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The Net + Web Business Architecture

Francis Vale

Want to know how to bring those legacy systems into the 21st century?
Need an IT/IS Internet/Web business rationale for your organization?
Then read on (BTW, this was written in 1995).

Forget about merely doing business on the Internet. Rather, think about what could happen if you actually made the Internet and World Wide Web (Net + Web) part of your business. By fully incorporating the Net + Web as a key component of your IT infrastructure, you provide the very means to develop efficient business and customer-service procedures. And that promises to bring a net positive impact on the bottom line.

How can this be so? Essentially, the Internet offers a fault-tolerant, globe spanning mechanism, providing near real time multi-media connectivity, depending on the amount of bandwidth available. These powerful features typically come at a fixed, or at least relatively fixed, low price, with easily decipherable use charges stated up front.

What the Web essentially offers is a unique Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) that provides a client/server environment as equally operating system independent on the client side as on the server side. Taken all together, this is an entirely new type of communications business model.

Moreover, an interesting corollary surrounds the Net's novel architecture: The more the Net is deployed and used in daily organizational transactions, the greater your cost savings. This is an unusual financial axiom, and a fundamental reason for the Net's success.

In particular, the Net's accounting clarity deserves mention, in marked contrast to the Byzantine billing of long distance carriers such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint, which often go to great lengths to hide the true tariff you pay for their services. This alone is a strong business enticement for actively seeking out as many ways as possible to play down relationships with long-distance carriers and get onto the 'Net.

In addition, you have the opportunity for having free and unlimited telephone conversations over the Net via Vocaltec's Net phone software; free and unlimited interactive Net video desktop conferencing via Cornell University's Cu-SeeMe software; and coming up is free and unlimited connectivity to things like Net faxing and paging.

Nonetheless, from an IT standpoint, these cost-cutting advantages don't even scratch the surface of the Net's true importance. In order to understand the actual significance of the Net+Web construct, you must free yourself of the mind-numbing fog that is generated by the media, consultant, and vendor hype. Then forget about simply moving your business on to the Net, and instead think about the consequences of adopting the Net+Web as your organization's de facto distributed computing architecture.

Worldwide distributed computing

For long range IT planning, the 'Net + Web distributed computing model provides a standardized client interface, a standardized set of protocols for transmitting and receiving diverse data, including multimedia, as well as a standardized way for creating network sessions between heterogeneous legacy host systems. Now consider what might happen if your organization were to pursue aggressively a migration to client/server computing via Web-based clients and standardized Net protocols. And then consider what might happen if your organization's changeover to this new form of client/server were to become a widespread computing paradigm. In all likelihood, it would cause a seismic market shift. The first casualty of such a Netquake would be vendor control over the desktop OS

If nothing else, the client/server paradigm was supposed to eliminate IT dependence on single-source vendors. In an act of cyberspace organizational empowerment, newly freed data was to be distributed via flexible, flattened networks to manifold types of end user systems. But while client/server computing broke the hierarchical control of monolithic datacenter computing vendors, it solidified the stranglehold of MS Windows on the desktop.

Toppling OS dependence

With few exceptions, most popular client/server development packages are one client type-to-many server types when it comes to their distributed computing architecture. Taking advantage of Open Database Connectivity (ODBC), they support numerous server systems, but, almost invariably, clients are monolithic Windows PCs.

Have you ever tried to distribute client/server applications with PowerBuilder to Mac users?

The widespread adoption of the architecturally independent Net+Web could topple the final preserve of operating-system dependence in the client/server paradigm; i.e., overthrow MS Windows. When viewed in this context, the highly democratic Internet and platform-liberating Web are probably the logical conclusion and natural heirs to client server development.

Still sound farfetched? Microsoft doesn't think so. The company has already put up a defense line to repel this market threat. Windows95 the MS Network, and MS Explorer, MSN's link to the Internet, are the first big moves intended to entrench Microsoft's presence on the desktop, while building extensions that reach out onto the Net. In the long run, even the nascent OpenDoc vs. Network OLE war brewing between IBM and Microsoft has big implications for the Net and the Web.

Working against the success of a desktop takeover by the Net is the Web's obvious lack of interactive functionality when compared to an OS-based client. Windows-specific client/server development tools have a rich pallet of objects and methods from which to paint sophisticated interrupt-driven client interfaces.

Web clients finally grow up (fat)

In stark contrast, Web user clients to date have been distinctly passive. They merely present tagged data gathered from a remote server and display it according to certain conventions. In a very real sense, the first generation of Web browser clients turned smart PCs into lobotomized zombies that behaved very much like dumb ASCII terminals.

Fortunately, Web clients are rapidly gaining new capabilities for highly interactive, intelligent behavior. Developers will soon gain the ability to build fully interactive, even woefully fat, Web clients, just as they have become accustomed to doing when building OS-based clients.

On way to provide this functionality is via an applications programming interface (API). Along this line, Netscape is giving other developers access to its browser's API in order to integrate specialized applications or functions into the browser client. In this way, 3rd party developers can readily enhance the native capabilities of the Netscape browser. These new browser features are then triggered when a tag or tag attribute from a Web file calls for a particular service, if it is present. These additional Netscape features are referred to as 'plug-ins.'

Another, more generalized, approach to enhancing dumb Web clients is also gaining momentum. It will allow non-programmers and programmers alike to enhance the functionality of a browser. This alternative technique takes advantage of well known and understood scripting systems, such as Perl, to add specialized functionality to a Web browser.

Microsoft's Internet Assistant -- a Microsoft Windows add-on -- is another scripting example. The Internet Assistant allows users to convert Word documents to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) format, and embed Word macros for special functionality. When these enhanced Web documents are accessed, the embedded macros (within allowed security restrictions) are triggered.

Then there is Sun's new and much publicized Java language for the Web. Java allows the creation of almost any type of server you can imagine, in almost any format/language/protocol. Java has been licensed by most all of the major computer players, including Microsoft.

When you access the server, the appropriate client reader protocol, written in Java, comes down the pipe along with whatever you just accessed. Thus, the server access protocols, just like browser application helpers, are dynamically loaded into your client machine. Java allows modification of the protocol itself, too. The result: almost unlimited flexibility in designing new types of Web server applications, with no worries about client capabilities on the receiving end.

Essentially, Java permits embedding almost unlimited types of client/server interactivity in otherwise static Web pages, including multimedia. And it all happens across the Net between heterogeneous client server machines.

Java is a stripped down, highly portable C++ like language, which can also be viewed as a language for creating cross platform network agents. Running under any modified browser, and being a general programming system, Java is not limited to just Web-page use. Sun also offers its own Web browser, HotJava, acting as a vehicle for executing Java 'applets'.

Java is meant only for 32 bit systems (reflecting its Sun Microsystems/Unix origins), which means it will not run under Windows 3.x systems, or MS DOS. For PCs, it requires either Windows95, or NT.

Java is an interpreted language, denuded by Sun of certain read, write, and delete functions. Sun has also done other things to make Java security-conscious. In turn, don't expect Java applets, accidentally or no, to muck up users' machines when downloaded.

Due to the language's C++ origins, Java is complex, and has an associated learning curve. The Sun developed technology is comprised of the Java Virtual Machine which standardizes its cross platform operation; and a platform specific bytecode interpreter that executes the Java applets. The end result of this multi-layered approach is that Java code executes up to ten times slower than regular C++.

Nonetheless, Java is quickly gaining mind share, as evidenced by Netscape's recently announced browser support for the Sun system. This support comes in the form of Netscape's JavaScript, a new user scripting system that attempts to mask from view the underlying C++ programming of Java. (In reality, JavaScript is mostly a wrapper mechanism for inserting into HTML files small chunks of Java code.) In addition, 28 other computer vendors, from Microsoft to IBM, have just announced licensing deals with Sun for Java.

Java is obviously being optimized for graphics-based Web applets. Sun, Silicon Graphics, and Netscape have jointly agreed to implement a cross platform Java API that will offer portable, interactive multimedia and 3D graphics over the Web. This upcoming iteration of Java will support SGI's Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML).

In the midst of this Java/Netscape feeding frenzy, Microsoft recently announced that it will be embedding browser technology directly into Windows95. Furthermore, the forthcoming MS Blackbird -- a Web authoring technology -- will also be going cross platform. In addition, MS plans to add extensions to its highly popular Visual Basic language to make it a Net scripting tool similar to Java. MS also intends to make Excel, Word, and PowerPoint work over the Internet. In other words, the Web client now becomes a full blown desktop application. Finally, MS plans to integrate its Internet Information Server, code named Gibraltar, into Windows NT.

It will be some time before these new MS Net/Web products reach the market. However, Microsoft has a proven history of entering markets late, and then scooping up all the marbles. But in the multiplatform world of the Net + Web, this may not prove as easy as it was in the past.

Finally, there is VXM Technologies' newly announced VXM System product. The VXM System is derived from a unique software scripting technology called the VXM Network Shell, which was first deployed on TCP/IP, Internet-attached systems in 1986 at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA (at Mitre Corp.'s Electronic Systems Division). In 1987, the The VXM System system logically unified PCs, Sun UNIX workstations, VAX VMS computers, and distributed databases in a TCP/IP telecommunications test bed at GTE Laboratories. VXM The VXM System was the world's first production system that provided intelligent Internet agents across heterogeneous systems.

As with Java, The VXM System applets work across multiple platforms via a standardized virtual machine. Although expressing many similarities on the surface, The VXM System is architecturally quite different from Java. One very distinct difference between the two languages is that The VXM System will run not only under 32 bit systems (which Java is limited to), but also on 8 bit embedded micros. The VXM System thus includes a much broader range of systems under its Internet-integrating umbrella, such as consumer appliances, office equipment, DAVIC-compliant TVs, and Intercast TV/PCs. (VXM The VXM System applets can be easily downloaded during the TV signal's vertical blanking interval.)

The underlying The VXM System interpreter is very small (128KB), and the The VXM System language is optimized for intelligent symbolic processing, as in AI/Lisp systems. The VXM System applets can take autonomous action (i.e., act as agents), and can go one logical step further than Java: The VXM System's string-oriented applets are optimized for converting commands, data formats, and communications protocols between different applications and systems, including legacy codes. There is no need to rewrite anything.

VXM The VXM System therefore acts as a kind of flexible, intelligent, connective tissue which logically integrates the whole of the Internet. Via The VXM System, the Web becomes a cooperative, virtual extended machine, possessing capabilities for autonomous intelligence.

The machine independent The VXM System logic encompasses computers, consumer electronics, and wireless devices. As opposed to Java applets, The VXM System's are meant to stay in the background, out of user sight. So like JavaScript, The VXM System can be integrated with Java, yielding a new type of intelligent multimedia-enabled, Internet applet system.

There are many other new and exciting things to come for Web clients. Already, Web clients are capable of bringing video, audio, and 3D virtual reality graphics to the desktop. As a result, content-rich data sources for Web browsers are growing exponentially. But even more important is the fact that all of the rapid expansion in Web client functionality is intended for cross platform use. These new additions are not OS-specific.

By adopting the Net+Web construct, your organization has immediate and consistent portability to any computing device that supports a Web browser. No more platform cross-training. No more worrying about OS upgrades. No more internal fights about being a mixed PC/Mac/UNIX shop. What's more, upgrades to Web clients are easily and rapidly distributed across any heterogeneous corporate network.

More importantly, the Net+Web paradigm lets you expose existing legacy systems to customers with the supreme comfort of knowing that what you see on your desktop client is exactly what your customers see on their PC, Mac, or UNIX Web browsers. Furthermore, you don't have to worry about what new OS your customers will be using tomorrow, thanks to the technology buffer that the Net+Web provides.

In the next issue of 21st, we continue our examination of the 'Net+Web business model, Net security, virtual money, and why Kevin Mitnik, despite what the New York Times said, may not be the 'Net's prototypical bete noire.

To this article's sidebar: OpenDoc vs. Network Ole

Copyright 1995, Francis Vale All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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