Philip J. Gill is an Associate Editor of Java Report. He can be contacted at
FLASHLINE.COM INC. is a Cleveland-based electronic commerce (e-commerce) start-up. It was formed
last year to capitalize on the emerging market for reusable software components, including JavaBeans.
Today, Flashline.com offers for sale a variety of fonts and software componentsprincipally JavaBeans
and COM, but also Active/Xfrom its Web site's Digital Marketplace.
THE SITE AND ITS SERVICES
The site offers four main services, the principal one being its consumer-oriented "Customer Digital
Marketplace." This system allows customers to browse, select, and purchase its digital products via
the Web. On payment authorization, the site's digital products are delivered over the Internet to
the customer's computer. In addition, an archive function stores copies of every product purchased
in a personalized customer filing system for later retrieval.
The site's second system, a vendor system, allows developers wishing to use the Digital Marketplace
to set up accounts to sell their software fonts, components, and at a future date, other as yet
unspecified digital products.
An advertiser system allows vendors to sign up and submit ads, while an affiliate system enables other
Web sites to make commissions from Digital Marketplace sales that come about as a result of a referral.
Its newest system, launched in February, is "Beans by Design," a free online service that allows users
to solicit competing bids for RFPs that specify Java components, applets, or complete applications
they wish to have developed.
Last fall, Flashline.com's Digital Marketplace debuted with about 100 pre-packaged components for sale,
mainly Active/X components with a handful of Java components. Today, the site offers more than 300
components, the vast majority of which are Java or JavaBeans.
The implementation of Flashline.com's Digital Marketplace provides a good model for setting up e-commerce
sites quickly. It consists of application and business logic written entirely in Java, first as Java
servlets and now as JavaBeans.
In both cases, the servlets and JavaBeans run on the JRun Web Server from Live Software Inc., a Santa Clara,
CA start-up Java servlet and components vendor. JRun is an integrated Java Web deployment environment
incorporating an all-Java Web server, a servlet runner, and other functions. It is a commercial implementation
of Sun's Java Web Server and supports Sun's specifications for the Java Servlet API as well as the Java
Server Pages (JSP).
The Digital Marketplace's business logic includes the four services or systemsCustomer, Vendor, Ad,
and Affiliateplus payment processing and authorization and other functions. The JRun Web server
and the Java application logic run on Microsoft's Windows NT on a dual-processor Pentium Pro 200 server
from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP).
Its business logic connects using a Level 4 JDBC driver to a back-end Oracle Corp. Oracle 7.3 relational
database. Among other things, the Oracle database stores transaction records and the site's personalized
customer archive files. The Oracle database runs on a small Solaris UNIX-based SPARCserver from Sun
For payment processing and authorization of online purchases, the Digital Marketplace uses Cybercash software
and services. The Cybercash software on its Digital Marketplace, interfaces to the Cybercash payment
software and services through a JavaBean wrapper. Authorization usually occurs in ten seconds or less.
Users do not need a Java-enabled Web browser to access the site or purchase products.
Since launching the site last summer, Flashline.com's founder and president Charles Stack and his
development team have put the system through two generations of software. The first generation was
written as Java servlets, while for the second generation, they were migrated to JavaBeans. Application
development tools include the JBuilder Java integrated development environment (IDE) from Inprise Corp., Scotts Valley, CA and DreamWeaver from MacroMedia Corp., San Rafael, CA, which was used to develop the site's HTML pages.
JAVA VERSUS C AND CGI
Flashline.com was not the first online e-commerce site for Stack. Stack built and ran one of the first online
bookstores, books.com, as well as affiliated online stores that sold music, movies, flowers, gifts, and
software. After selling those sites, Stack decided to launch Flashline.com, noting that after many years
of promises, the market for reusable, resalable software components appeared to be at handthanks in
large part to the growing popularity of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java and the language's JavaBeans software
components specification. Through his years of experience in building and maintaining online retail sites,
Stack had became quite familiar with the C programming language and Computer Gateway Interface (CGI). He
had, in fact, used those two technologies as the basic technologies for his earlier Web retail sites. He
was also well aware of the drawbacks of both technologies; C, for instance, had memory leaks and could be
difficult to program in, while CGI was given to slow and cumbersome performance. One alternative to C and
CGI was Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP), but Stack said he rejected that choice because it didn't
provide the full programming environment that Java does.
Therefore, when it came time to plan the Digital Marketplace, he started testing and experimenting with
Java. In Java, however, Stack said he saw a technology that would provide e-commerce developers like
himself with a faster way to build, maintain, and update a site's features and inventory, as well as
one that would provide faster performance. For that reason, he opted to build his new Web site's
server-based application logic in that language. From that decision, the basic architecture and
implementation of his e-commerce site began to fall into place.
"The way the Java Web Server is designed,
faster [than CGI.]"
Flashline.com's founder and president, Charles Stack
JAVA SERVLETS AND CGI
His decision to go with Java was influenced by the availability of the Java servlet APIwhich offered
much faster performance than CGIand the combination of the Java language and Java servlet API. "The
way the Java Web Server is designed, it's inherently faster even though the language itself is interpretive,"
How much faster? In its initial release, Stack estimates the use of JRun Servlet Runner provides at
least a 300% performance improvement over CGI, based on testing of a prototype. Not only that, he said
he's found that Java programmers are "at least 50% more productive" than C programmers, and that many
programs developed in Java simply run faster than an equivalent program written in C.
He also evaluated and chose to use the Java Web Server, the Java servlet API, and JSP technologies that
were then in various stages of readiness. Stack said he evaluated Sun's Java Web Server and its Java
Server Pages (JSP) functionality, and found the product's specification incomplete and its stability
unreliable. Instead, he opted to go with a commercial product that he felt was more reliable. In that
case, Live Software's JRun.
MIGRATING TO JAVABEANS
Before, with his earlier Web sites, Stack had used both C and HTML together. While that combination worked,
Stack found it difficult to make changes in that environment. "If you made a change, you had to go back
and work through the entire system," he said. In its first iteration, Flashline.com's Digital Marketplace
combined Java and HTML, and presented the same type of problems for maintaining and changing the
applications as C and HTML had.
Besides that, Stack wanted to take advantage of the modularity of the JavaBeans component specification
that was emerging for his own use, as well as sell JavaBean components and other products from the site.
Converting the Java servlets to JavaBeans was a rather simple migration effort accomplished with the help
of the JBuilder tool.
By making the migration, the site's maintainability has been enhanced, said Stack, using techniques such as
connection pooling to the database and the "Bean Tag." A Bean Tag allows Flashline.com to build a page
using HTML templates and have access to the all the methods inside a JavaBean component.
Other migrations of the site's underlying technologies are also planned. Chief among them, Stack plans to
migrate the back-end Oracle relational database from its current version, Oracle 7.3, to Oracle8. That
release supports running Java in the database, which eliminates) the need to write database applications
in PL/SQL, Oracle's native database programming language. Besides improving performance, said Stack, the
ability to run Java in the database itself should lower operating costs, as the company won't have to
keep or hire PL/SQL expertise.
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