Web Building with BCD's WebSmart and Nexus Portal

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If you ask iSeries professionals to name Web development and deployment software that starts with "Web," WebSmart is usually not the first name that comes to mind, which is surprising because Business Computer Design (BCD), WebSmart's vendor, has a major presence in the iSeries market. This article examines WebSmart and the company's two other Web development and deployment products, Nexus Portal and RPG/DDS to Web Conversion Tool (RDW).

When asked about its iSeries market advantages, BCD draws a comparison to WebSphere, which, since it was developed elsewhere and ported to iSeries, lacks the integration and simplicity that have been the hallmark of iSeries systems software. In contrast, BCD develops specifically for iSeries, resulting in products that are generally easier to implement and use in that environment.

WebSmart also lists upfront costs that are significantly lower than WebSphere's. On average, license fees for an enterprise total $15,000, including licenses for the WebSmart Interactive Development Environment (IDE) and Web Application Server (WAS). Actual fees depend on the iSeries model/processor number. Licenses allow an unlimited number of developers and users. As a promotion, BCD currently includes RDW with all WebSmart licenses, charging only an annual maintenance fee for the tool.

The Web Application Server name causes some confusion. This WAS is not the WebSphere Application Server. No WebSphere licenses are required in order to use WebSmart.

BCD currently waives the licensing fee for Nexus Portal, charging only an annual maintenance fee of $2,195 (or $3,195 for the Pro version). All BCD products on maintenance contracts offer unlimited technical telephone support.

One obvious question that you might ask is, who should consider WebSmart and Nexus Portal? If you are developing a static Web site, you will not find much value in these products. Instead, buy one of the mass-market HTML authoring tools, which are somewhat cheaper and easier to use if all you need are rarely changed pages of text and graphics.

However, most organizations now want dynamic, database-driven sites capable of interacting with visitors. Many organizations also want to use the Web or an intranet as a front-end for existing and new applications. Doing so leverages investments in legacy software and allows authorized users to access applications from anywhere in the world using only a browser. iSeries shops with these requirements are the market for WebSmart and Nexus Portal, a market that has so far yielded more than 800 WebSmart customers and more than 200 Nexus Portal customers.

WebSmart

WebSmart is available in two versions. WebSmart OE (Original Edition) generates RPG ILE-CGI. WebSmart JSE (Java Server Edition) generates Java servlets. Both versions currently require an iSeries server for deployment. The Java servlets generated by the JSE version can run on any server that supports Java, but WebSmart makes use of storage and the Distributed Data Management (DDM) server on iSeries. BCD has announced future support for a totally non-iSeries Java environment, but it has not provided a release date because, according to Eric Figura, sales and marketing manager for BCD, "Our customers are not clamoring to move off iSeries; however, our non-iSeries architecture is designed and can be delivered within six months if demand materializes."

WebSmart's IDE, which runs under Windows, uses an iSeries connection to access file and field names, generate and compile programs (in the latest version of WebSmart, only the compile runs on iSeries, removing the resource-heavy generation process from the iSeries server), and store compiled program objects.

The starting point for building a Web application using WebSmart is a template. Templates include the basic page layouts and some of the programming, with placeholders for various elements. WebSmart ships with a number of templates grouped into "template themes." All templates within a theme share a common look and feel. You can use these templates as is, customize them for your organization, or build new ones.

When creating a new application, you start by choosing a template to use as a base. A wizard then steps you through the process of setting formatting options, identifying iSeries files that will be used in the Web pages, and filling in the placeholders.

Within WebSmart, applications consist of a combination of standard HTML, WebSmart-specific HTML extensions, and a proprietary scripting language, PML, that defines the server-side logic. The IDE offers three design views to support these requirements: HTML, PML, and preview. The preview view allows you to see what the pages you're designing will look like in a browser. The HTML view offers two options: raw HTML or visual HTML. The latter integrates with popular WYSIWYG visual design tools such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver, allowing you to design pages and then save the changes directly into the WebSmart IDE.

WebSmart ships with a number of HTML and PML snippets (prewritten, reusable code) that you can select from a snippet pane in the IDE. You can also write snippets specific to your organization and include them in the WebSmart repository. In addition, BCD provides example PML, HTML, JavaScript, and SQL snippets and functions that you can download from its Web site.

Another pane in the IDE lists fields in the files that you identified using the initial wizard, allowing you to paste fields into your PML code.

To make it easier to work with complex Web pages, WebSmart divides pages into logical HTML segments. For example, the company logo and name and the current date may reside in a "header" segment. Pages that display rows of data may contain "list header," "list detail," and "list footer" segments. The IDE provides a tabbed window that allows you to work with each segment individually.

In very simple Web applications, a developer might not need to code any PML or HTML. The templates and wizard may be able to do that automatically, but, realistically, at least some PML and HTML coding will be necessary for most applications that need to be customized to meet an organization's requirements. To simplify the process, the latest version of WebSmart offers enhanced HTML and SQL wizards to help developers write the necessary code.

To aid in the management of multi-developer environments, WebSmart includes basic change management functions, such as program check-in/check-out. It also interfaces with major change management packages from other vendors.

One possible criticism of WebSmart is the need to learn a proprietary scripting language. However, because of the language's design, RPG programmers are usually much more comfortable with learning PML than one of the other languages that are used for Web programming, such as Java or C#. Figura reports that only about 20% of RPG programmers take a course to learn PML. The rest pick it up from the user and reference manuals and by looking at examples.

RPG/DDS to Web Conversion Tool (RDW)

Most organizations have a huge investment in legacy applications that currently do not operate in a Web environment. The goal of RDW is to preserve that investment by automatically converting RPG to PML and converting iSeries DDS to HTML. The company claims that RPG-to-PML conversion success rates range from 70% to 90%, and DDS-to-HTML conversions are usually 95% successful.

Nexus Portal

Nexus Portal is an iSeries-based portal that allows administrators to make documents, reports, iSeries applications, and external information sources such as Google and Yahoo! available to users. Multiple portals can be run on a single iSeries server and a single copy of the Nexus Portal software.

Nexus Portal supports two levels of administrators. A site administrator identifies pages that will be available to everyone. Group administrators identify pages that will be available to only members of their groups. Individual users can also modify some options to customize the way they see information.

Portals can be either "frames-based" or "portlet-based." A frames-based portal shows a navigation bar on the left of the screen and the content on the right. A portlet-based portal divides the screen up into portlets, which are simply areas on the screen that contain different content. A portlet can be placed anywhere on a page.

For both types of portals, all of the portal design, building, and administration are done using a Web-based application that runs in a browser. Programming is required only if you choose to build new WebSmart or other application portlets specific to your organization, which can then be integrated into the portal.

Nexus Portal ships with a number of portlets, such as calendar, to-do list, and instant messaging applications. The Mocha ActiveX TN5250 is also available as an optional portlet that can be used for green-screen terminal emulation. BCD continually develops new portlets, which are available at no charge to Nexus Portal Pro license holders.

BCD's iSeries Web Object Warehousing (WOW) is a free component of Nexus Portal. It offers browser-based access to all types of documents, including iSeries spool files and documents uploaded by authorized users.

Security is always an important consideration on the Web. Nexus Portal implements security as extensions of the iSeries HTTP servers, eliminating possible "back door" security holes. It also allows administrators to manage site-wide security on the fly, without the need to shut down the Web server.

Are WebSmart and Nexus Portal Right for Your Organization?

One "nice to have" feature that is missing from WebSmart and Nexus Portal is an end- user query and reporting facility. If users need a new report or query, they usually have to ask the developers to build it. However, few organizations would consider this to be a knockout blow for BCD's products.

In short, in most cases, organizations looking for Web development and deployment tools designed for iSeries should put WebSmart and Nexus Portal on their evaluation list.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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