cause your page to do very bad things, like stealing your contacts list, trashing your hard drive, or even turning your computer into a mindless zombie that follows whatever orders its nefarious master sent.

 

Sorry, got a little carried away there. But it's not really a stretch. The state of browser software is such that nearly any decent hacker can throw together a script that can attack and obliterate an improperly secured computer. The trick is how to secure the computer. One option is to disallow any access to the outside world. This is the realm of the firewall and is the reason that most cross-domain requests are disallowed by today's browsers. In fact, if you try to send an AJAX request to a server other than your own, it will not succeed.

 

 

Cross-Domain Whitelisting

 

 

This is not just an AJAX issue, though. Any of the thick-client environments, such as Silverlight and Flash, have their own security issues and their own ways of dealing with them. The usual option is through a type of whitelist, in which the developers can identify trusted sites whose content can be accessed safely. This policy file, of course, is a single point of security risk and thus needs tight controls, the type of controls that make developers crazy when trying to develop new applications.

 

Of course, the entire idea of a proprietary thick-client environment on the browser is another one that needs to be addressed by your corporation, and I don't intend to go down that particular road in this article. Leaving aside the question of whether proprietary tokenization causes problems for open Web semantics, two other methods exist for getting around the cross-domain problem.

 

 

Server Proxies

 

 

This idea has actually been around since the beginning of the Web, certainly since corporate workstations have needed (limited) access to the Internet. A server proxy is a device that basically intercepts all requests from the clients on your network and processes them itself. It sends the data to another machine, receives the response, and then sends it back to the client.

 

While in theory the concept is very simple and very powerful, there are a number of real issues, especially when dealing with persistent connections. But if you can overcome the technical hurdles, server proxies provide a wide range of benefits above and beyond cross-domain requests, including caching (increased performance) and auditing (enhanced security). The downside is that each request goes through another layer, and that can reduce performance. So implementing a server proxy correctly is a little more complex than just sticking another machine on the network, and thus that puts it squarely into the business decision category, requiring the appropriate research.

 

 

Dynamic SCRIPT Requests

 

 

I bring this up because it has become a hot new way of getting around the cross-domain script issue. I say "new" because it's getting a bit of press these days, although the idea of script injection is itself not new and goes back several years already.

 

Remember that I said that standard HTML elements like image tags () don't have the same cross-domain limitations as the XMLHTTPRequest, which underlies AJAX. That's because the browser just doesn't check those sorts of things. Well, that same "feature" is available for the tag, which thus allows you to execute a script on any machine in the world. As large a hole as that might seem, it's been relatively obscure for some time now, but with the growing use of AJAX (and the growing developer angst over the cross-domain problem), the dynamic SCRIPT request is seeing more usage.


While I won't go into a lot of detail about this particular mechanism, I do want to bring it to your attention because its indiscriminate use could leave your applications highly vulnerable to all manner of attacks. In essence, the technique uses a "callback" mechanism to execute an arbitrary piece of JavaScript returned from a server. While that's probably not an issue with a trusted server, you can imagine the havoc that could be caused were this to be opened to the wild.

 

Just imagine the security problems that have been posed by SQL injection, and then realize that this is worse: it's actually executing arbitrary programs on your workstation. I can see auditors clutching their chests and dropping like flies....

Mashup Wrap-up

That's it for mashups. I think they're a very positive force in today's world. I'm secretly thrilled that mashups don't require the heavy infrastructure of portal technology, because they allow you to very quickly prototype your next generation of applications. And even though there are some caveats, they're not insurmountable, so now it's up to you to figure out how to best apply this technology to your bottom line.

Joe Pluta

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books, including Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i, E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at joepluta@plutabrothers.com.


MC Press books written by Joe Pluta available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i
Joe Pluta introduces you to EGL Rich UI and IBM’s Rational Developer for the IBM i platform.
List Price $39.95

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WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
List Price $74.95

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Eclipse: Step by Step Eclipse: Step by Step
Quickly get up to speed and productivity using Eclipse.
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    Profound Logic Software, Inc.Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application. In Part 2, Brian May teaches you the different tooling options available for writing code, debugging, and using Git for version control. Attend this webinar to learn:

    • Different tools to develop Node.js applications on IBM i
    • Debugging Node.js
    • The basics of Git and tools to help those new to it
    • Using NodeRun.com as a pre-built development environment

     

     

  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.