Web Development: Are You Using the Best Tools for Your Environment?

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So many tools…how do you choose the one that's best for you?


If you are embarking on a new Web development project, the first decisions you need to make are the platform and the technology. Let's assume you are committed the IBM i platform. (You should be! It's secure, scaleable, reliable, and totally capable of hosting the most modern Web apps.) So the next choice is technology. That choice has been made easier for us in the last three years, with the advent of native PHP support on the IBM i platform.


IBM Rochester finally saw the light and essentially abandoned Java/WebSphere as a strategy, at least for everyone but the top-tier customers who can afford all the technology/manpower overhead to get it to work. Instead, IBM chose to recognize the rising tide of PHP's popularity, and, as one IBMer said to me, to "join the party." (The Rational group at IBM is still touting Java, in the form of EGL, but that's had very limited success in terms of adoption rate and remains an IBM-only technology. If you choose EGL, you are stuck with one development tool, RDi, which, at over $2,000 per developer seat, can be expensive, depending on how many developers you have ).


If you have any doubts about PHP's success, just look at the top sites that are using it to run their businesses. Facebook, for example, is driven by PHP. There are now more than 350 million registered Facebook users worldwide, making it the third largest "country," behind China and India. If anyone had doubts about PHP's productivity or scaleability, I would humbly suggest that Facebook has put those doubts to rest.


So the next crucial decision you face is which Web development tool (or tools) you should use to create your application. I'll attempt to answer that question in this article.

An Overview of Web 2.0 Technologies

There are essentially five programming skills you need to build Web 2.0 applications. I've omitted Web design, which is really a different skill set, requiring a graphic artist. You can sometimes get away without needing these skills, although often the biggest weakness in a Web application is the UI. The table below describes the skills and suggests the best technologies to deploy them:


Web 2.0 Development Required Skill Set



Server-side business/presentation logic programming


Server-side database programming


Client-side UI


Client-side design


Client/Server event-driven interaction

AJAX (and JavaScript)


The last item on this list is probably the most overlooked aspect of Web application development, especially with modern apps, which have so much more immediate interactions with the user and the back-end/server. I suggest you learn a JavaScript framework or library. Doing so will help speed up your development efforts, eliminate the issue of cross-browser compliance, and help you create consistent UIs easily (most libraries have a set of widgets). I generally use jQuery because it's easy to learn, performs faster than most other libraries, has lots of online and hard-copy resources to learn it, and offers many extensions in the form of user-written plug-ins. You can also write your own plug-ins. If you'd like to see one I've written, click here.


I've also used ExtJS on a couple of projects. It has a great set of UI components, such as data grids, layouts, trees, menus, etc. But it does lock you in to a certain look and feel to some degree, and it has a steeper initial learning curve than jQuery. It is also not entirely free open source, so depending on your use, you may need to pay a license fee.

Selecting Web Development Tools

Choosing Web development tools can be daunting task. There are so many options. However, because we are using the IBM i as our platform, that helps narrow down the decision process somewhat. You probably want to focus on tools that have an IBM i-centric focus to make it easy to work with DB2 databases, re-use existing RPG code, interface with IBM i system commands and APIs, etc. The other choice, which I discussed above, is the primary server-side development language. In this article, I assume you agree with me about PHP being the best choice. If so, keep reading and we'll look at some of the tools available to us.


Rational Developer for i (RDi) is IBM's IDE. It used to be called WDSc. It is based on the open-source Eclipse toolset, like a couple of the other products I'll discuss later. According to IBM's Web site, it comes in two versions: the basic one at $860 per user license, and RDi for SOA Construction at $2,160 per user. The latter version includes Web Services wizards (that's the SOA component) and HATS toolkit for on-the-fly green-screen transformations. It also includes Rational Business Developer, which you use to build EGL applications.


EGL is a fourth-generation language that produces JavaServer Pages (JSP) or COBOL apps. COBOL is not really a suitable language for the i compared to RPG, and JSP requires WebSphere in order to run, as opposed to the standard Apache HTTP server, bringing you back to many of the headaches of Java. In addition, even though EGL purports to generate both the client-side and server-side code for you, a cursory look at the EGL Cafe bulletin boards shows many instances where programmers have to tweak the code under the covers. A sample thread gives you an idea of what I mean. In addition, EGL seems to have very limited adoption currently. If you Google EGL, the first 20 hits have one reference to the EGL language, and that's IBM's product page.


Even though RDi is built on Eclipse, it has extensions to Eclipse that make it well-suited for writing RPG or COBOL code. As a modern replacement for SEU, this might be helpful for many developers, although it is expensive for just this functionality, especially when you can get a free open-source Eclipse plug-in for editing RPG code from a brilliant coder, Mihael Schmidt. In any case, RDi doesn't particularly provide any benefits for writing PHP code, compared to Eclipse, which is free. Both RDi and Eclipse are built with Java, so the IDE will run on Windows, Mac, or Linux. This is also true of other Eclipse-based products, such as Zend Studio, which I'll discuss later in this article.


Eclipse is an open-source, Java-based IDE. You can download it in several flavors, including for Java developers or for PHP developers. The PHP download for Windows 32bit is here.


Eclipse is sponsored by the Eclipse Foundation, a non-profit organization. IBM was one of the initial founders and is still involved in the project. When the Eclipse IDE was first released, in 2001, it was considered by most developers to be too slow, and its memory/disk requirements were too large for practical use. This was partly because of its reliance on a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Since then, PCs have caught up with Eclipse in terms of chip speed, memory, and disk requirements, making it a practical tool for most developers.


The strength of Eclipse lies in its extensibility; anyone can write extensions or plug-ins for it. The PHP package, for example, includes the PHP Development Tools (PDT) plug-in. This plug-in provides PHP syntax-checking, code-completion, and debugging. Eclipse itself includes built-in FTP support (as do most IDEs), so it provides convenient functionality for setting up local and production versions of your code base. You can also add a Subversion plug-in, called Subclipse, to give you change-management capabilities.


There is no support contract available for Eclipse.

Aptana Studio

Aptana Studio is available for free from Aptana. The company used to charge for the IDE, but now its business model is focused on cloud services, so Aptana Studio is a loss-leader to hook you in to Aptana's cloud to host a Ruby on Rails server. Aptana Studio is built using Eclipse. When you install it, you get a chance to choose from popular plug-ins that weren't included in your install. I chose to install the aforementioned PDT, so I can use Aptana for PHP development.


Aptana's product differentiator is that it includes robust client-side programming services. For example, it includes a JavaScript debugger. Since JavaScript can often be 50 percent or more of the programming effort in Web development, this is useful to have. You can debug JavaScript code using a FireFox browser with the Firebug plug-in (or using Chrome or IE 8), but having direct access to the code in a full-blown editor while you are debugging is very useful.


Aptana does not offer a support plan for Aptana Studio.

Zend Studio

Zend Studio is YAEBI (yet another Eclipse-based IDE!)...at least the latest edition, 7.1, is. It used to be written in a Microsoft language, but this release is a completely new code base. Essentially, Zend has replicated much of the functionality of PDT, which they actually support, and added more functionality. Check out the comparison of features in Zend Studio to PDT or read a more objective comparison.


Zend Studio starts at $399 per user (including one year of support). The license is limited to one user on one PC, which for me is just too expensive. I have three PCs and a two Macs I regularly work on, so it would cost me $2,000 the first year!

It's important to note that, although Zend mentions "IBM i Edition" on its Web site, there is really no difference between Zend Studio and this edition. In fact, when you go to buy, no matter which you choose, you get taken to the same page! It's also important to note that the key component for writing PHP code on the IBM i that takes advantage of DB2 functionality and i/OS functionality (calls to RPG programs and modules, etc.) is server-based, not client-based. This means you can write PHP code for IBM i in any IDE, ranging from Notepad to Eclipse. 


NetBeans is sponsored by Sun Microsystems (now Oracle). It is also open source and free. You can consider it a direct rival to the Eclipse project, and it has its own group of partner companies supporting it, such as Research in Motion (RIM), maker of BlackBerry. It is also built with Java, so it needs the Java Runtime Environment installed to run (as do all four previous products).


As with Eclipse, you can download a PHP-centric version of NetBeans that includes both a JavaScript and a PHP debugger. However, it does not include any IBM i-specific functionality.


While Netbeans is free, you will have to pay Sun for support. The current price per developer is $549 annually.

WebSmart PHP

BCD's WebSmart PHP is a Rapid Application Development (RAD) tool as well as an IDE. It is built using Microsoft C++, so it has a much smaller footprint and fewer system requirements than Eclipse-based IDEs (30Mb install versus 130Mb for Eclipse with PDT, for example). However, it can run natively only on Windows PCs. You can run it on Macs using VMWare Fusion or on Linux using WINE, but it won't perform as well as on Windows.


WebSmart PHP does not include an interactive debugger, although there are plans to incorporate XDebug, an open-source debugger that you can currently plug in to Eclipse or NetBeans, for example.


WebSmart PHP was built specifically for the IBM i platform, so it comes with good IBM i integration features. For example, it includes direct access to DB2 meta data (files, fields, etc.), and it includes code wizards for building program calls using Zend's i5 functionality. It's main differentiator from all the other products is its intelligent templates. When you select a template, you are deciding on the appearance and functionality of a component of your Web application. WebSmart PHP leads you through a series of prompts to help you build that component, without requiring you to know how to code in PHP at all. You can choose from record-level access, DB2 database, or MySQL database-driven templates, depending on your need. Intelligent templates help you become productive, with real-world results, very quickly. WebSmart PHP also includes integrated project management features to support enterprise-level development efforts.


WebSmart PHP is currently licensed either by server or by developer. Server pricing is dependent on the server tier. You can also purchase annual support/upgrade agreements.

The Right Tool

Making the choice of PHP is relatively easy. Choosing the right development tool is more challenging. I've shown you just a small sampling of the many PHP products out there. When evaluating a solution, though, you want to ask yourself some questions: How easy is the tool to learn? What kind of IBM i integration does it have? What tools does it have to make me more productive? What kind of product support can I get? What is the reputation of the company's support team? How often does the tool get updated?


And, by all means, try out any of these products for yourself. They all have free downloads available.