IT Leadership


Web 2.0 the Enterprise Way

Web 2.0 technologies are empowering enterprises in ways we could only have imagined a few years ago. They have evolved beyond consumer-grade blogs and wikis into enterprise-class solutions driving collaboration, productivity, sales and cost savings. But despite the business value they deliver, are enterprises ready to fully embrace Web 2.0 technologies?

Companies that don’t are risking more than just their competitive edge, according to one analyst firm. Forrester’s Top Enterprise Web 2.0 Predictions For 2008 says “enterprise Web 2.0 tools will be a high-impact, low-cost method to show leadership and innovation.”

What Exactly Is Web 2.0?

You can ask this question and hear many divergent opinions. Many say that Web 2.0 is a state of mind, but we see two main aspects.

A key aspect of Web 2.0 revolves around social networking, collaboration and community, as shown in the popularity of uses like blogs and wikis, according to most respondents.

The other key aspect, of equal importance, is the “rich” user interface exhibited within rich Internet applications (RIAs).

The Social Web

In the 1980s, we witnessed workers taking the computer from the workplace to the home. Today, we see the computing trends of home and personal life entering the workplace. Workers today take the expectations from their experiences with social Web applications, such as blogs, wikis, Facebook and Twitter, and bring them to the workplace.

Enterprises are starting to realize the power of blogs and wikis, and are now installing them inside the organization for better sharing and collaboration among employees and, more importantly, for productivity increases. Also, we can imagine that for companies to remain competitive in recruiting and retaining top-level candidates, social software capabilities will have to be drawn into the workplace.

Much social software is available today off the shelf as commercial and free, closed source and open source, which means enterprises don’t need to invest in building such applications. However, while these applications have a lot of potential, they bring some previously untested challenges as well. Employees must be careful not to release potentially sensitive information or otherwise damaging information on blogs. At the same time, over-sharing or information overload could lead to employees “wasting” too much time on these resources.

Rich Internet Applications

The other key aspect of Web 2.0 is the highly rich and interactive user interface experience provided by RIAs. Rich Internet applications are not only cool, they also have a significant impact on productivity, are easy to use, and add business value by providing access to real-time, up-to-date information to workers through widgets, mashups, etc. These applications are a lot richer and interactive than standard Web applications. If well-designed and implemented, these applications can easily match the desktop experience while still running on a remote server.

While many social tools are available off the shelf, custom applications are usually created in-house or outsourced. No matter where they are built, IT managers must know what technology to use to deliver these high-value experience applications. Offer anything less than a rich and interactive user experience, and the customers might be going somewhere else.

As IT managers face this dilemma, the following short overview should help them understand the choices available today for building rich enterprise Web applications.

Building RIAs

There are two main approaches for building RIAs: one is browser-only applications, and the other is to install various plug-ins into the browser (such as Flash player virtual machine).

To build browser-based RIAs, a popular technology called “Ajax” is used. The basic idea behind Ajax is that in most cases it’s possible to just update part of the page instead of doing a full page refresh as traditional Web applications do. This gives Web pages a desktop level of responsiveness.

There are actually more than 100 various Ajax frameworks available. Many are open source or free. Many frameworks market themselves as enabling you to build Ajax-based applications without any JavaScript. This is because JavaScript programming is prone to errors and requires writing compatible code for different browsers (JavaScript is one of the main components of Ajax.)

If the Ajax path is taken, it is crucial for business today to select an enterprise-grade Ajax framework that is mature and has strong community support as well as professional support options. One option is to use the JavaServer Faces (JSF) framework with a rich JSF component library such as JBoss RichFaces. JSF is a new standard Java framework for building Web applications. RichFaces is a rich component library that provides out-of-the-box components with Ajax support. JSF is a mature framework, with a strong backing of a community and various support options.

While Ajax applications are popular, one limitation is the browser platform itself. Because browsers can only use HTML (hypertext markup language) and JavaScript, there is a limit to the richness of applications that can be delivered. After all, the browser was intended to display mostly static text and images. The browser was not intended to be a platform for running applications.

To go beyond what the browser provides, various virtual machines can be plugged into the browser to provide a far better environment for running next-generation applications. We will discuss three of these options.

The most popular of the plug-ins today is the Adobe Flash player. The Flash player is a ubiquitous, lightweight virtual machine that’s installed as a plug-in inside a browser and runs Flex applications. Because Flex applications are compiled into binary files that run inside the Flash player, a much richer user experience is possible than in a standard Web browser where the markup is interpreted. Flex comes with many ready-to-use widgets, and the Flex-based user interface can easily be connected to many different Java back ends. Furthermore, Flex components can easily be extended.

The next player is Microsoft Silverlight. Silverlight is a Microsoft .NET platform for building cross-platform, cross-browser RIAs. As with Flex, Silverlight applications are delivered inside a virtual machine that is installed as a plug-in to a Web browser. Many ready-to-use components ship with Silverlight. As with Flex, because the application is delivered as a binary file and runs inside a virtual machine, a much richer experience is delivered than in browser alone.

The final player is a recent newcomer, Sun JavaFX. JavaFX is a new language (to be technically correct, it is based on the mature Swing framework) for building Java-based rich user interfaces. JavaFX-based applications run inside the familiar but new lighter-weight Java virtual machine. As with Flex and Silverlight, running inside a virtual machine allows delivery of a significantly richer experience than a standalone browser can.

Further Web 2.0 Impacts on the Enterprise

We’ve already discussed two immediate beneficial impacts of Web 2.0 on enterprises. One is the social aspect of Web 2.0 software; the other is the richer interfaces available. Let’s go further and examine the impact in terms of challenges to specific stakeholders.

Some of the challenges facing IT:

  • User activities move from behind the firewall, introducing increasing security risks.
  • Increased potential for leaking sensitive information.
  • Loss of some control of data and information.
  • Although “single sign-on” is a highly desirable feature, there are significant challenges to provide this capability.
  • Common perception that Web-based applications are “not managed.”
  • New and different integration issues.
  • A lack of experienced RIA designers and developers.
  • Slow adoption of new applications.

For users of enterprise Web 2.0 applications, enhanced collaboration can be a challenge, because not all individuals are comfortable with collaboration. Statistics show that women are more comfortable with collaboration than men, and the younger part of the workforce (less than 30 years old) embraces it more readily.

Seventy to 80 percent of all IT projects fail due to lack of user acceptance, according to Forrester, so gaining user acceptance for new projects is paramount.

In Summary

Web 2.0 has a direct impact on enterprises. Web 2.0 services and applications are being rapidly deployed as business race to be competitive. As we discussed, a Web 2.0 strategy has a number of components that impact the business. The first is the social aspect involving blogs, wikis, sharing and collaboration. The next and equally important aspect is custom rich Internet applications. These applications, while still deployed over the Web, bring a richer and more interactive experience that very closely mimics desktop applications.

While there are some challenges for IT management and user acceptance, one thing is clear: To stay ahead of the competition, enterprises must develop and execute a strong Web 2.0 strategy that brings the most positive impact.

Fima Katz is the founder, president and CEO of Exadel, a developer of Web 2.0 systems solutions.

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