REVIEWER: Gary Gilmour, director for Entere Systems Ltd.

BACKGROUND: Entere Systems is a UK-based software consultancy specializing in the Java/EJB/SQL market. Entere sells several products in the man-hour accounting/project management arena and has a global practice.

PLATFORMS: Any platform that supports Java, whether client/server or Java server.

PROBLEM SOLVED: Our product, a two- tier client/server application written using a PowerBuilder front end talking to an Oracle database, was starting to show its age. The market was telling us that we needed to progress to an N-tiered Web-enabled offering. Initial attempts to replace the PowerBuilder front end with Oracle Forms, which would at least give us Web enablement, were abandoned because: manual conversion would be too expensive; Oracle Forms would not give the functionality of the PowerBuilder and was also Java-based, not HTML; Oracle Forms would impose additional licensing charges which would need to be passed on to our clients; and it was still two-tier. Additionally, this would be yet another in-house skill that we would need to maintain.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: Our attention turned to CipherSoft's offering, Exodus. Their product is an automated tool/service that converts Oracle Forms into an N-tier Java/XML-based environment. The solution included converting the PL/SQL code to JDBC compliant Java. The front end can run as a Java application or an applet. Alternatively, the front-end software can link to the middle-tier server software and run as a servlet, which then renders the screen as HTML in a browser. Upon starting the feasibility study, our first problem was that some of our screens were in Oracle Forms, but most screens were still in PowerBuilder. However, we were able to produce an XML document similar to the input document from Oracle Forms. This was not perfect and required a lot of manual intervention, but it was a fraction of the time it would have taken to redevelop the screens manually. We converted the necessary Oracle Forms screens to our satisfaction and with minimal manual intervention.

STRENGTHS: One concern we had was the quantity of Java code that would be produced and need maintaining. CipherSoft's extensive use of XML certainly helped to bring this down to acceptable levels. The decision to proceed was greatly aided by CipherSoft's willingness to perform trial conversion runs, giving us an idea of the closeness of the resulting functionality of the system to the original one. This trial also allowed us to produce an estimate for any manual work required.

WEAKNESSES: For the vast majority of the system, the results were as predicted. However, some of the on-screen designs that used partially overlapping or stacked display areas would not appear at all or they both appeared side by side in full view. This occurred because Java and HTML do not work on absolute positioning but by placing "objects within objects." Fortunately, use of stacking and overlay techniques is fairly rare. Also, the mouse and cursor movements were detected correctly and the correct events fired, but led to high network traffic and hence slower response times.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Considering all these findings, we estimated that using Exodus would allow us to complete the conversion for approximately 20 percent of the cost of redeveloping it manually and in one- tenth of the time. Based on this, the decision was made to proceed.

DELIVERABLES: After project completion, the application behaved functionally like the original. Upon close inspection of the generated code, ghosts of Oracle Forms can be found which, if written from scratch, would not be wanted or found. However, it would be too much to ask of any automated process to remove the inherent structure that held the original application together. Exodus does deliver a sound working system, written in a state-of-the- art environment.

VENDOR SUPPORT: CipherSoft was extremely flexible to work with as we had several issues that were quite complicated and took some rather lengthy discussions. They were also easily accessible which allowed these discussions to take place as our requirements arose. CipherSoft was constantly trying to assist in solving our problems and working around our specific issues.

DOCUMENTATION: The documentation was fairly technical but usable.

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