Web development tools: a survey
Dipartimento di Elettronica e Informazione,
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
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.
vendors of productivity tools for the Web have started integrating
database connectivity and object-based components into their authoring
database vendors have provided facilities for exporting database content
in Web-compatible format and for translating proprietary clientserver
applications for Web execution;
hypermedia authoring tools are being extended to add both Web-compatible
export capabilities and database connectivity.
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
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 EntityRelationship
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,
This scenario opens many research opportunities:
Conceptual modelling: a conceptual model for a Web application should
give peer dignity to structure, behavior, navigation, and presentation.
These perspectives should remain orthogonal.
CASE support: with the proper models, a higher level of assistance
could be reached. Among the missing features we mention: mapping Web conceptual
models (not only structure) to database schemata, reverse-engineering database
applications into Web applications (not only forms), language- and
device-independent application generation, model-level reuse.
Restructuring: application customization and evolution requires
mechanisms to restructure existing Web applications to adapt them to different
users or to changes in the requirements; restructuring is a well-known
issue in the database field, but is still not fully understood for Web
applications. In principle, Web conceptual models and tools could be extended
to support a notion of view suited to Web applications, which should
allow restructuring presentation and navigation, as well as structure.
An attempt can be done to match tool categories and application requirements:
Small scale business-to-user applications: this category includes
such applications as companies' points of presence, infocenters, and so
on. Visual editors and site managers seem the appropriate solution, because
they ensure the high-level of visual accuracy necessary for
targeting the general public, coupled to productivity tools reducing
the development effort. This role could be undermined in the near future
by hypermedia authoring tools, which share the same focus on presentation
quality and are even more effective in the design of navigational and multimedia
interfaces. The current limit to the applicability of both these classes
of solutions is the size of the information base; if this has to be kept
in a database, then presently these tools do not provide the adequate means
to integrate database and Web design, implementation and maintenance.
Intra-business or business-to-business applications: this category
comprises all legacy information systems and EDI applications and is characterized
by users already trained to the transactional and form-based interaction
paradigm. Web form editors and database publishing wizards offer a
powerful opportunity for migrating existing applications to Intranets,
and this technical advantage largely balances the limited exploitation
of the communication capabilities of the Web.
Large scale business-to-user applications: this is the most challenging
area, comprising such applications as electronic commerce and virtual libraries.
Presently, no specific product is fully addressing the analysis, design,
implementation and evolution of this kind of application, which require
the same communication paradigm and interface quality as small scale user-oriented
applications and the same performance and scalability as intranet applications.
In this scenario, neutral, implementation-oriented products like HTML-DBPL
integrators seem the most adequate choice, although development and
maintenance with these tools still requires a substantial coding
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