Sunday, April 24, 2005

Syndication Management: Smart Client or Browser-based Console?

Early on in our design phase of HiT Syndicaat, we had a difficult technical decision to make. How were we going to develop our syndication management tools in such a way to make them simple to use and effective at the same time?

We had a few options to consider. Considering the architecture of our platform (Apache Tomcat, REST APIs and Lucene as backend database), initially we lent towards standard JSP development. Its major pluses are stability and maturity of the approach as well as the definite advantage to having a browser-based management console. In fact, all syndication and blogging platforms currently available (commercially and open-source) are browser-based applications (although most of them are PHP-based rather than J2EE applications). It is commonly agreed that browser applications are extremely effective for the average user since they do not require deployment and setup. There is also a definite similarity among all browser-based applications (once you are familiar with it) that makes the average user more comfortable.

Besides this option, we considered two other alternatives. In fact, we had major doubts about the JSP approach because on the one hand we figured that management consoles are complex GUI applications that over time get even more complex (by natural progression of the product). On the other hand, our typical user is not the typical "web surfer". In most instances, it is either systems management personnel or a "power user". These people are more inclined to appreciate effectiveness over GUI slickness.

So, we looked at DHTML development and smart-client development. The former approach is all the rage these days (see gmail and gmap by Google, or the discussions about AJAX). With smart DHTML development, by all means, your browser becomes a smart-client (especially when combined with asynchronous HTTP/XML calls to the backend server). Our major concern with scripting development was code stability and code maintenance. Until scripting environments mature significantly to become as robust a development environment as typical IDEs, we figured that quality and costs were not acceptable for our development schedule.

In the end, we were left with smart-client development. Considering that our target was the development of a powerful syndication management console, we were comforted in our decision by the fact that as far as we know most management consoles for DBMS are smart client applications (albeit not HTTP ones). Although many backend systems are provided with browser-based tools, full-feature management consoles are all stand-alone applications.

We think we overcame implicit limitations of the smart client approach by developing in Java/SWT (operating system portability) and by providing browser-based setup environments (to simplify application deployment and setup).

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