Altio makes front-end integration smarter

AltioLive 3.0 hits new heights for Web-based applications built on Web services and data-centric resources

EAI has a reputation as a necessary evil for the costly task of integrating years of legacy applications and valuable data. As enterprises seek to expose these old resources via new technology, including Web services, the rift between functionality and the limitations imposed by current browser-based technologies is ever more obvious.

Facing the challenge head-on is Altio with its release of the AltioLive 3.0 platform. AltioLive enables companies to build collaborative applications by combining disparate applications, data sources, and Web services into a single, browser-based interface that exhibits the feel and functionality of a local desktop application. The result is an affordable EAI solution that ties applications together at the desktop rather than on the back end.

But, more than simply slapping a static portal interface onto enterprise resources, AltioLive enables applications to dynamically share information via the desktop, synchronizing data among local applications as well as relaying key updates back to the server and, ergo, back-end data sources.

In the rich Internet application space, there is no shortage of vendors (see "Building a better browser," Oct. 14, page 35). We found that although Altio lacks the breadth of prebuilt adaptors found in products such as AltoWeb, it produces a far more flexible and responsive interface than can be realized through JSP solutions. And, although AltioLive exhibits interface and collaboration fortitude similar to offerings from such competitors as Curl and Fourbit, it does so without imposing a weighty proprietary plug-in, thereby improving deployment.

This release of AltioLive includes an overhauled IDE, adds offline resynchronization, real-time services management, and shores up better compatibility with Web services and XML standards. Although we would prefer to see client availability for mobile devices and better integration for XML-based transactional security, Altio hits the mark, scoring our highest rating of Deploy.

Solid basis

The AltioLive production environment comprises the Presentation Server, which is a middleware servlet platform that manages XML-based communication streams, and a fat client applet running in a Web browser on the end-user’s system.

The fat client is an interface-rendering engine. It uses XSL to format raw XML data from the Presentation Server for use in the browser application. Altio provides an in-memory database, using a customized DOM (Document Object Model) and XPath interpreter, that allows data to be shared and reused locally among applications without constantly repolling the server.

The Presentation Server provides real-time synchronization among client applications and backend resources, ensuring messaging reliability, and it updates through its publish and subscribe data pooling model. AltioLive’s data pooling technology, pushes changes in underlying data to all subscribing client applications. The updating mechanism results in a platform for interaction that can be easily dropped onto existing business logic to build highly collaborative application profiles.

Setup of AltioLive was almost completely automated. Altio ships with a stand-alone version of Apache Tomcat, MySQL database, and prebuilt communication connectors for SOAP, JMS, HTTP, and JDBC data sources. Altio’s install scripts handily installed and customized the entire operation.

The administration tools enabled us with browser-based monitoring and configuration support over the Presentation Server, application management, and user setup.

Version 3.0 adds features for offline processing. Users can run client applications without a network connection using a localized Presentation Server. The next time users connect to the network, their systems resync with the mother ship and queued data is exchanged. Offline processing offers advantages; for example, allowing real-time applications to be built for sales team on the road with intermittent connectivity.

We found Altio to supply good scalability and fail-over, thanks to its aptitude for clustering, and cluster management that facilitated application deployment across server farms.

Streamlined development

AltioLive Studio, the visual IDE, sports improvements toward productivity and functionality in the development of RAD (rapid application development) client-side applications. Because the IDE is, itself, developed as an AltioLive application, client applications are built and deployed entirely from within a Web browser.

A library of prebuilt control widgets offered drag-and-drop design in constructing event models and connecting interface elements with live data sources, including graphical charting elements.

We found the simplicity of creating AltioLive’s applications almost alarming (from a standpoint of programmer's job security). Anyone with a background in tools such as Visual Basic will be immediately productive without having to understand the complexities of underlying XML or XPath structures.

A solid prototyping wizard made quick work of structuring new applications, defining XML relationships, and building an Altio XML database from scratch. We also were able to quickly define data sources, validate our XML, test, debug, and deploy applications directly to the server without ever leaving the browser.

Using the WSDL connector wizard, we tapped Web services interface specifications and bridged SOAP response connections to our application data elements in minutes.

The XPath syntax builder also impressed us. XPath, the XML language for data lookup, can be daunting. Fortunately, it includes tools that lend assistance in mitigating the complexity of expression design.

Room to grow

In our testing, we ran into a problem: Deployment of two or more applets simultaneously within a browser demanded that client-side polling -- rather than server streaming -- be used, limiting the server push capabilities. Altio is aware of the difficulty and anticipates having the issue resolved by the next release.

We would eventually like to see support added for more Web services transport options, such as SMTP, and certification with developing Web services standards, as this will only help to ensure interoperability.

Altio received a profile boost in January thanks to an alliance formed with Sun Microsystems. The Sun ONE Portlet Server will begin bundling the AltioLivePortlet Edition development environment, boosting Sun’s platform with added real-time, cross-application functionality and adding the benefit of bandwidth conservation.

In the end, we found AltioLive 3.0 to represent the strongest overall offering available in the rich Internet application space today. It offers great opportunity for bridging user interfaces with the worlds of EAI and Web services that should not be overlooked.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.