A Prelude to Web Apps

Dan Knapton, Director of Application Development, ACM Medical Laboratory
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Dan Knapton, Director of Application Development, ACM Medical Laboratory

Web applications in the enterprise have come full circle. In the early days, as the browser became an application deployment vehicle, brand new web developers and desktop support staff celebrated the simplicity of being able to roll out new functionality without desktop visits and local environmental variances. Java applets and Active Server Pages were the new thin client and developers created, simple apps to perform singular functions. Simple interactive report pages or task-tracking tools were the some of the early products. Non-IT colleagues without frame of web reference had low expectations. Functionality grew and releases were easy. Forward-thinking developers planted the seeds for a new industry of commercial web applications and open source projects.

“We are now in the mobile generation where smaller form factors require simpler functionality”

Application data aggregations were born. A homegrown web application could pull together data from several enterprise applications and organize commonly linked data into “cockpits” of information used to fill gaps in processes. Vendors began to publish APIs for their products and Service Oriented Architecture arrived. Interface schematics became more complex and failure points littered the landscape. Executive suites debated ‘build versus buy’ as the marketplace flooded with “best practice” platforms.

Then came the Browser Wars. Browser manufacturers tried to out-feature and out-perform their competition with newer and better but slightly different versions. Application developer’s heads were spinning trying to code for generic and common browser functionality while leveraging new features and platforms. App Development and Infrastructure Support found common ground during corporate standards and local admin discussions. Meanwhile, vendors delivering on premise web-based solutions forced corporate infrastructure standards grudgingly forward. This sometimes caused battles between older unsupported vendor applications, certified only on older browsers, and newer applications pushing the envelope forward and abandoning the older browser versions.

Corporate web applications became more sophisticated with more complex workflows and growing user expectations. A new generation of Internet-soaked millennials recast Internet access from a privilege to a right. Applications pushed bandwidth while additional bandwidth freed applications to consume more. Home gaming platform hardware created even higher expectations for rich graphics and functionality at the office.

While the home web experience is intuitive and simple, corporate web applications have matured and become complicated. Enterprise-wide applications have role-based functionality that supports scores of workflows. Most come with a configuration layer that has created a new level of job function that is more than a straightforward business role but not quite application development. These super-users can configure workflow functionality in languages like Javascript, SQL, or other proprietary runtime scripting engine. Organizations can choose to centralize this role, typically in an IT application configuration team, or distribute technical application support throughout the business.

All of this progress means that it is a great time to be in application development. The open source community provides building blocks that will jumpstart any new development effort. Development toolkits have become rock solid and feature-rich. This combination creates an environment to support rapid development of high-quality applications. HTML5 appears to be the common platform that developers have been seeking and it is delivering with the support of a range of interesting controls within Javascript libraries.

Meanwhile, how can the internal Application Development department deliver value beyond supporting vendor upgrades and integrations?

►Custom extranet applications – Create portals that provide customer access via the corporate website for product sales and support, customer-specific project documentation, and tailored communication. Publish a custom web interface into the supply or purchase chain to embrace a touch-less transaction model.
►Data warehouses – Designed to pull together data from multiple sources and create a foundation for a layer of second tier applications. Techniques for ETL, aggregation, and summarization designed by Data Analysts in conjunction with Database Developers expose data available for correlation, analysis and data-driven decisions.
►Analytics engines – Used to leverage the data warehouse and provide clear historical and predictive views of the corporate story. Lead the way by designing the underlying data marts, analytic components, and dashboards to pull the story together.
►Data monitoring applications - Resemble hardware monitors but rather than alarm on hardware failures or runaway processors, these applications search for data anomalies. Continual queries against streaming data or summarized warehouse data compared to preset thresholds identify out-of-normal conditions and generate alarms for sales dips, usage increases, revenue trends, and other metrics.

We are now in the mobile generation where smaller form factors require simpler functionality. Executives want access to information anytime, anywhere. The global business window never closes and corporate KPIs need to be continually monitored. Rather than navigate through the company intranet to analyze reports and data, wouldn’t it be better if the data came to you? Imagine a tablet or phone app with a very simple graphical interface containing answers to the most important questions of the day. Envision data with the intelligence to decide which stories are the most important and bubble those to the top of the urgent list. Brief a commuting executive on the train with a summary of the last 24 hours of the corporate narrative with short meaningful charts of distilled information. Then imagine the same app delivering meaningful data alarms and calls for action. Picture a cross between a Twitter client, a graphical charting tool, and Jeeves prioritizing which items need your attention. With this type of data servant interface, the enterprise web application can come full circle back to simple, intuitive, singular in function, and easy to deploy. However, now it can be richer, distilled, concise, and serve as the endpoint to the enterprise data chain enabling the well-informed and mobile enterprise.

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