New 4GL Release Puts Data First
In the Windows NT world, fourth-generation language (4GL) products have been limited to niche players in a market saturated with all varieties of development tools. But one 4GL product provider, TopSpeed Corp. (www.topspeed.com), is determined to push its flavor of automated application development into the mainstream, especially among small shops with scarce programming talent.
The latest incarnation of TopSpeed's Clarion rapid application tool family now includes intelligent agents that automatically mirror preferences throughout an application, sparing the developer repetitive work. A data dictionary helps populate predefined style sheets, and the agents engage developers in an interactive dialog to determine the size and scope of the application model. An enterprise edition of the tool includes version control software as well.
The use of 4GLs has not been common in the Windows NT and PC server development world, which tends to be dominated by the use of Visual Basic and C and C++ languages, or tools such as Delphi from Borland (www.borland.com) and PowerBuilder from Sybase (www.sybase.com). Surveys of ENT readers have found that only 11 percent of Windows NT shops use any type of 4GL in their development efforts. A study by International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com) finds that 4GL-based application development tends to be limited to departments and workgroups, rather than enterprise-scale deployments. IDC also estimates that the overall 4GL/RAD market is growing at an anemic rate of 2.3 percent a year.
In fact, most of TopSpeed's corporate customers have been at the departmental level, states Roy Rafalco, CEO of TopSpeed. Most of TopSpeed's customers tend to be independent software developers and VARs, he adds.
One company that has had success with a Clarion 4GL deployment is Grand Rapids, Mich.-based RidgeView Stamping Co. This $60 million contractor to General Motors has built an entire MRP system from the ground up using Clarion, says Jack Toering, systems manager for RidgeView. The system links plant machinery to a network running Novell NetWare, Windows NT and Windows 3.1. A Citrix server at the main plant provides interfaces to Clarion-built applications from three remote plants.
TopSpeed claims it can automate the development of up to 90 percent of an application. In addition, applications can run "nearly as fast as C code," Rafalco says.
RidgeView’s Toering agrees that his Clarion-developed applications run "faster than typical Windows applications." RidgeView's Clarion-generated MRP system manages electronic document interchange transmissions from GM and automatically distributes work orders to vendors. The system also monitors data from machines on the shop floor, Toering says.
The primary advantage of Clarion-based solutions is that they're built on top of existing databases, he notes. RidgeView's systems are currently based on Sybase SQL Anywhere, with some now being migrated to Oracle. Switching databases underneath applications is fairly simple with the 4GL, he adds.
Along with Oracle and SQL Anywhere, TopSpeed's Clarion supports SQL Server, Informix and AS/400 DB2. TopSpeed is also shipping an edition that Web-enables Clarion-based applications.
While some 4GL vendors have added Java as an output, TopSpeed has not made up its mind whether to fully support the language, Rafalco states. "We're not a huge company, so we can't go off in different directions. But we're certainly interested by Java and the Web architecture."
The tool has become increasingly modular or object-oriented, and will also support Microsoft COM components. Rafalco, however, is quick to note that Clarion is not limited to the Windows platform. "We'll port this automation technology to other viable platforms," he says.