Will Orion get developers to code in the cloud?

The Eclipse Foundation's Orion Web-based developer platform has a long way to go if it hopes to replace traditional tools

With the rise of software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and now infrastructure as a service (IaaS), ever more applications are finding new homes in the cloud. But are you ready to build software in the cloud?

Software development is an inherently collaborative process, especially for complex enterprise applications. Yet between open source development models, outsourcing, and offshoring, increasingly developers can't assume all of the collaborators on a project will be available for face-to-face meetings -- or even live on the same continent. Surprisingly, however, barring a few distributed code repositories and version control systems, cloud-based software development tools have been relatively few and far between.

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The Eclipse Foundation wants to change that. This week, the organization behind the popular Eclipse IDE announced a beta program for OrionHub, a hosted version of its Orion platform. Simply put, Orion aims to be a collaborative development platform for the Web, on the Web. Once it's complete, Web developers will be able to write, store, debug, and deploy Web-based applications using entirely Web-based tools. The question is: Just because they can do something, will they actually want to?

Code editing in the cloud
What OrionHub offers right now is pretty raw. When you log in, you're greeted by a Spartan home screen offering navigation among folders that are identified using a cryptic, Java-package-like naming structure. You can browse, edit, and create documents, but a "beta alert" at the bottom of the screen warns you that any files stored there will be deleted every 24 hours, adding, "Don't do real stuff."

It's important to recognize that Orion is not "Eclipse on the Web," nor does it aim to be. While it draws on core Eclipse code, it's an independent project built from a brand-new code base using only Web technologies.

The core of the platform is the Orion text editor, and at 4,220 lines of JavaScript, it's a fairly impressive achievement. First of all, it is fast. Improvements in modern Web browsers might have something to do with this (I used Firefox 4), but Orion project engineers -- mainly from IBM -- have taken great pains to optimize the code for real-world work. Scrolling and editing documents never feels sluggish, even when files grow to thousands of lines of code.

Orion is also very specifically a programmer's editor. It offers built-in automatic syntax coloring for Java and JavaScript (though not for HTML or XML). Even more interesting, it is fully integrated with JSLint, the JavaScript code analyzer. When you load a JavaScript file into the editor, any "problem areas" are automatically identified using a little stop-sign icon in the left margin. When you mouse over the icon, pop-up text explains the nature of the problem -- for example, "variable is not defined." The editor also matches opening and closing parentheses, braces, and brackets for you.

Beyond the editor itself, Orion offers basic integration with the Git source code version control system. Users can check out code, commit changes, and browse the version history, allowing for basic collaborative development, all from within the Orion desktop interface.

Orion -- like a dog riding a bicycle
As impressive as Orion may be, however, it's also distinctly underwhelming. A programmer's editor running inside a browser window might sound extraordinary, but so does a dog riding a bicycle. Neither is particularly useful.

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