It’s actually very easy now to use Web Browser technology to distribute fast- changing, complex data. And, it’s immensely powerful and flexible BY BRIAN TINHAM
Web browsers are as universal as, well, the World Wide Web itself. And today, some systems integrators are saying that if you want an interactive, ultra-distributed information environment that doesn’t cost the earth, there simply isn’t a better way than using the Internet/intranets and Web browser technology. Particularly where fast-changing, semi real time information is concerned, they say it’s cheap, easy and not difficult to make robust.
The idea really began to snowball with the advent of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser and its ActiveX tools – and, of course, Sun’s Java. Now that Windows NT Workstation v4.0 includes IE, and NT Server v4.0 has Internet Information Server, FrontPage (the authoring and management tool) and Index Server (the search engine) – we’re looking at an avalanche.
I spoke to Dr Steve Montgomery, managing director of system integrator, Tarragon Embedded Technology, who’s been moving in this direction for some time. The company mainly serves the automotive industry, developing bespoke software and embedded control solutions.
Most recently, he’s been working alongside the Powertrain Control Systems Engineering Group at Ford developing a `calibration repository’ to manage, manipulate and distribute information for its new diesel engine management system. Ford’s engine management system development involves a huge R&D effort spanning the world, with 24 hours a day access and potentially thousands of calibration items plus a great deal of interaction.
Montgomery: `The nature of the problem immediately suggested a database solution. But conventionally you’re looking at a forms-style user interface, considerable bespoke software and platform restrictions. In contrast, Ford wanted an intuitive system that could be accessed with minimum training by users on any computer on its world-wide network – be it via a departmental Ethernet, or a dial-up connection using a mobile phone.
`Intranet browsers are widely understood and available for most computer systems. They provide a good, virtually universal GUI. And, access is available virtually anywhere, anyhow. Clearly, this was the way forward. Incidentally, Internet technology also offers a powerful mechanism for managing complex software development projects’.
Does this mean web browsers ought to be routinely considered? What are the criteria suggesting their choice? And, just how easy is development?
Montgomery: `Web browsers are a good choice in any industry in which you need to distribute and keep track of large amounts of information. They’re particularly useful where you’ve got information that’s being updated frequently at remote nodes.
`Systems like Ford’s are actually quite easy for programmers to set up. We used an Oracle 7 database and Oracle’s Web server. We wrote the procedures to interrogate tables, populate the database and output to HTML, etc in PL/SQL (Procedural SQL) – and ProC and C for the more complex tasks. It’s all hosted on a DEC Alpha server, and it’s globally available to hundreds of simultaneous users across almost any platform.
`File formats included one Ford proprietary (holding calibration items inside the object files) and one open – Intel’s system for the 80C96 microcontrollers. We also had to generate files for Ford’s calibration instrumentation.
`We managed data output to the Web browsers using Oracle procedures to generate HTML, create radio buttons, etc – it’s wrapped in our layers. I’d say it was only slightly harder than using a GUI designer under X or Windows.’
What about ease of use? `They’re easy to use, support and maintain. Most Web applications are self-installing. We routinely provide a `click here’ button so that if something doesn’t run at a remote Web node, the user simply clicks it and gets an instant download of the application or upgrade he requires. It means you can handle, for example, Adobe Acrobat files, sound files etc without being previously enabled.’
So what about security, firewalls and so on? Montgomery: `In the Ford application, the repository can recover all data, even if the storage device is destroyed. Using standard Oracle facilities, we’ve configured live daily hot back-up to a remote drive, plus 15 minute transaction logging to another. So reconstruction only loses a few minutes’ data at most.
`As for firewalls, in this case only authorised users are permitted access, and it’s all on the company’s own corporate intranet anyway. But having said that, Oracle does provide for user authentication. In fact, we originally developed our own firewall technology. Today we probably wouldn’t bother – there’s plenty you can buy off-the-shelf.’
Will he be looking to ActiveX or Java? `Yes; next time we’ll go for the greater interaction that Java delivers. If you only use HTML, pages are pretty static. We’d prefer to see drop-down menus, context sensitive tools and so on. Java provides all of that.’
What about some tips for would-be developers? `Be warned; there’s a variety of browsers, and not every browser deals with things in the same way. So you need either to standardise on one or a few – or test everything! Today, most integrators would probably recommend Explorer or Netscape.
`As an aside, it’s worth noting that with any large scale embedded software project, you have to keep track of each module of program code. And, in fact, Web browser technology can also help here. Basically, it’s quite cheap and easy to use a browser as the front end to your static analysis tools. It does actually make information management considerably easier.’
Dr Steve Montgomery is managing director of Tarragon. He has nine years’ experience in IT following a first degree in computing and a PhD in mechanical engineering