A/D Trends: Practical Ways to Build Web Applications

Today’s Web surfers are no longer attracted to the content of your pages. What really appeals to them is the use of slick Web applications.

Users want to query, buy, sell, trade, or conduct some sort of transaction online – not read pages of information. Many companies have added commerce-enabled pages on their Web sites to attract new users, satisfy the needs of loyal users and simplify processes for both.

You cannot throw any old application on your Web site and expect results. The application must serve some purpose or users won’t bother to try it. Web applications must be dynamic, attractive, fast and most importantly, secure.

Web applications can be programmed with active server pages or using PERL. Active server pages use Visual Basic script (a version of Visual Basic) to create Web applications and ActiveX technology to use and manipulate objects. Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS) can only interpret active server pages. PERL is a language used to manipulate text, files and processes. It is available for many platforms, including Unix, Windows NT and the AS/400. Java, on the other hand, accomplishes the same tasks without any conditions – other than the availability of the JVM.

Web applications should be customizable from both ends. Users and employees must be able to tailor pages to their needs. The user must be allowed to customize both the content and the physical appearance of the page, which will allow he or she to have a sense of identity and will give them a reason to return to your site. Users must also be able to see immediate results from their customization. From the other side, employees must be able to easily change the layout and the content of each of the pages without coding the HTML. This feature will allow non-programmers to change the look of your page while maintaining content. These changes need not be dramatic -- simply changing font types of your Web pages can make a huge difference to both their appeal and readability.

Online purchasing programs must have secure credit card and shipping abilities incorporated into the application. Credit card payment ability is essential to electronic commerce -- it speeds up transaction time and eliminates any potential follow-up calls to confirm payment types. Adding this feature can also be used to directly update accounting records.

However, there are inherent dangers for both merchants and customers with these kinds of online transactions. For this reason, there must be tight security in place. Allowing users to select shipping types will ensure immediate scheduling of the merchandise after the payment has been verified. Combining this, along with shipping programs available from shipping companies, can greatly decrease the amount of time before shipping.

Incorporating Java applets and ActiveX components into an application can vastly improve a page’s appearance. Java applets and ActiveX components can add function to Web pages that could not normally be done using HTML and scripts. Java applets provide an OS-independent applet. Executing application logic within ActiveX components can increase performance by reducing the amount of communication with the Web server. ActiveX components are compiled, therefore, it is impossible to see the code behind the component.

Accessing databases, and manipulating the results, may take some time to process and slow your Web application. A good way to speed up page serving is take processing away from the Web server. Using stored procedures with your database, and returning information to the Web server for display will distribute the processing among the servers. Stored procedures can perform any type of database action.

When allowing users to log on and access corporate data, there must be extra security in place so that there is no chance of accessing sensitive information. To ensure that unauthorized viewers are not viewing your data, get a secure socket layer (SSL) key. This key ensures that the browser and the web server will have a private conversation. Another solution could be to place a cookie with a unique value on the client’s browser after a successful logon. This value can then be used to identify the user after logging onto the application.

The advent of the Internet creates the ability for consumers to directly access companies’ IT systems. This is the reason security is so often an issue when discussing the Internet. But the final frontier is not security, but usability.

Allowing consumers direct access to your IT system eliminates the telephone clerk or other human interface that could mask inefficiencies or non-availability of the system. How many times have you booked travel reservations and heard “the system is down so I’ll get right back to you,” or “let me go to the supervisor to see how I can do it.” How transparent is the fact that the system is an old ASCII or 5250 interface?

Months and years of training for the users today hide what will essentially lie naked in front of the Internet user tomorrow. And if it doesn’t work, or if they don’t like it, you lose business -- and lose it for good.

Mark Buchner is president and founder of Astech Solutions Inc. (Aurora, Ontario), which applies technology to the practical needs of the AS/400 market.