InfoWorld review: Tools for rapid Web development

With WYSIWYG prototyping environments and preconfigured graphical components, rapid Web development tools can help you build applications faster -- but with less flexibility

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Alpha Five 10
First released way back in 1982, Alpha Five at first blush appears to be just a database management tool, capable of talking to MySQL, Oracle, SQL Server, or any RDBMs with an ODBC or ADO interface. Were those its only functions, it would still be an admirable product. Although building database applications -- desktop and Web-based -- are Alpha Five's forte, it is nevertheless flexible enough for developing general Web applications. However, there's likely no advantage to using Alpha Five for the latter as opposed to, say, ASP.Net.

Alpha Five includes its own Web application server, referred to as WAS (Web Application Server). Neither an IIS nor Apache variant, WAS recognizes A5W pages -- files that include HTML with embedded Xbasic, the company's proprietary language that is in no way related to the open source language of the same name. Other than the ability to run A5W pages, WAS behaves much like other Web servers. It has its own root directory (C:\A5Webroot on a development system) from which applications are deployed.

Xbasic powers the behavior of most controls in desktop applications and executes an Alpha Five Web application's server-side code. Alpha Five's Xbasic has everything you'd find in any complete BASIC-language implementation, with additional system objects and functions for manipulating databases.

Web development in Alpha Five draws upon a massive collection of UI components, reinforced by an extensive event model with server- and client-side hooks. Alpha Five strikes a good balance between shielding developers from writing code, while permitting them to do so when necessary. Its codeless AJAX feature helps you build AJAX-enabled controls without having to write AJAX. Its event hooks mean you can easily incorporate third-party JavaScript libraries such as Dojo or jQuery.

You build Web applications in Alpha Five one page at a time. First, you select the components you'll be using on a Web page, then you work with the WYSIWYG HTML editor to stitch the components together into a final form. Double-click on any component within this editor, and a component editor opens, where you can modify the component's properties.

Alpha Five's supply of Web components include grids, forms, dialogs, navigation components (such as toolbars and menus), login components, and others. There are countless variations on these themes. Each component is awash with configurable properties and comes with plenty of event hooks for attaching custom code. Select a control and choose an event from the list recognized by the control; you're taken to the stub Xbasic function that responds to that event. If you've used any popular component-based IDE GUI-building environment, you'll be right at home here.

Many of the more complex controls include intelligently predefined actions. For example, when a user has entered data into a form control and clicks the Submit button, the values within the form are validated. If they all "pass," the system executes the Xbasic routine identified by the form's AfterValidate event.

Alpha Five 10
Alpha Five's component editor lets you select the fields that will be displayed in a grid control.

Alpha Five has special "component builders" that act like wizards for constructing grids and dialogs. Perhaps no control has more variations than the grid control; it is the quintessential means of displaying and managing databases, and therefore receives special treatment. You can select numerous grid geometries for displaying either single or multiple records simultaneously. You can go pretty crazy, linking grids to other grids; as long as there is a relationship in the database between one table and another, that relationship can be used to set up parent/child grid connections. These can be nested to virtually any depth.

Some controls are stunningly elaborate. The latest version of Alpha Five includes Supercontrols, which are controls that have been subclassed for specific applications. For example, the Google Maps Supercontrol lets you access Google Maps through that service's REST interface. You can use this control to, say, call up a map within a grid control, based on an address fetched from a database field.

Alpha Five uses the term genie rather than wizard to describe automated screens that guide you through gnarlier construction activities. Most grid controls populate their contents based on database queries, and the Query Genie helps you build those queries. The Query Genie is unusual in that it lets you build queries in an additive fashion, a final query being the sum of multiple smaller queries. Alpha Five even has a query by example (QBE) feature. With QBE, you enter representative values for attributes and specify the matching criteria; the QBE control will fetch rows that match the representative example.

To deploy an application, you first define a profile. This not only tells Alpha Five the destination of the deployment, but describes the mechanism whereby the code is delivered: FTP, a remote disk share, and so on. You can create multiple profiles, which enable you to deploy a single application to a variety of destinations.

Alpha Five's documentation is as good as it gets. Its help system goes on for miles and is the proper mixture of how-to and reference information.

Read the next review: Iron Speed Designer 6.2.1

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