Old School Meets New Age: Modernizing Applications with Web 2.0

Web 2.0 technologies have barely scratched the surface of application development. Here’s what’s in store.

By Jeremy Chone

Not so long ago, IT developers and architects, along with CIOs and business managers, contemplated whether Web 2.0 technologies such as mashups, podcasts, wikis, and the like were a fad or an evolution in the industry.

If Forrester’s recent forecast that the Web 2.0 market will reach $4.6 billion by 2013 comes true, it’s likely that Web 2.0 technologies will remain a fixture on the desktops of business users and IT professionals alike.

What will change, however, is the conversation about Web 2.0. The term will likely disappear as more interfaces get an overhaul and interactive Web sites become table stakes. It’s a bit like the way we stopped asking if our colleagues and friends had an e-mail address and just asked what the address was.

However, application facelifts are not as simple as adding RSS feeds or blogs to make your business applications more interactive and targeted to specific visitors. While many companies are focused on integrating Web 2.0 technologies, they can’t lose sight of the fact that any development effort, especially one that will have a sweeping effect on the company, requires a well-mapped-out strategy before any Web 2.0 project can begin.

An application modernization strategy is especially critical for companies that rely on their existing applications (including ERP, homegrown, and legacy applications) to run their businesses. While the introduction of end-user-created mashups or streaming video brings with it a certain level of challenges associated with security, accessibility, and ease of use, the consequences of layering Web 2.0 technologies on existing applications poses a much greater risk.

The risk arises from tweaks to the existing applications throughout the years to accommodate systemic changes or one-off requests. As these changes took place, few companies tracked the history and justification of the recoding. Adding to this is the likelihood that some of the application code is bad. Integrating new technologies on top of these already compromised applications could potentially wreak havoc throughout the Web because applications are no longer contained within the organization.

When it comes to executing on the company’s Web 2.0 vision, the modernization process is not as simple as updating the application interfaces or creating a dynamic new Web site. While at first blush a site that has Web 2.0 technologies may appear to be modernized, it will never meet the business needs of the enterprise if the underlying integrity of the application is compromised.

Before any application modernization can take place, a company must conduct an inventory of its existing application assets. While gaining this insight is critical, the inventory assessment doesn’t stop with the applications. The company also needs a blueprint of its applications and how they map to the business and IT functions. Once the map is drawn, a closer examination is required to uncover and test the integrity of the applications and prepare them for modernization.

Understanding the company’s infrastructure to support a Web 2.0 modernization effort is not just limited to mapping the applications. It should also include a deep understanding of Web services and how the company’s infrastructure may extend beyond its existing walls, especially as service oriented architecture (SOA) adoption continues to grow at a steady pace.

Once the IT team -- including both Web architects and enterprise architects -- understands what they have, they can chart a course for where they need to go. The goal is to make this part of the process as quick and easy as possible without requiring additional teams of IT developers and architects as well as extensive budget realignment.

To achieve this, businesses are looking at rich Internet application (RIA) platforms. Although there certainly is no shortage of vendors, the market is somewhat splintered. As more offerings arise, the industry has yet to agree on the best approach to building RIAs. We can expect the debates to continue on whether applications should be deployed on the desktop or in a browser, built in Ajax or Java, and who offers the best platform.

The answer to these questions will likely be determined by each organization based on its specific business needs. However, the following three critical factors should weigh heavily in choosing the best path for application modernization.

T skills: A company’s existing resources (such as knowledge of scripting languages and standards as well as a deep understanding of the evolution of its enterprise applications) will determine how quickly the strategy will be created and how long the transformation process will realistically take. If the company is lacking resources and/or skills, the technology choice should minimize or practically eliminate the amount of required coding to update the applications.

End-user experience: Employees, partners, and customers on your site should feel as if the pages were written specifically for them. This is especially important in the technology business-to-business market where longer sales cycles, confusing language and a one-size-fits-all approach make it easier for a prospect to say no. While the experience will be based on visuals, the value comes through in the content that’s most likely rooted in those legacy applications.

Ability to grow a community: With targeted messages, customized content, and some freebies, you’ll be able to share insight and elevate your status from vendor to trusted resource. While legacy applications that run your business will be kept behind the firewall, don’t underestimate the importance of extending some capabilities and information to a larger, interested community in the format of their choice.

Although enterprise applications have, for the most part, withstood the test of time, Web 2.0 technologies have barely scratched the surface. This next stage in the industry’s evolution will forever change the face of application development as old school meets new age through modernization.

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Jeremy Chone is chief technology officer at Nexaweb. You can reach the author at jchone@nexaweb.com