Wednesday, September 20, 2006

UKOUG Dev. Eng. SIG 19-SEP-2006

When I introduced the agenda yesterday morning I said I thought it was quite forward-looking, all about new stuff - new features, new tools, new architectures. It turns out it was really all about rebadging of old stuff and integration of existing applications. Very much a case of "back to the future". Hmmm. Still at least the SIG kicked off with something innovative. Julius Kisielius (UKOUG) ran a session of Speed Networking. This is a bit like Speed Dating, only without the exchange of bodily fluids. This worked quite well as an icebreaker and the buzz it generated lasted well beyond coffee time.

Ben Wooton (Oracle) presented on migrating workgroup databases to ApEx and XE. Workgroup databases is code for "Excel and Access". Ben fought hard to stop dissing Access all the time, but his key point is valid. Anybody who has done consultancy has been to places where the IT Dept has too process and not enough delivery and users have filled the gap with ad hoc lightweight databases. These breed like rabbits and frequently become essential to the business, without having any proper oversight, especially of data integrity and security. I was quite concerned but not surprised to hear Ben say that one of the sites where he had taken his crusade against such practices was a police force. Ben's talk gave a useful overview of the considerations for migrating from such jury-rigged environments to a consistent and coherent ApEx one.

Next up was David Rowe (Rocela) talking about Oracle Customer Data Hub. I vaguely knew that CDH came out of Applications but I hadn't realised it basically was E-Business Suite. Seriously, the first step in implementing Customer Data Hub is installing EBS. Ouch. I found this talk stimulating and useful. It was an architectural rather than heavily technical. The main point about data hubs is consolidating the data in all your systems so that you have a single view of Customer (or whatever type of party your business is interested in). This is not a one-off exercise but a continuous process of sharing, synchronisation and correction. As you might have guessed, the biggest issues here are not technical but procedural and cultural. It certainly showed me how far my current project still has to go before it even approaches being a proper data hub.

Forms: back like it never went away

After lunch Grant Ronald(Oracle) presented the headline new features for the next release of Forms (currently just version 11, marketing suffix yet to be decided). Many people I talked to during the speed networking session had come primarily to hear this talk. The focus of the next version is on administration, deployment and integration with other applications. Although there were a number of new features there wasn't much to set the pulse racing - useless diagnostic logging and tracing makes you hot. The only thing that I would have found useful in the days when I was a Forms developer is the ability to respond to external events. Several projects I worked on would have benefited from that.

So whilst I accept Grant's assertion that Forms is still a living and supported tool, I think the days when a new release of Forms was a major event have long gone. As a SIG chair this is disheartening because it means that the main theme for Forms presentations remains migrating from client/server to the web. So I'm thinking about running a SIG with a retro programming theme - client/server and character-based Forms, RPT, user exits and Pro*C. [1]

The final presentation of the day was supposed to be Susan Duncan (Oracle) talking about the development roadmap to Fusion. Unfortunately her VMWare demo blew up and sent her laptop into meltdown. I'm going to ask Susan to have another crack at doing her presentation next year, if yesterday's experience hasn't left her too traumatised. Anyway, Grant vamped gallantly for forty-five minutes on the future of Forms and E-Business Suite. Although EBS version 12 is scheduled to be on the "Fusion Stack" (basically the JDeveloper J2EE framework) it will still contain screens written in Forms, due to pressure of time. One interesting aspect of this process is that Oracle won't be producing tools like the FMA. EBS are not migrating their Forms screens to ADF and JSF, they are rewriting them. This is because the Fusion version of EBS has to incorporate elements of PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, Seibel and anything else Larry takes a fancy to, so straight migration is not a viable option. Grant rounded off with a quick showing of the new pre-beta rich client (JSF and AJAX) and a simple how to do Forms-type stuff in JDeveloper.

Summing up

Overall this is an interesting time to be in Oracle development. For a while back it seemed as though Oracle were turning their back on their Tools customers, what with the de-supporting of Forms client/server mode and the slow throttling of Designer. But during the last twelve months there has been a flurry of activity. JDeveloper continues to grow relentlessly. It will eventually be a sophisticated suite of tools aimed at a number of different user roles. The JDev team have learnt from Eclipse and have rebuilt JDeveloper as a plug-in framework,so different users can customise the IDE to their own needs. There's still some way to go in reducing the complexity of it; I frequently lose panels when I'm working in the IDE (although I'm getting better at finding them again). SQL Developer and ApEx are two new initiatives, although they are actually existing functionality productized and then marketed. Ben Wooton said a couple of times that he though ApEx is positioned wrongly as a replacement for workgroup databases, because it is actually more powerful than that. In the future the marketing of ApEx may change: there is currently not so much a steep learning curve as an actual discontinuity between building a simple application in ApEx and building an enterprise system using JSF and ADF. Oracle needs a development tool to bridge that gap. Funnily enough it ought to be Forms. We shall see.

In the meantime it seems certain that Oracle has final woken up to something Microsoft has known for a long time: the value of mindshare. Get developers building applications with your products and you can monetise things later. So Oracle have decided to love developers again. We can see this not just in the tools space itself but in the Oracle Develop initiative at Open World. Now if they could just bring themselves to address the question of modelling everybody would be happy...

Finally my heartfelt gratitude goes to all the presenters, to Julius at UKOUG for his galvanising e-mails and to everybody who attended. Tomorrow I can start worrying about the next SIG.

[1] At the moment I'm only joking but if people are genuinely interested in such an event then who knows?


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