Monday, February 21, 2011

The Threat of WebFOCUS Extremists

Within the WebFOCUS community, there is ongoing conflict between two groups of extremists.

Standing off to one side, you have members of the business community who embrace a strong belief that all WebFOCUS application development must be done by individuals with minimal experience and a mouse in one hand. I am going to classify these people as the Right, since they want a right-brain visual "painting" approach to BI application development. 

These are often the same individuals who recently championed or funded the purchase of the BI product because of phrases such as "ease of use" and "rapid application development." They have been convinced that BI application development is point-and-click easy. 

Over on the far Left, you have an older group of 4GL technicians from Information Builders' legacy FOCUS era. While many individuals in the 1990s moved forward with the new WebFOCUS product, one particular group was unwilling to adopt the use of the graphic user interfaces. Instead, they preferred stand-alone text editors such as UltraEdit. These left-brain logical programmers point out the limitations of using a mouse to build applications; their preferred mode of operation will be two hands with fingers flying across a keyboard. 

Both the Right/Sola-GUI and Left/Anti-GUI extremists are wrong. 

Yet both have valid points. If you are involved with WebFOCUS BI application development initiatives, you need to understand the thinking behind both extremes. Otherwise, your WebFOCUS project is threatened. 

One source of contention comes from the failure of either side to clearly define their use of the "GUI" term. WebFOCUS comes with a graphical integrated development environment (IDE) called Developer Studio. 

Developer Studio is the GUI. Not appropriate for end users and too far of a stretch even for the business "Power Users," Developer Studio is a robust tool for IT developers. IBI created this tool to give experienced developers a way to more easily build end-user BI applications. For business end users and Power Users, Information Builders provides easier GUI tools such as the InfoAssist. 

Depending on your licensing agreement, Developer Studio will have features such as: 
  • Integration with Administrative Consoles (both client and server tiers)
  • Metadata management
  • MAINTAIN for building interactive web-based database maintenance applications
  • SQL Wizard for interacting directly with RDBMSs 
  • MATCH Wizard for creating extracts using match/merge logic 
  • Procedure Viewer for visually laying out procedural logic 
  • Report Painter for visually laying out report logic 
  • HTML Painter for visually laying out web launch pages 
  • Text Editor for editing procedural logic 

When the business community voices demands that their project team use the WebFOCUS GUI, they typically mean that they want developers to use the Report and HTML Painters instead of the Text Editor feature. On the other hand, the Anti-GUI extremists may be against the entire Developer Studio IDE, not just one or two features. 

The Right drank eagerly from GUI cup and the Left turned away. 

Of course, there are historical reasons for our friends moving into the Anti-GUI camp. When these hardcore 4GL coders first looked at the Developer Studio offering in the mid-1990s, they saw a product that provided report painting features for only the simplest of static layouts. In particular, the painter sorely lacked support for the procedural scripting language known as Dialogue Manager.

Dialogue Manager provides WebFOCUS with a critical key differentiator from other BI products. Using Dialogue Manager, the BI developer can create highly dynamic output. Based on user selections, the generated report can look completely different. 

For example, your organizational BI standard might be to have headings, footings, and subtotals when viewing an online report but not when producing an Excel spreadsheet. You might want to have hyperlink drill-downs on HTML output but have those features turned off when using the PDF output format. Even these types of simple dynamism were difficult to paint using the early Developer Studio in the WebFOCUS 4.5/5.1 era. 

Around the early 2000s and the WebFOCUS 7 releases, Information Builders began adding good Dialogue Manager support into the Report Painter. Over time, it became more and more possible to "paint" dynamic reports. These are the demo features that converted business decision makers into Sola-GUI believers but which the Anti-GUI extremists ignored.


Using a GUI painter for all application development tasks is impossible. Information Builders cannot provide such a robust feature. Microsoft doesn't provide it. Apple doesn't provide it. IBM doesn't provide it.

There is just no software vendor in the world able to create completely "paintable" app dev tools (although there were some trying to sell CASE tools in the 1980s). While vendors can give you a tool to visually lay out a web page and automatically generate HTML under the covers, they still make you type in any procedural JavaScript.   

Likewise, when a BI developer builds a WebFOCUS application of any complexity, he or she is forced to use the Developer Studio Text Editor for the Dialogue Manager procedural scripting and web JavaScript coding. The Sola-GUI believers must understand that BI is a software application development activity and using the keyboard for procedural scripting is a valid, respectable task.  

All of our Partner Intelligence consultants understand they must do everything possible to build WebFOCUS reports in the painter so that when they leave, the clients will be self sufficient, able to maintain their reports using the GUI. The same philosophy is true when building web launch pages: it is GUI all the way. There is no reason for a developer to ever type the underlying HTML code (the associated JavaScript procedural commands are different and require a text editor).  

With today's version of Developer Studio, developers can build fairly dynamic reports while staying in the GUI Report Painter. 

However, clients do not engage outside experts to do the simple stuff. Instead, they call Partner Intelligence when they want sophisticated, highly-dynamic BI applications. 

That is where all bets are off on "painting" WebFOCUS reports.

Imagine asking Home Builders to give you a single architectural drawing of a house that is a two-bedroom single-story ranch on weekdays, a two-story bungalow on Saturday, and a three-bedroom bi-level with walk-out basement on Sunday. That is the type of challenge Information Builders faces when trying to provide a GUI painter for a dynamic report.

Here are my key recommendations to consider for your WebFOCUS application development initiative. 

WebFOCUS has a GUI IDE called Developer Studio. Its graphical layout tools are useful for producing static and often times, fairly dynamic, web page and report layouts. When building web applications, it is necessary for a developer to use the IDE's GUI text editor feature to script procedural commands (Dialogue Manager and JavaScript). 

All WebFOCUS developers should be experienced in and utilize the Developer Studio because of its productivity-enhancing features. They should also understand the 4GL code that Developer Studio generates and be skilled in manually coding procedural scripts (both Dialogue Manager and JavaScript). 

For all web page layout needs, developers should utilize the Developer Studio HTML painting feature. For almost all report layout needs, the developer should use the report painting feature. 

When you need a highly dynamic BI application, your developer will have to be an expert in the underlying WebFOCUS language rather than have it generated by a painter. That does not mean the developer totally ignores the painter. Instead, he or she still uses it to first produce a standard version of the report and then build upon that code as the foundation for other dynamically generated variations.  Instead of the Developer Studio painter generating the WebFOCUS code, your BI application will.  

Before you move a veteran FOCUS 4GL developer onto your WebFOCUS team, ensure that he or she does not harbor extremist Anti-GUI views. Never allow that type of hand-coder to become a "leader" who can set project standards and direction. In addition to hurting the productivity of the project, this poor decision could leave you with an unsupportable BI application. 

I doubt this blog brings peace between two groups of WebFOCUS extremists with opposite worldviews.  But I do hope that a few people will examine their strongly held beliefs and move to the middle where happier application development is possible.

1 comment:

ராம்குமார் - அமுதன் said...

Amazing analysis and post Doug. Thank you.

I entirely agree each of your points in the analysis. loved it.

As you have told, for templates and Styling Dev Studio provides us a cushion seat, where in dynamism and complex logic, direct FOCUS coding make us comfort.

A perfect blend both, is something what makes webfocus better than others.

About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.