Article

WebSphere toolkit may be tough sell for Lotus

Mark Baard

Early indications are that IBM Lotus' first concrete step toward integrating Domino and WebSphere may be off to a slow start.

Earlier this summer, IBM Lotus made available Notes/Domino 6.0.2, the latest ND6 maintenance release that includes Lotus Domino Toolkit for IBM WebSphere Studio 1.0, which is a set of WebSphere plug-ins that developers can use to pull Domino objects into IBM's Web application platform.

The toolkit is Lotus' "first deliverable that provides RAD [rapid application development] capability to developers integrating Domino and WebSphere," said IBM Lotus product manager Peter Janzen. By converting their Domino applications to J2EE, developers can scale their Notes applications to enterprise-grade Web applications, he said.

The toolkit doesn't come without a few glitches, however. For example, the Java Server Pages (JSP) generated by the toolkit, which are supposed to be fully J2EE-compliant, work only with WebSphere.

"Due to a bug in how Lotus implemented the tags, release 1.0 doesn't work with [the open-source J2EE platform] JBoss," said Ken Yee, a Notes/J2EE consultant and the manager of the Notes FAQ at www.keysolutions.com/NotesFAQ. (Yee said IBM Lotus is in the process of fixing the JSP tags to work with other J2EE platforms.)

Regardless of whether IBM Lotus irons out this Domino Toolkit for WebSphere kink, developers are questioning the wisdom of converting Domino applications into something that they say is more complex and, for them, much harder to maintain.

"Integrating and migrating Domino apps to J2EE would be a beautiful thing if the reusability aspect were actually in play," said Nathan Freeman, a consulting systems engineer at New York City-based Sony Music Entertainment Inc. and a co-founder of OpenNTF.org, the Notes/Domino open-source community. "But the dirty secret is that only software companies harness reusability -- corporations never do it. So it sounds amazing to IBM, but if you're at, say, Sony, it's irrelevant."

Freeman concedes that the prospect of saving money by adding a JSP layer to Domino might tempt CIOs, "but developers in the trenches have neither the time, nor the inclination, to go through the massive amounts of planning required to design and build reusable components," he said.

While Domino developers need a basic understanding of WebSphere/J2EE to use the toolkit, the plug-ins keep developers' hands clean of the J2EE code needed to create JSPs. Users of Domino Toolkit for WebSphere can drag and drop Notes/Domino forms and fields, columns, and agents from one side of their screens to the other to generate the appropriate JSP code for those objects.

WebSphere developers, who need an understanding of the Domino object model and LotusScript, can use the toolkit to reuse legacy Domino code in their Web applications, without having Domino expertise.

Not all Domino developers consider the toolkit, or Domino-to-WebSphere migration, to be such bad ideas. "I think the toolkit is a great idea," said Brian Mahoney, a consultant at Drexel Hill, Pa.-based BurmontPoint Consulting Services. "For companies with a lot of legacy information in Notes applications, the toolkit should help them integrate the information into our intranet application more easily."

WebSphere woe?

Few Domino developers can deny that the new toolkit makes WebSphere integration a lot easier. Supporting the resulting J2EE code, however, will be another matter entirely.

Freeman tells the story of at least one organization that paid a heavy price when it moved its Notes-based supplier extranet system to WebSphere. The company, a former contract client of Freeman's, spent $1.5 million to "replace a solid Domino application (for taking parts orders) with a shaky WebSphere one that did exactly the same things as the original," said Freeman. "It was pretty sad."

The Domino application for taking parts orders, which processed a half-million documents per month, had shown no significant performance or reliability problems. For their trouble, the company got a new system with more moving parts, and more bugs, Freeman said.

Domino developers, who once complained bitterly about Lotus' original decision to exclude a JSP engine from ND6, now have to install WebSphere to use the new toolkit.

But there are alternatives available to developers whose business applications have outgrown Domino. Some are using XML instead of the WebSphere plug-ins because they say it allows them to migrate to multiple platforms, without having to learn much additional coding.

"The [Domino Toolkit for WebSphere Studio] might do part of what we need it to, but not all of what we need it to," said John Tripp, systems development manager at New York City-based J. Walter Thompson Co. The advertising firm is using an eXtensible Server Pages (XSP) framework from the Trilog Group, FlowBuilder XML Edition, to convert its Notes/Domino applications to J2EE. (Users of XSP can build dynamic Web content without learning a new language.) "It's a shortcut to building J2EE applications that doesn't require much knowledge of Java," Tripp said. "Our developers only have to know J2EE standard elements, like HTML and JavaScript."

It is too soon to gauge how widespread the adoption of Domino Toolkit for WebSphere Studio will be. Only 400 developers downloaded the beta version of the software, and many report having had trouble finding the gold version. IBM's Janzen said that he will be clarifying download instructions for the toolkit at the Lotus Developer Domain Web site.

Lotus may have trouble persuading some developers to check out the toolkit. After all, loyalties to Domino run deep.

"Today, I build and deploy on Domino," Freeman said. "I don't want to do anything that makes building and deploying Web applications more complicated than it already is."

Mark Baard, (www.baard.com) is a freelance writer based in Milton, Mass.

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