Easy Web apps with Alpha Five

There's a problem a lot of business units run into when it comes to automating a business process: They know a custom application could make them more profitable and or more efficient, and they know Web deployment is the way to go, but there frequently isn't an off-the-shelf application that can do what they want.

So these business units will put in a request to IT for their project to be included in the next budget cycle and, in it goes ... along with the requests from all of the other business units. The result is that, unless their project is crucial to the organization's core business (or they have a lot of political clout), their project will, more often than not, get shelved.

This lack of support results in some business units trying to build their own solutions, and for that they often turn, when they are a Windows shop, to products like Microsoft Access.

Access is arguably fine for this kind of job but its reliance on Microsoft SharePoint for full Web applications support makes it a hefty investment. So, if you've not come across it before, I'd recommend checking out Alpha Software's Alpha Five v11.

A5, which runs on Windows 8, Windows 7, Vista and XP SP3, Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2003, can generate both standalone desktop applications as well as Web applications.

One of the biggest selling points of A5 is that it can generate "codeless" AJAX-driven database Web apps; in other words, you can create a Web application without having to write any code, and that code will automatically use Asynchronous JavaScript and XML so it can interact with a server without having to use Web page refreshes.

To rephrase that one more time to be even simpler, with Alpha Five you can create sophisticated Web applications without breaking much of a sweat.

Better still, for all its rapid application development capability and automatic functionality, A5 is also incredibly flexible and one of the latest additions to the product is the ability for Web applications created with A5 to support mobile devices.

As the book "Alpha Five Web Applications Made Easy" points out, "[Alpha Software takes] full advantage of the capabilities of Webkit running on iPad and iPhone platforms, and degrades gracefully by disabling or replacing specific features on platforms that don't support them."

A5's database support is impressive, and includes FlexQuarters QODBC, IBM DB2, InterSystems Cache, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, Oracle XE, 9i, 10g, , Oracle Lite (9i, 10g), Quantel, Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise, and Sybase SQLAnywhere.

Underpinning the whole A5 system is, somewhat remarkably, the open source project XBasic, which, according to Wikipedia livepage.apple.com, is "a variant of the BASIC programming language that was developed in the late 1980s for the Motorola 88000 CPU and Unix by Max Reason. In the early 1990s it was ported to Windows and Linux, and since 1999 it has been available as open source software with its runtime library under the LGPL license."

The architecture of A5 is straightforward: The IDE in the Alpha Five Version v11 Developer Edition ($399) provides components you clone and then you set their attributes. For example, you could link the basic "grid" component to a data source then define a query to extract data from the source into the grid. You could then select which database fields from each extracted record should be displayed in the grid and what they should look like and then define how a detailed record view is to be displayed and how it can be modified (or not) by the user.

The process of defining components (of which there are quite a few) consists of navigating lists of properties and attributes, most of the latter being pick lists. Under the A5 IDE there are a huge number of properties for each component that cover pretty much everything you could possibly think of to specify how a database is to be accessed and presented.

And if that's not enough, if you need to, the look and feel of Web applications can be completely customized through custom coding in XBasic (you can access and maintain the code through the IDE), and you can use CSS3 to style the output.

Once you've defined components you can build them into A5W pages (Alpha Five pages that contain XBasic code and A5 components) which will be served by the integrated A5 Web server.

You can run the entire development system and Web server on a PC and then deploy production code to a local network server or to a Windows server hosting provider (you'll need the Alpha Five v11 Application Server, $499). Alternatively, you could use an Alpha Five hosting service such as ZebraCloud for Alpha Five (starting at $60 per month). A single instance of the Alpha Five Application Server on a server class machine will support about 60 users with moderate activity and volume licenses for the application server are available.

This gets us to the question of the scalability of Alpha Five. The following note from Clive Swanepoe, the president of ZebraHost, outlines a customer experience:

Alpha Software teamed up with ZebraHost and Neotys to run an Alpha Five Version 10 application through the wringer. The application was a real-world application developed by independent Alpha developers. The test simulated virtual users accessing the application in increasing numbers.

Using nine virtual machines hooked up to a load balancer, the system was able to handle hundreds of simultaneous users. The Neotys load testing software working from a tenth virtual machine pinpointed bottlenecks.

It generated the load, monitored the application and database servers, and helped to analyze the results. This enabled the team to make configuration adjustments that significantly improved performance. The load balancer distributed the load smoothly in a round robin configuration maintaining sessions.

Scaling Alpha Five applications is achieved by tweaking the Web application server to maximize its performance for the particular application and then adding hardware as needed. (Thousands of simultaneous users would simply require more virtual machines.)

Alpha Software and ZebraHost have the expertise to help developers test, configure, size, and deploy highly scalable Web applications. Developers can contact Clive@ZebraHost.net for an estimate of the cost to test their app.

I should note that the Alpha Five Version v11 Developer Edition can also create native Windows desktop applications (see Healthsoft for an interesting example) and to distribute these you'll need the Alpha Five v11 Runtime Edition ($499).

Alpha Five also offers "feature Packs" that include, image gallery, video player, Google Maps, calendar, chart control, and map control components, as well as a huge amount of training materials, a wiki, and lots of well-written documentation.

If you decide to explore the potential of Alpha Five -- which I would strongly recommend if you're looking for a Web application building solution that can be rolled out and maintained with a minimal amount of effort (at least, minimal given the sophistication of the end result!) -- then I would also encourage you to buy the book I mentioned earlier, "Alpha Five Web Applications Made Easy" by Susan Hussey Bush, published by Liberty Manuals.

This 470-page book is a detailed walkthrough of the process of building prototypical Web applications and will get you up and running pretty quickly. I worked through a couple of the book's examples (the first gave me a working application in about 55 pages) and I was starting to burn the midnight oil in the excitement of creating my own customized application until exhaustion overcame me.

So, in summary, I love Alpha Five! It's robust, highly (and exhaustively) "featured", fast, flexible, well-documented, and reasonably priced in a way that few other RAD (Rapid Application Development) system are. Alpha Software's Alpha Five v11 gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.

So, if you're in a business unit that gets no love from IT, Alpha Five could well be your answer.

Gibbs burns the midnight oil in Ventura, Calif. Develop your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesweb applicationsMicrosoftAlpha Softwaresoftwareinternet

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