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WebObjects: WO Is Me, Part 1

AppleScript used to be Apple’s best kept secret. It broke technological ground that is still unmatched by any other platform, but was largely ignored except by a handful of enthusiasts. The situation has improved in the last few years, with the technology even making it into a Steve Jobs keynote (although widespread AppleScript support in Mac OS X remains elusive). One way or another, these days more people know about AppleScript, but now Apple has a new best kept secret: WebObjects.

In NeXT’s waning days, WebObjects was the product that kept the company going. It wasn’t cheap: an unlimited connection license cost $50,000. But even at that price, WebObjects was cost-competitive with other similar products.

At last year’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), Jobs dropped a bombshell: a new, flat price of $700 for WebObjects. Although WebObjects isn’t an attention-getting consumer product like the much-hyped iTools or iDVD, the price drop caused interest to boom. And at this year’s WWDC, Apple released WebObjects 5, written entirely in Java, which promises to be especially interesting for customers running Mac OS X or Mac OS X Server.




Before we talk about WebObjects specifically, though, it helps to gain an understanding about WebObjects’ class of software: application servers. This article provides a brief history of application servers and offers an overview of the various software architectures used by WebObjects and its competitors. The next installment will focus on WebObjects, including its three major tools and sore points.

Application Servers — WebObjects was the original application server – an environment for developing and deploying applications meant to be accessed via a Web browser.

In many ways, application servers are a throwback to the days of the mainframe. Back then, a single big machine would do everything, while multiple inexpensive terminals plugged into the mainframe. The terminals were extremely lightweight computers – they could do little more than display received text and transmit keystrokes back to the mainframe.

The personal computer revolution gave individual users the capability to run their own software, freeing them from the tyranny of the corporate information systems priesthood. But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution: people wanted to share their information and programs.

Personal and centralized file sharing helped folks share their information, but sharing software was problematic. Programs developed for one platform wouldn’t run on another. Software had to be purchased, installed and maintained for each and every computer, dramatically raising costs and complexity. Programs also had to be specialized to handle different types of data; for example, some shared information should only be accessed through programs which can ensure validity, such as customer databases.

Then the Web happened. The message was HTML and the medium was HTTP. Any computer could retrieve documents from any other computer, diminishing the platform problem. Even more exciting was that the Web enabled folks to set up programs that could be accessed using HTML’s rudimentary support for inputting data.

In short order, the Macs in Graphics and the PCs in Accounting could access the same vacation forms served by the Unix box in Human Resources. What’s more, the capability to communicate between platforms meant that software installation and maintenance could happen on the company’s central server. When a bug was fixed or a feature was added, only the server needed to be updated – all the clients instantly and automatically took advantage of the upgrade the next time they used it.

"Thin clients" – inexpensive computers running lightweight software like a browser or Java interpreter – captured all the buzz. Why spend resources catering to lots of individual computers on a network when you can manage them centrally like the former mainframe system? But to remove weight from the clients, weight had to be added to the servers. The servers held all the program’s logic as well as all of the user’s data. Multiple users across the company (or the world!) would all simultaneously hammer the servers night and day.

Programmers faced tight software development timelines, amazing software complexity, and the requirement that the server almost never go down. NeXT was in a unique position to create and sell tools and services that addressed all these issues.

NeXT was known from the beginning as having some of the finest development tools available. Object-oriented to the core, these tools enabled quick development of complex applications. And NeXT’s software ran on Unix and Windows NT – industrial strength operating systems that could provide the needed uptime requirements of mission-critical servers. NeXT leveraged all this to create WebObjects.

Three Fundamentals — Application servers consist of three parts: the interface, the program’s logic, and the data access.

  • The interface is what we users see and interact with. Typically it’s the HTML we view via our Web browsers, though Java can also provide an interface.

  • The program’s logic is composed of the rules and procedures that run businesses. For example, it’s the program’s logic that won’t let you purchase a book from an online bookseller if the book is no longer in circulation. Applications contain hundreds or thousands of such rules. When to add tax. How much tax to add. How big a box to use for the shipment. Is the credit card valid? Do any ongoing sales apply to the current purchase? And so on.

  • Finally, data access is the portion of the application which interacts with the database to create, view, update and delete information. As I discussed in "Relational Databases and Mac OS X" in TidBITS-580 and TidBITS-581, businesses prefer relational databases for these kinds of tasks.


WebObjects is no longer alone in the application server marketplace. There are now numerous players, and they differ primarily in how they separate the three fundamentals above. It’s instructional to study the different models: you can see a clear evolution of design. What I find most impressive is that all these models are slowly moving towards a common design: the design of WebObjects.

Follow along with this slightly artificial evolution of application servers. For each one, I’ll lay out the background and talk about some of the different packages out there. Some are free, open source. Some cost tens of thousands of dollars per processor. Although these lists are cursory, over-generalized and will be outdated quickly, they should give you the lay of the land.

Stone Age: Logic First, Everything Bound Together — The Stone Age design is typified by a focus on the logic of dynamic page generation. Almost all programming languages can be made to accept Web queries and generate HTML documents based on the query’s results (some commonly used languages are C, Perl, AppleScript, and Java).

These Web applications usually access a data source to answer the incoming query. Some may manually scan a file for the information, others will generate an SQL query based on the client’s query, and fire it off to a database. If the Web application is calculation-focused, then it may not need to access a data source.

I don’t intend to disparage the Logic First design with the Stone Age label. Instead, I’m simply trying to indicate its age (it was the first design) and complexity (not much at all). The Stone Age design is lightweight, and everything lightweight has advantages. It feels natural to programmers, and it is quick and easy to get a dynamic page up because everything is in one place. For calculation-intensive applications, Stone Age design may be the best.

However the Stone Age design is not without disadvantages. The first problem is that data access information is embedded into the logic. Technologies were introduced to help deal with this hard-wired database reliance. C and C++ programmers on Windows (and to a much lesser extent, on the Mac) have Microsoft’s Open Database Connectivity (ODBC), Java programmers have Java Database Connectivity (JDBC), while Perl has its Database Interface (DBI).

It’s important to understand that these technologies only provide a means of finding and connecting to a database. When it comes to moving data in and out of a database, you must still write and embed SQL into your program logic. Since SQL refers to specific table and column names, the onus is on you to keep the embedded queries synchronized with your database.

Another disadvantage is that the logic plus interface plus data design fundamentally ties one page to one chunk of code. If you need to share logic among multiple pages, it’s up to you to work out a code sharing strategy and keep it all up to date.

The final disadvantage of the Stone Age design is that the interface is embedded within the application’s logic. This means only a programmer can change how a page looks, or how it displays its information.

Examples of Stone Age tools include AppleScript, C/C++, Java, JavaScript, Perl, Python, and the Windows-only Visual Basic. You can tell that these tools focus on logic because they’re all programming languages. They’re great at representing logical decisions and operations, but suffer when forced to deal with data access and interface generation. Later models use some of these languages to handle the logical part of a Web application.

Bronze Age: Interface First, Everything Bound Together — After churning out a few hundred dynamic pages, programmers found themselves in an interesting situation. Quite often, their dynamic pages were a thin veneer of logic and data access, containing a huge glob of interface in HTML. Plus, the business folks and graphic artists were always bugging the programmers with appearance change requests.

Programmers, being the lazy clever folks they are, simply flipped the Stone Age design relationship. Instead of embedding interface within logic, they embedded logic within interface. Now you had pages composed predominately of HTML, with custom tags containing the globs of logic. With a sigh of relief, the programmers could give the files to the better Web designers (the kind who work at the raw textual HTML level), tell them to avoid the logic globs, and the Web designers could change the page’s appearance without going through the programmer.

Some programmers even went so far as to write WYSIWYG-style HTML editors which knew about (and hid) the logic globs, so even non-professional Web designers could change a page’s appearance.

Like the Stone Age, the Bronze Age design has the advantages that it’s easy to start and everything is in one place. But while the Bronze Age design somewhat relieved the Stone Age design’s final disadvantage, it didn’t address the first two. Namely, data access is still embedded (either within the page’s interface or logic) and code sharing among pages is still a problem.

Examples of Bronze Age tools include Active Server Pages (ASP), Java Server Pages (JSP), Lasso, and PHP. These tools all embed programming logic inside HTML. ASP typically uses Visual Basic, JSP uses Java, Lasso has its own proprietary tag-based language, and PHP uses its own language as well.

With some fancy footwork, all of these solutions can be moved to the Industrial Age model, but that’s not how they were initially designed. Although both JSP and PHP run fine on Mac OS X, Lasso is uniquely Macintosh friendly, with the capability to run under the Classic Mac OS and offering direct connections to FileMaker Pro and 4D. Future versions of Lasso will also work with Mac OS X.

Industrial Age: Interface First, Separate Interface — As projects got larger, the code duplication of the Bronze Age design became a nightmare.

Whenever a bug was discovered or a feature added, the programmers would have to go through each file and apply the fixes. Programmers had to spend time keeping track of all code copies and variants, or just hope they remembered to update everything. Software quality quickly degraded as everything became an entangled patchwork of slightly different code.

The Industrial Age design solved the code duplication problem by moving logic out of the interface. However, the data access is still embedded within the logic, leading to much of the same synchronization problems as the Bronze Age’s embedded logic model.

Examples of Industrial Age tools include Cold Fusion, WebLogic, WebSphere, and customized Bronze Age tools. For instance, with some up-front work and consistent discipline, you can use the Industrial Age model for projects using Active Server Pages, Java Server Pages, and PHP. Lasso also supports server-side JavaScript in addition to its proprietary tag-based language.

Alas, short of Lasso, none of these tools are offered explicitly for the Mac. Cold Fusion puts most of its logic in separate server-side files containing a proprietary JavaScript-like language called CFScript. WebLogic and WebSphere are implementations of the so-called "Enterprise Java Beans" (EJB) container specification, and they provide Java-based logic and object storage to Java Server pages. Although WebLogic and WebSphere don’t disallow putting logic directly into pages, most folks know enough not to make a habit of it.

Information Age: Everything Balanced and Separated — The Information Age design separates everything from each other. Interface, logic and data access all stand alone and interact via explicit architectural channels.

You can hand a bunch of pages to an outside Web design firm without handing them your business logic. The crazed nerds in the back room can crank code without having to worry about color coordination of Web pages, or which brand of database the company is currently using. The database folks can move and rename databases, tables and columns without fear of breaking the Web application.

Or one developer can work incredibly quickly.

The Information Age design is not without it flaws. Everything is spread out, in different places. Often it’s not immediately obvious how modifying one aspect changes another, and the learning curve tends to be much steeper.

The only two examples of Information Age tools in my mind are customized Lasso and WebObjects. Since Lasso can shield you from SQL and allows separation of your JavaScript-based application logic from its interface, it fits into the Information Age model. It’s the only product that spans the Bronze Age all the way to the Information Age. That’s interesting – you can start off using the fairly easy-to-understand Bronze Age model and work your way up to the Information Age model as necessary. Sure, you’ll throw away a lot of work as you grow, but it’s an option that simply doesn’t exist with other tools.

Although WebObjects has a much steeper learning curve than Lasso, and doesn’t run on the Classic Mac OS, it beats Lasso in terms of maturity and power. In the next installment of this article, I’ll look more closely at exactly what WebObjects provides.

[Jonathan "Wolf" Rentzsch is the embodiment of Red Shed Software, and runs a monthly Mac programmer get-together in Northwest Illinois.]

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