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Ajax 101: From Toolkits To Strategy, How Companies Can Put It To Use

The Ajax programming approach can make Web sites more responsive and interactive, but picking the right tool isn't easy.
"We didn't want long page refreshes," Thomp- son says. But the data checks needed to go out on the Internet and link to the shipper's published rate tables. After using the application for three months, "we've been very happy with the performance," Thompson says.

Don't Look Under The Covers

Before adopting the Exadel tool, Thompson says his programming staff experimented with working directly with JavaScript and DHTML. "It can get a little ugly once you lift the covers," he warns. Exadel provides a visual environment in which to implement Ajax and resolves the performance differences in various browsers.

Amicus uses Zimbra's Ajax-based enterprise messaging application to market an e-mail archiving system to financial services firms. The system can flag suspect terms or offers in e-mail and call them to a mail administrator's attention. The system indexes e-mail content so it can be retrieved based on subject matter for regulatory purposes. CEO Marshall Huwe says he can do a full search of his own 2.5-Gbyte e-mail archive in seconds, thanks to the application's Ajax links on his PC and in the archive. Interactive features include highlighting a name in a message to find that person's phone number or e-mail address.


Huwe can search his e-mail archive in seconds, but reading the results still takes hours

Huwe can search his e-mail archive in seconds, but reading the results still takes hours

Photo by Mathew Mahon
Amicus Envoy e-mail hosting and management system uses a client based on Ajax that's "a good replacement for Microsoft Exchange/Microsoft Outlook" thanks to the features allowed by the Ajax client from Zimbra, Huwe says. "We're dependent on Web services and Web tools to make our clients happy. One of the things we like about the Ajax client is its robust search capability," he says. "Every e-mail is indexed as it comes in, along with its attachments." Ajax' strengths add integration and collaboration features to Web applications. Huwe seems surprised when he says, "For whatever reason, Ajax has really caught on. A lot of innovative things are happening with it."

Integrated development environments also are available from Backbase, BEA Systems, Bindows, Software AG, and Tibco. Microsoft's implementation of Ajax features will be a part of Windows Longhorn Server, due next year. It's available now as Community Technology Preview software, Microsoft lingo for use at your own risk. In March, Microsoft provided Atlas with a Go Live license, which allows the deployment of applications built with prerelease Microsoft software. In April, Microsoft provided a Visual Studio Atlas Control Toolkit, including working samples, to make it easier to build Ajax applications.

The emergence of toolkits by no means solves all Ajax development problems, and those hoping to avoid the hassle of developing their own Ajax expertise might still be advised to watch and wait. Ajax applications are known to have memory leaks in the browser window, slowing operations and eventually clogging allotted memory, or cache. Only Adobe has produced a design tool that models applications with key Ajax characteristics built into the design. So far, most tools are concentrated on the programming side of development.

Each IDE has its own learning curve; most are proprietary, and investing in one risks owning an outmoded tool down the road. But IT managers with project requirements that need Ajax may decide to adopt one now and hope it lasts. For those who can afford to wait, initiatives like OpenAjax will set clearer standards and ensure greater interoperability among Ajax tools. Yet some companies will see giving users a near-real-time response on Web sites through the use of Ajax-based applications as a competitive factor for customer-facing Web apps. Putting off the decision or waiting for open source toolkits puts you behind the early adopters.

Bret Taylor, product manager for Google's developer programs, recommends developing business logic in Java and using a tool that can resolve browser differences to save time. "We developed a lot of expertise with Gmail and Google Maps," he says. Tools in one form or another are necessary to "get rid of a lot of Ajax headaches."

So businesses face a choice. Those that don't need to implement Ajax quickly can afford to wait until the dust settles, and they can see which tools and toolkits have staying power. But companies that want to supercharge their apps with quick-response interactivity need to place a bet on Ajax tools that let them get the job done now.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing