Cool tools: Browsersoft turns Cobol hands into Java jocks

[ADT's PROGRAMMERS REPORT, December 17, 2002] -- Last summer, Universal Underwriters Group, a member of Zurich Financial Services, decided it needed a greater Web presence. Not just more HTML pages, but real customer access to its products and services through the Internet. As enterprise application architect for the Overland Park, KS-based Universal Underwriters, Michael Ballou's job was simple, but daunting: Ramp up the Java skills of an IT department composed mainly of Cobol mainframe developers, and get them working on Web applications for the corporate Web site.

''We needed a way to bring our IT people up to speed on Java as quickly as possible,'' Ballou told Programmers Report . ''And we wanted our developers to concentrate on the business objects, and not spend their time worrying about what's required by the infrastructure.''

The answer for Ballou was eQ Foundation, a new offering from neighboring Kansas consulting firm, Browsersoft Inc. The company touts its flagship product as ''the first declarative development foundation for Java that gives mainstream application developers the ability to build enterprise-class, e-business applications with little to no Java coding or expertise.''

The big idea here is to provide a common structure for building and extending applications, eliminating much of the hard coding of relationships between the business components and data objects. eQ Foundation uses XML to configure pre-written Java business components and script the workflow. The business components can then be utilized in JSP/Servlet, Struts, Swing or EJB as necessary through adapters or by scripts created with the foundation's scripting engine.

The company calls the product a ''foundation'' rather than a framework, said company President Don Grodecki, because although it fits into the framework category, it is a model-based framework.

''It's a tool for building the model part of the Model View Controller architecture,'' Grodecki explained. ''Most frameworks are more view-oriented, or oriented to delivering technology the user sees. We always found that the model was the most reusable part of an application.''

And whatever you do, don't call eQ a code generator. ''Code generation'' is something of a four-letter word at Browsersoft.

''We don't generate any code,'' said Robert McIntosh, Browsersoft's chief architect. ''Surveys show that many developers -- about half, I think -- don't like using code generators. And many of the developers who do use them just end up customizing the code anyway.''

At the center of this non-code-generating foundation is eQ Core, a business class that developers can create to implement business logic that also provides change tracking, error reporting, logging and messaging. 'Customers create their own business object for their own domain,' said McIntosh. 'They build a Java bean, add attributes and the rest is declarative.'

eQ Collection is a collection object that allows for one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many relationships. Objects reside in eQ Collection without relationships, McIntosh explained. They're scripted in later according to the application flow created in the model. The collection itself can also be treated as its own entity to be reused. This strategy solves a lot of problems for the ''object-oriented guys,'' McIntosh said. ''They can do it declaratively instead of hard-coding it. All you have to do is change a config file and have your relationships.''

McIntosh also emphasizes that eQ Foundation doesn't prevent developers from drilling down into the code if they need to.

''We're trying to be flexible [enough] for the power users to code whatever they want,'' he said, ''but also be simple enough for novice users so that they can just edit a configuration file and have a large part of their application running.''

It's an approach that has been working for Ballou and company. One of the earliest adopters of the eQ Foundation product, developers at Universal Underwriters Group have reengineered and deployed one application as a multi-tiered Java app in less time than it took to develop the original single-tiered app using VB and Visual Studio, Ballou said.

''[The product] has reduced the amount of time our developers have to spend worrying about what's required by the infrastructure,'' Ballou said. ''We've got it down to minimal effort. They just have to worry about the business solutions. And the learning curve is significantly flatter.''

Browsersoft provides a complete evaluation download of eQ Foundation on its Web site (http://www.browsersoft.com). The download includes a ''Getting Started'' guide and a ''Parts Store'' demonstration application with a walkthrough.

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For other Programmers Report articles, please go to http://www.adtmag.com/article.asp?id=6265

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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