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When Does Ajax Make Business Sense


The OpenAjax Alliance has assembled a set of white papers as a guide to help Web developers and IT managers understand and evaluate Ajax, define a successful Ajax strategy, and become familiar the important role OpenAjax plays in the development of the Ajax market.

The white papers are:



1 Introduction

Hard-nosed executives recognize that there are costs associated with any benefit. In order to convince today's upper-level decision makers to approve strategic investments, they need to hear more than phrases like "essential to the business," "the results are too unpredictable," and "yields intangible benefits." In the world of Web development, the move from HTML to Ajax-powered HTML often can be achieved at a relatively low cost, but there are both direct and indirect costs associated with Ajax that must be taken into account. A close analysis of these factors will enable business managers to make more well-informed decisions when considering Ajax adoption within a particular application and across their organization.

2 What benefits does Ajax provide?

Let's first look at the expected benefits from Ajax.

Ajax is all about ways to create a more interactive and productive connection between a user and a Web-based application. Because Ajax provides similar advanced user interface features to those in desktop applications (such as advanced UI controls, animated effects and adjustable layout controls) -- thereby providing the visual and interaction tools needed to make the application self-explanatory -- users spend less time learning and operating the application. The Ajax partial page update feature minimizes user delays by eliminating the "click, wait, and refresh" approach of pre-Ajax HTML applications.

Beyond better user interfaces for existing applications, Ajax enables new classes of applications that fall under the umbrella term "Web 2.0" and that also fit into a service-oriented architecture (SOA). Among the next-generation applications that will power the enterprise and the Internet of the future are the following:

Ajax often boosts developer productivity. There are many Ajax technology providers, including both commercial products and open source initiatives. As a result, developers will find the off-the-shelf components, toolkits, frameworks, educational materials, and other resources they need to produce and maintain next-generation Web 2.0 applications built with Ajax. And due to open source alternatives, Ajax provides zero-cost deployment options as well.

Because of competitive pressures, vendors often vie for your Ajax business based on the developer productivity benefits they offer. Two common productivity features are UI markup languages (UIMLs) and IDE integration. The UIMLs allow for the use of declarative approaches using HTML and/or XML for large parts of an Ajax application. IDEs can provide source code completion, source code highlighting, drag-and-drop authoring, Javascript debugging, XHR monitors, run-time stack views, and variable watching.

Ajax deployment offers several additional long-term strategic benefits, including:

3 What are the costs associated with Ajax?

The costs for adopting Ajax depend on the circumstances of the application you are developing. In cases where Ajax snippets are added to existing HTML applications in an ad hoc manner, the incremental costs can be small. On the other hand, if the Ajax deployment strategy requires significant retooling of the existing IT infrastructure and substantial staff re-training, then costs obviously go up.

It's also important to keep in mind that Ajax techniques require developers to learn techniques on both the client side as well as the server side.

On the client side, developers may need to familiarize themselves with one or more Ajax client-side toolkits, along with programming techniques for incremental DOM updates, XHLHttpRequest-based client-server communications, and asynchronous communications event handling. Most of these techniques require incremental knowledge on top of existing expertise with HTML and JavaScript.

On the server side, re-education requirements depend on the Ajax toolkits in use. For some toolkits, developers may need to familiarize themselves with the Ajax toolkit's UI markup language and its server-side Ajax APIs.

Most Ajax applications leverage an Ajax framework but still require some level of customization by the development team. A key factor in calculating the cost of adopting Ajax is the amount of customization work required to complete the task. If the Ajax framework's built-in features are sufficient for your needs, then your Ajax development costs will be lower.

For existing applications that are modified to take advantage of Ajax techniques, end users will require some re-training on the applications' new Ajax-powered user interfaces.

4 Ajax and SOA

Ajax and SOA need each other in order for both to reach their full potential. SOA's encapsulation of business functionality into discrete services with well-defined Web service interfaces makes it easier for Ajax toolkits to facilitate the creation of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Ajax applications need to leverage business functionality, but, in the absence of SOA, Ajax toolkits must have myriad adapters supporting disparate technical means of accessing that functionality. The more that SOA advances, the more that the toolkits will be able to streamline access to business functions by supporting Web service client technology. Thus, SOA helps to move Ajax forward.

Conversely, Ajax helps SOA move forward. We need RIA technologies to be able to fully exploit and justify the significant investment that SOA entails. The ability to create mashups, dashboards, and composite applications relatively rapidly in order to respond flexibly to changing business conditions is the essence of the ROI that we expect from investing in SOA.

5 New issues to manage

Like anything else, the Ajax technique of partial data exchange can be misapplied such that server and network loads increase in an undesirable manner. It is thus critical that Ajax developers are made aware of the importance of these issues and that bandwidth behavior is tested before applications are deployed.

Another concern is misapplication of Ajax "push techniques," where Ajax toolkits enable servers to push incremental data to clients without requiring clients to poll periodically. Developer education about these issues and pre-deployment testing of the application's network behavior are important.

Mashups enable the ability to plug in third-party components with potential security implications. It is recommended that IT managers establish a company policy on mashup products and technologies, such as only installing markup frameworks from trusted suppliers; only allowing components from trusted sources; and requiring secure gateway facilities that control the domains with which particular components can communicate.

Typically, each Ajax toolkit has its own features, markup and APIs. Long-term maintenance costs will be minimized if the application uses a popular Ajax toolkit that is familiar to a large pool of developers and by ensuring that the Ajax toolkit is OpenAjax Conformant. (See Managing long-term costs with help from OpenAjax.)

6 Other factors to consider

Let's now take a look at some additional key considerations in the cost/benefit analyses of adopting Ajax and determining ROI. Some important points to keep in mind include:

7 Managing long-term costs with help from OpenAjax

OpenAjax Alliance produces various specifications that define "OpenAjax Conformance." an industry trust mark that promotes interoperability. As OpenAjax Conformance specifications emerge, customers who require compliance from their Ajax vendors will increase their interoperability, safety and choice, and thereby help manage the long-term costs of adopting Ajax.

8 Conclusions

The move to Ajax is part of business operations strategy and is often coupled with the move to SOA. Arriving at estimates of return on Ajax or SOA is a difficult challenge for IT managers and executives. IT can support and even lead the effort by providing recommendations on appropriate questions to ask the business side of the house. IT can also help generate the answers needed to estimate ROI. Establishing an IT-User team to help the business drive the direction of the Ajax effort can be a forum for confirming and refining ROI estimates. Making the leap to Ajax isn't something that can be done overnight or with the snap of your fingers. It involves serious consideration and an honest internal evaluation. But by taking all of these points into account, decision makers will be better equipped to pave the way toward Ajax adoption.