Test Center Rx: Choosing Your Web Platform

SAN MATEO (02/21/2000) - I'm involved in a project to determine what Web application platform my company will go with in the long term. The project seems to be taking forever, and the overall committee has more than 20 people on it from various parts of the organization. The large size of the committee has led to two problems. First, the various solutions we're looking at have revved during the process. Second, I'm concerned that as a technical person I'm going to end up implementing a solution that I don't like.

Currently, the solutions that we're most seriously considering are Microsoft Corp.'s Site Server, BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic, and PHP running on Linux. My background is as a Unix administrator, so my preference is PHP. Do you have any feedback on these solutions, and how I can get the selection committee to come around to agree with me, and do so before the products rev and we have to start all over again? Thanks in advance.

H. Kriz

Brooks: Well, you've got a number of problems here. And I can definitely tell that a committee came up with those three solutions as the final contenders; they don't make a lot of sense lumped together.

With those three products, you have nearly the gamut of approaches to deploying a Web application. In Linux and PHP, you've got the home-brew, hand-coded-from-scratch approach. PHP is a script language similar to JavaScript. You can think of it as a dynamic HTML page that runs on Linux servers, as opposed to Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASPs), which run only on Windows NT Server. Site Server offers a solid off-the-shelf solution that promises very rapid deployment but suffers from a lack of flexibility. And BEA's solution is the high-end application framework that will make for more powerful and robust applications than either of the other two, but at the same time the implementation will take longer and be more costly.

My advice would be to go with the PHP or BEA solutions -- and if you're considering Microsoft, look at ASPs and InterDev rather than Site Server. The reason I'm saying this is that a well-designed, complete Web application will be a competitive advantage. With a solution such as Site Server, it's very hard to implement entirely new features or to fully leverage the existing applications and databases you have.

It also sounds as though you don't know what you want -- which brings us to the committee. I'm a techie type at heart, but it's hard to escape the business side unless you're a nose-to-the-grindstone, 14-hour-a-day programmer in a cubicle. (Does this sound straight out of Dilbert? I hope your situation is not that bad.) In my experience, committees should never, ever have more than five people on them. If more people than that need to be involved, break it into subcommittees. But the final decision needs to come from five or fewer people in order to offer any kind of accountability. Without accountability, it often turns into "Let's get 20 people in a room and let the loudest person talk for a while."

Lori: Getting a group of 20 people together to make this decision is not getting you anywhere -- as you have come to realize. So I have to agree with Brooks that your main problem is the size of your committee and not of a technical nature.

The first thing to do is trim your committee to five or six individuals. These folks should include only the people who are directly involved, mostly from the IT department (such as the network administrator), a developer or two, and the IS manager. If it is absolutely necessary to have business personnel from other departments, limit their number to two or three and assign a team leader or project manager to be the chief decision-maker and liaison to the other groups.

Because this process has been going on so long, you probably have all the decision criteria you need from the other departments. From the list that you mention, you'll need to decide whether or not these solutions fit your collective needs and what human power is required to finish the job. The people who will be doing the designing and development should have some input into what solution will be best to handle the requirements.

There are plenty of Web application servers to choose from. If it is important for you to be running on Unix, then you can easily eliminate the non-Unix brands. Go for the solution that provides you with the most flexibility and room for growth. According to the reviews I have read, BEA's WebLogic may be the best of the solutions you mention. It supports a wide range of platforms (Windows NT, Linux, Sun Solaris) and databases (Oracle, Informix, DB2, SQL), and integrates with many application development tools, such as Symantec VisualCafe and others.

Best of luck on narrowing down your committee members and making your decision.

Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.

Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst for the Test Center. Send your questions for them to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.

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