Retrieving and accepting data via a dynamic Web page can be a challenge—the current technologies aren’t exactly intuitive. At the very least, the experienced Web developer will find dynamic script tedious to write. That’s why so many managers are adding an application server layer to help ease the workload.
However, an application server isn’t just software that will help you quickly create and implement dynamic Web pages. It’s much more than that—it’s a technology that may impact every employee in your company. More than likely, everyone will have to become familiar with new software. This article presents information that will help you choose the best Web application server for your company’s needs.
What’s a Web application server?
Currently, three types of application server technologies are available:
A Web application server supports custom scripts that control data integration, logic, and user interface components for your Web site. The application server is software that resides between the Web browser and the database, adding an additional layer to the Web hierarchy:
The presence of an application server can strengthen a data-driven site and resolve problems in one of three areas:
By installing a Web application server, you can forego your Web server’s technology for a more easy-to-use and efficient solution. When an application server is present, a request from a browser is relayed to the application server instead of the Web server. There, the application server accepts and formats any data or requests going to the database and then hands them back to the Web server for delivery to your database, and vice versa. More specifically, the application server processes the page’s logic and scripting and then lets your Web server build the HTML necessary to respond to the visitor’s browser. It may sound like more work, but because the application server is easier to talk to, the application server usually reduces development time.
Weighing the evidence
All application servers are not created equal. Make sure the one you choose can handle your needs both now and in the future. That means you’ll want the people most familiar with your data and the business that data supports involved in this assessment process. Your controller can tell you how much you can afford to spend on the project, but he or she probably isn’t the best person to choose the actual software—unless he or she is also directly involved with supporting your data processing needs.
Almost all the application servers provide a development environment, a testing environment, a set of deployment tools, load balancing, and security features. Your purchase will commit your site (your company) to these features for the foreseeable future. Consequently, the successful application server must meet current and future business and in-house development requirements. In fact, according to a personal (and therefore unscientific) poll of peer developers, over 40 percent of application server users rate the quality and availability of a good development toolset to be one of the major requirements when evaluating servers (closely followed by the vendor’s reputation and nonproprietary software).
Assessing your needs doesn’t have to be confusing. Simply map your current environment and compare how well each potential server meets your requirements. Perhaps just as important, anticipate your growth to make sure the server has the capacity to grow with you. The following list will get you started:
The checklist in Table A should help you assess your current needs while comparing them to those of a potential server. Simply list your current needs and the server’s potential. Be sure to list additional resources as required. This checklist isn’t meant to be all-encompassing; rather, consider it a starter list and expect the process to generate new, more detailed questions.
All things being equal
Overall, given that most application servers offer more or less the same features, one of the most important decisions (other than cost) will be the choice of the vendor. The bottom line is that you’re entering into a long-term relationship. You want a solid foundation that can support your growth potential. Don’t restrict your plans to what’s available today—assess your future needs and the company’s willingness to help build long-lasting solutions before jumping into bed with a vendor!
What makes a good vendor? The following questions might help you weed out the weak:
Remember, you will be with the vendor for a long time—view this vendor as a strategic partner in your business.
Choosing an application server may be the most important decision you make regarding the future development and performance of your data-driven Web site or e-commerce store. In addition, this decision will surely impact the future development languages and growth strategies for your data processing or IT department. You aren’t buying just an application server—you’re also purchasing the development tools your staff will use for a long time. Ask the right questions of the right people before you make your purchase.