As Published In
Oracle Magazine
May/June 2009

FEATURE


United Development

By David A. Kelly

Bring together the languages and technologies your applications demand with Oracle development solutions.

Developers who need straightforward solutions for complex technical problems have many options to choose from—and the number of options and the developers choosing them increase every year. “We have seen a significant growth in languages like PHP or Perl, and to some extent Python or Ruby on Rails,” says Al Hilwa, program director, application development software research, at independent research firm IDC.

And it is not only the numbers of languages and new adopters that has grown. “Today’s developers are forced to pay attention probably to 20 technologies, where before they could concentrate on maybe three or four,” says Mike Hichwa, vice president of software development, database group, at Oracle. “That puts extra emphasis on the need for better tools, because before you could keep specialized information, like syntax, in your head. Even professionals who do this all day can’t memorize everything anymore.”

These new tools and technologies developed because business needs forced increased requirements on applications. “New applications have to meet a higher bar of richness in terms of graphics, interactivity, and mixing and blending content types at the presentation layer,” says IDC’s Hilwa.

Regardless of whether your focus is the user interface, the business logic, the database, or even the “cloud,” (see the sidebar, “Clouds in the Development Forecast”), Oracle tools and development solutions offer many choices for Web 2.0 enterprises and companies that still depend on their legacy mainframes for business processes.

Streamlining the Business

Avis Budget Group wanted to improve its customer experience, but accomplishing this goal with its legacy mainframe system was a formidable task. “We’re trying to tackle a suite of problems that are not uncommon to many companies that are dealing with legacy systems,” says Prahlad Athreya, principal architect at Avis. “The costs of maintaining legacy systems tend to be high, and it’s always a challenge to keep systems operational while making major changes.”

Even the simplest changes can be problematic for a company as large as Avis, which in 2007 completed 28 million vehicle rental transactions worldwide on the 425,000 vehicles that it rents from 6,900 locations. And while renting and returning a car is relatively straightforward for a customer, managing all variables associated with the rental experience, along with the back-end processes, requires fairly sophisticated capabilities.

The company was faced with the challenge of exposing legacy functionality—especially that related to the customer experience—in a more flexible and cost-effective service-oriented architecture (SOA). Additionally, the SOA infrastructure needed to support all of Avis’ customer contact channels, from call centers and the Web to airport rental counters and standalone facilities.

To build its SOA, Avis chose Oracle WebLogic Server, because “Avis firmly believes in open standards and interoperability,” says Athreya. In addition, the Avis team built the SOA infrastructure (called OMEGA, or One Merged Enterprise & Global Architecture) based on Oracle WebLogic Server because it gives developers freedom to concentrate on building business logic and business services without having to worry about internal infrastructure issues.

“Oracle WebLogic Server is a robust application server that helps us build on a core application that we know works without any issues and lets us focus our efforts on delivering services,” Athreya says.

“Oracle WebLogic Server has several features that promote automation and allow administration to be simplified using scripting,” says Athreya, explaining the product’s appeal. “And the key to delivering a good SOA is a good messaging foundation. In that regard, Oracle WebLogic allows us to integrate very well with the mainframe.”

One of the first processes that Avis addressed with its Oracle WebLogic-based SOA solution: rental return. The company implemented a new E-Receipts application that enables a renter to return a car, get an instant paper receipt, and receive a follow-up e-mail with an electronic receipt that can be used for expense reports or recordkeeping. 

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Clouds in the Development Forecast


For companies that have big storage or development needs and want to access a larger network without having to maintain one, working in the cloud can provide a lot of advantages: it’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s cost-effective.
 

“We’re seeing a move to reduce the time, complexity, and cost of gaining access to computing resources and solutions, and that’s exactly what cloud computing does,” says Mike Hichwa, vice president of software development, database group, at Oracle. For example, while Oracle Application Express or Oracle Database can be run locally for departmental solutions, they can also be run in the data center, or even in the cloud.
 

“You can get an Oracle database on Amazon’s [Elastic Compute] Cloud and use Oracle Application Express and start building your Oracle-based application with no local hardware,” says Hichwa. “So you can sign up, get on the internet, and in minutes—literally—you can procure an Oracle database in the Amazon cloud and start using it. I came across one blog that showed a customer who bought an Oracle database in Amazon’s cloud, used it for eight hours, then stopped, and paid less than $5. I don’t know too many other providers who can give you that type of service.” (See Next Steps for information about using Oracle products on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud.)
 

But what if you’re not ready to develop your own database application in the cloud? What’s a good way to get started in cloud-based application development? New concepts like cloud computing can be hard to understand at first, but sometimes there are easy ways to wrap your head around them.
 

“Starting to develop cloud-based applications can actually be a very easy experience,” says Christian Schalk, a developer advocate at Google. “You can often start by dropping a little bit of JavaScript into your page and instantly turn your app into a cloud-based app that ties into a larger server-based cloud architecture.”
 

Schalk recommends that developers start by getting a feel for the different cloud-based technologies that are available. Among other things, developers can learn how easy it is to integrate an online map into an existing application.
 

“Using the Google Maps API is a nice example of how easy it can be to create an application that ties into the cloud,” says Schalk. “Just getting Google Maps to appear in an application is a good use of cloud computing, and it’s incredibly easy.”
 

Once you’re familiar with the options, it’s possible to start building up and integrating with many online cloud services and APIs.
 

“If you’re coming from a traditional enterprise or server-side development environment, where you’re working on fairly complex technologies, you may be surprised to find that using some of these mashable cloud-based technologies can be pretty easy,” says Schalk. “It’s also a lot of fun!”

The Oracle WebLogic-based E-Receipt application has been transformative, in that it has allowed Avis to unlock business processes and information that previously were mainframe-bound. The solution ties into the company’s mainframe-based billing system, and in addition to electronically enabling a core business process (rental returns), E-Receipt demonstrates how Avis could cost-effectively extend the reach of its mainframe applications using SOA technologies.

The combination of SOA and the Oracle WebLogic platform allows Avis to achieve an extra benefit as well: reuse. “A big chunk of our environment is devoted to services that are used across applications throughout the company,” says Athreya. “SOA and Oracle WebLogic save us the effort of having to reinvent and rebuild a piece of functionality, so it can be reused across multiple projects.”

Securing the Vote

Although businesses must be able to develop applications that can help them run more efficiently, it’s perhaps even more important for democratic governments to have applications that can ensure fair and impartial elections. That’s why Ohio’s secretary of state turned to Oracle and Oracle Application Express—a no-cost feature of Oracle Database that enables organizations to rapidly develop browser-based database applications—as the foundation for a brand-new election reporting and monitoring solution.

The Ohio secretary of state is responsible for managing data for corporation filings, Uniform Commercial Code filings, and monitoring and tracking of statewide campaign finance activities, as well as the state’s election environment. It’s an independent office that’s elected by the people of Ohio.

When the current secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, came into office in January 2007, one of her primary goals was to clean up the elections environment. There had been accusations of bias in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and she wanted to ensure that Ohio’s elections were free, fair, open, and available to everyone.

An important step was rewriting the election night reporting system, along with the applications that maintain and report on elections across the state. Because the secretary of state’s office was already primarily an Oracle shop running Oracle Database with Oracle Real Application Clusters (Oracle RAC), its technology team decided to take advantage of Oracle Application Express and use it as the basis for Ohio’s new election reporting operations. (The secretary of state’s office designated civil service employees as the primary project managers for the new Oracle Application Express system and contracted with an independent and unbiased consultancy, the James Group, for technical staff augmentation.)

The secretary of state’s office used Oracle Application Express to develop three applications for election night reporting, including a county submission utility and an elections administration package. All of these applications were integrated into an Oracle Application Express environment and stress tested. Election systems aren’t used on a daily basis, but when they are used, they must be able to support the required workloads.

“We went through a series of dry runs and stress testing to ensure that the Oracle Application Express environment could handle the load that we anticipated on election night,” says Robert Mangan, chief information officer, Ohio secretary of state’s office. “We stressed the bandwidth at 275MB all the way up to 500MB and couldn’t bring the Oracle Application Express site down or degrade the performance to an unacceptable level. It worked really well for us.”

As a result, the new Oracle Application Express-based elections reporting applications were rolled out in late 2007 for a special election and for the 2008 primary and general elections. The county submission module provided a secure sockets connection that allowed the county boards of elections access to the Ohio secretary of state’s Web site and gave them the ability to submit reports and results throughout the night of an election. The results were automatically pushed to the databases and the backup sites by way of Oracle Streams.

“Our biggest concern was whether Oracle Application Express could take massive hits and massive usage over the Web, and that ended up not being an issue for it at all,” Mangan says. During the 2008 general elections, the Web-based application received close to 49 million hits in a six-hour period on election night.

“It performed well. We met all of Secretary Brunner’s goals for the election night operations,” says Mangan. “We’ve got a great election monitoring tool now, and we’re planning on expanding it over time and adding additional features.” 

Snapshots


Avis Budget Group

 Location: Parsippany, New Jersey
 Employees: 30,000
 Oracle products: Oracle WebLogic Server
 

Office of the Ohio Secretary of State

 Location: Columbus, Ohio
 Employees: 188
 Oracle products: Oracle Database 10g, Oracle Real Application Clusters, Oracle Application Express, Oracle Forms, Oracle Reports, Oracle Spatial, Oracle Streams, Oracle JDeveloper, Oracle Application Server
 

Energy Saving Trust

 Location: London, England
 Employees: 247
 Oracle products: Oracle Database 10g, Oracle Real Application Clusters, Oracle Application Server

The Ohio secretary of state’s office is now pushing Oracle Application Express into initiatives for campaign finance and voter registration. “If there’s a wall with the tool, we haven’t hit it yet,” says Mangan.

Leveraging Infrastructure for Robust Applications

Oracle Database delivers a database platform for building scalable and reliable applications across multiple development technologies, including PHP and Java. Open standards and interoperability, which save time, money, and upkeep, are important for most companies. For one organization in the U.K., open standards help save energy as well.

The Energy Saving Trust promotes the efficient use of energy and a more low-carbon lifestyle through its Web site and network of 21 advice centers across the U.K. About 300,000 unique visitors go to its consumer Web site each month for resources such as energy-saving recommendation applications.

A long-time Oracle customer, the Energy Saving Trust had previously used a combination of application development tools and technologies, along with an Oracle database, to create custom applications for many of its business processes. That strategy has changed.

“We’re trying to leverage off-the-shelf applications whenever possible,” says Adam Spindler, IT manager at the Energy Saving Trust. “As a result, our application development efforts are focused more on integration and being able to extend applications rather than writing them from scratch.” 

Next Steps


 READ about Oracle development tools

 LEARN about Oracle Application Express

 DOWNLOAD Oracle WebLogic Server

VISIT
the PHP Developer Center
the Oracle Cloud Computing Center

 USE Oracle products on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud

In November 2008, the organization completed a major upgrade of its Web site, leveraging eZ Publish, an open source content management system that uses the Energy Saving Trust’s existing Oracle Database infrastructure. eZ Publish is written in PHP and has a PHP-extension-based architecture, so it can be integrated with the organization’s other applications and infrastructure components.

“We use PHP to communicate from eZ Publish to our CRM [customer relationship management] system, by generating XML and then receiving XML back, processing it, and putting it all in,” says Spindler. “Everything’s PHP.” In fact, strong support for PHP was a key reason that the Energy Saving Trust chose eZ Publish.

“We liked the idea of PHP beforehand, but it was really the fact that eZ Publish was written in PHP that was the deciding factor,” says Spindler. “Previously we had to have a separate service running to handle our Web requests and basically used it to pass off the requests from Apache to this other service and process it there. But now with the PHP-based solution, it just runs as a plug-in, so it’s far more robust and efficient than before.”

The Energy Saving Trust also uses Java to write some extensions, such as one it has built to connect the Web portal to energy savings recommendation engines, which provide information to consumers on the best ways to save energy. The company has also used some cloud computing capabilities by incorporating a Google Maps extension, which was built using the Google Maps API, Ajax, PHP 5, and the Yahoo! User Interface framework. The Google Maps extension allows users to find gas/refueling stations close to a specified location.

Spindler still sees the need for application development skills—especially PL/SQL—and the Energy Saving Trust’s application development team includes both Java and PL/SQL developers for creating custom applications or extensions. “PL/SQL is the perfect tool for doing data manipulation in the database,” says Spindler. “We like Java, but when it comes to moving and crunching large amounts of data, like our 80 million rows, we love PL/SQL. PL/SQL does everything we need.”

Regardless of the tool employed, Spindler attributes a lot of the Energy Saving Trust’s success to developing a robust infrastructure, starting with Oracle Database. “Oracle Database is just the best on the market,” says Spindler. “With our three-node [Oracle RAC] cluster, Oracle Database is bulletproof—it just works, all the time. We even had a situation where one of our engineers pulled the plug on the main database server and it just carried on—it didn’t miss a beat. Using Oracle Database in a cluster makes our life so simple.”
 



David A. Kelly
(dkelly@upsideresearch.com) is a business, technology, and travel writer who lives in West Newton, Massachusetts.


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