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Enterprise Application Modernization
Jnan Dash
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In the good old days of computing, enterprise applications were built in-house to specific requirements. Packaged applications such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Management) appeared as a new phenomenon during the late 1980s and early 1990s. SAP Software founded by ex-IBMers in Germany started off this trend, which was followed by other vendors like PeopleSoft, Siebel, JD Edwards (all part of Oracle now), and Oracle. Besides horizontal applications like ERP and CRM (Customer Record Management), industry specific application packages became popular in the retail, banking, and manufacturing sectors. With the increase in bandwidth and the onset of the Web, these applications came to be delivered as hosted service. SalesForce.com started this trend with its CRM offering followed by other vendors like NetSuite and SugarCRM. Customers liked the lower cost of this SaaS model, as they found the data security and reliability issues acceptable.

During the last few years, much excitement has been created in Web 2.0 – treating the Web as a real platform for developing interactive and transactional applications (not just rendering static Web pages). Most of Web 2.0 deployment has been in the consumer space. It is high time the enterprises started embracing the Web as a platform for modernizing their mission critical applications.

Market Evolution: Enterprise Applications
Figure 1 summarizes the evolution of enterprise software architecture toward RIA (Rich Internet Applications). Fortune 1000 companies, along with many others, spent a lot of resources during the 1980s and 1990s building client and server applications using the rich user interface of desktop clients such as Windows. In this way they were able to move beyond the limited user interface capabilities of the earlier generation of ‘green screen’ character based applications. To enjoy the increased reach and lower TCO that the Web 2.0 technologies make possible, enterprises now need to progress beyond this client and server model to the next evolutionary stage.

Starting with the introduction of the Internet browser in the mid-1990s, the pressure to move applications to the Web has built up steadily, as its advantages in reach and TCO have increased. Responding to this pressure, many enterprises and application vendors implemented Web 1.0 interfaces to substitute for the old client and server applications (Arrow 2) but the loss in usability was often severe. Now many people hope that RIA technologies, like AJAX developed originally for consumer-oriented Web 2.0 applications such as Google Maps, can be used to restore the lost usability (Arrow 3), but applications that need to interactively manipulate large data sets and provide complex user interfaces are just too hard to build this way. Many of these applications were too sophisticated to ever make the jump to the Web at all. What they need is an RIA framework powerful enough to support applications with the full richness, interactivity, and performance of native client and server applications (Arrow 4).

Applications in the upper-right quadrant of the chart represent a convergence offering the best features of both the client and server paradigm (notably the interactivity and richness of the user experience) and the Web paradigm (notably the broader reach and reduced TCO). This is what we call the ‘Enterprise Application Modernization’. Client-side platforms that enable such applications have been referred to as ‘Fit Clients’ since they combine the virtues of ‘fat clients’ (client or server) and ‘thin clients’ (Web 1.0).

Much like the early days of client-server, the industry is exploring the ‘optimal solution’ – how to deliver the RIA with high scalability, reliability, security, and performance. Rendering everything via the browser may not always be the best answer. Also, Ajax is proving to be inadequate for enterprise needs due to slow performance of scripting language and security exposures. The following list summarizes the specific needs of enterprise RIAs.

* Display of complex graphics and reports for users

* Handling large data sets

* Ensuring very high performance

* Offering very high scalability

* Addressing strict security

* Providing Fit Client architecture for online/offline operations

* Following SOA and standards

* Facilitating migration from
legacy apps

* Enabling platform independence

* Including rich development tools

* Easing manageability

Therefore, it is very important to distinguish between general RIA (read consumer sites) and enterprise RIA.

Vendor Landscape

So who are the providers of such platforms and tools for enterprise application modernization? There are only four vendors, in our opinion, that attempt to provide an RIA platform for enterprises – Curl (Curl), Adobe (AIR), Microsoft (Silverlight), and Sun (JavaFX).

Sun’s JavaFX is the front-end client to Java backend. It is still new and unproven.
Adobe’s Flash and Flex are popular in the consumer sector due to their pervasiveness in the PC market. Adobe introduced AIR (Adobe Infrastructure Runtime) for enterprise class applications with an offline component. The focus is still on video streaming (pedigree from Macromedia Flash) and business usage is quite limited.

Microsoft Silverlight’s initial focus has been video rendering; as it capably displayed its might at the Beijing Olympics last year. Silverlight V2 aspires to be the platform for enterprise RIA. It is going to be a formidable solution over time.

Curl came out of a research project at MIT during the early part of this decade. It boasts 400 enterprise customers doing mission-critical applications such as procurement, banking, business intelligence, and so on. Many of its customers have migrated from old client-server applications to the Web using Curl’s unique client-side compile technology for superior performance. It is OS and browser agnostic. It can also run outside the browser as a desktop Web application. It was given the top award in 2008 by InfoWorld.

Final Remarks

Application modernization is going to be critical to all enterprises. The prime reason is ‘cost reduction’. Improving user experience has been proven to be a huge competitive advantage (e.g. Apple’s products). RIA will be the gateway to such modernization.

Enterprises that do not modernize their antiquated client-server architecture run some major risks. A major auto manufacturer in Asia decided to switch to a Curl-based RIA from an old Excel type application to reduce cost and improve data accuracy. Another major player in the GRC space (Governance, Risk, and Compliance) uses attractive data visualization as a competitive advantage, garnering 40 percent growth in business over the last two years. So, not modernizing will leave many enterprises behind in the race to meet user expectations.

Gartner categorizes RIA Platform as an emerging one with rapid adoption over the next 2-5 years. Customers of SAP and Oracle applications must start demanding RIA on the Web-platform in the true sense, not just a front-end to their existing client-server implementation.


Adobe Flex — http://www.adobe.com/products/flex
Curl — http://curl.com/
Microsoft Silverlight — http://www.microsoft.com/silverlight
Sun JavaFX — http://www.sun.com/javafx

The author is Chief Strategy Officer, Curl Inc., Cambridge, MA. He can be reached at jdash@sbcglobal.net
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