Web  development tools: a survey

Piero Fraternali

Dipartimento di Elettronica e Informazione,
Politecnico di Milano P.le L. da Vinci 32, I20133 Milano Italy


In this paper we review, classify, and assess 33 existing commercial products in the light of  evaluation criteria based on the impact on the application development process, architecture, and user-perceived quality. From this review we draw requirements for new-generation development tools and show how current solutions match different application domains. The full version of the paper  is available at  URL: http://www.elet.polimi.it/~fraterna/www7/webtools.html

Web development; CASE tools; Authoring tools; Database gateways

1. Motivations

The first generation of Web development tools mostly addressed content production (e.g., by enabling visual editing of HTML pages) and is clearly insufficient to face the industrial-strength development of large applications. Very recently, a second generation of development tools  has started spreading in the market, from  three different origins, which correspond to the core issues of modern Web application development: The goal of this paper is to take a snapshot of the current situation of the software solutions for integrated Web-database development and demonstrate commonalities and differences among existing tools, which could help understanding the present state of the tool market, predicting its evolution, and assessing  individual tools in light of their adequacy to specific application requirements. The base of the classification is a set of 33 different commercial tools, listed in the full version of this paper.

2. Categories of Web development tools

The many tools available for Web development can be grouped into five basic categories, herein presented in order of increasing support  to the structured development of Web applications.

Visual HTML editors and site managers are authoring and site management environments originally conceived to alleviate the complexity of writing HTML code and of maintaining the pages of a Web site in the file system. In a typical configuration these products bundle a WYSIWYG HTML editor, which permits the user to design sophisticated HTML pages without programming, and a visual site manager, which displays in a graphical way the content of a Web site and supports functions like page upload,deletion, and renaming, and broken link detection and repair.
Among the  products in this category there are Adobe SiteMill and PageMill, NetObject Inc.'s Fusion, SoftQuad's HotMetal,   Microsoft's FrontPage, and many others.  These tool are an excellent solution for small- to medium-sized applications, where publishing database content is not the major issue. The lack of a schema of the application, i.e., of an abstract representation independent of content, forces the definition of the application features instance-by-instance and is a major obstacle to scale-up.

Hypermedia  tools share the same focus on authoring as visual HTML editors but have a different origin,  off-line hypermedia  publishing. These products  entered the market of Web-database development very recently and the interest in them is motivated by their non-conventional approach to application design and specific focus on navigation and presentation. The best known representatives of this class of products are: Asymetrix's Toolbook, Macromedia's Director and Authorware, Formula Graphics Multimedia 97, and several others.  Although architecturally immature, hypermedia tools permit designers to deliver very sophisticated user interfaces, which exhibit a degree of control over graphic accuracy and multimedia synchronization hardly available with other means. The inherent navigational design paradigm, coupled to very effective aids like guided tours and flexible access indices contribute to the deployment of applications which are close to the kind of communication found in high quality, hand-developed Web sites.

HTML-DBPL integrators explicitly address the merge of Web and databases and are very powerful, yet basic, products which can be used to implement applications on top of large information bases; on the other hand, their use typically requires a substantial development effort.  The exising solutions propose different ways of integrating HTML with a full-fledged database programming language (DBPL), yielding an intermediate application programming language. Examples of HTML extensions include:  Cold Fusion by Allaire Inc., Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) and Internet Database Connector (IDC), StoryServer by Vignette Corporation. HTML-DBPL integrators are comparable to traditional client/server 4GLs, because they provide a high level programming interface masking lower-level architectural details;  as such, they are often used to build more sophisticated products.

Web form editors, report writers, and database publishing wizards take quite a database-centric approach to Web-database integration, by addressing the migration of client/server, form-based application to the Web; these tools aim at augmenting the implementor's productivity in such tasks as form editing, report writing, and event-based programming; they offer a higher level of support with respect to HTML-DBPL integrators, but still concentrate only on the implementation phase. Among the reviewed products, we cite: Microsoft's Visual InterDev, Visual Basic 5, and Access97, Oracle Developer 2000, Borland's IntraBuilder, Sybase's PowerBuilder, Apple's WebObjects, NetDynamics, Asymetrix SuperCede Database Edition, and Allaire's Cold Fusion Application Wizards.

Finally, Model-driven Web generators  are those products (actually one product!) that provide a complete  coverage of all the development activities, from analysis to implementation, by leveraging state-of-the-art software engineering techniques. An outstanding representative of this category is the Oracle Web Development Suite, which comprises Designer 2000, a CASE tool for generating Web applications from augmented Entity–Relationship diagrams. Other examples of this approach are a few research prototypes, namely Autoweb [FP97], HSDL [Kes95], RMC [DI*95], and OOHDM [SR95].

The situation for Web development that emerges from the review is typical of a not yet mature technology (it could be easily compared to the OO tool market in the eighties): most products have a limited focus (implementation, with some provision for design); a few tools are trying to cover the lifecycle in a broader way, but they do so by approaching development from an innatural angle, typically using models and abstractions drawn from other fields, notably databases.
This scenario opens many research opportunities:

  3. Conclusions

An attempt can be done to match tool categories and application requirements:


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