It's RAD, dude

The lowdown

What are they? RAD tools are software that can be used to quickly build applications others can use. They can be used to build citizen-facing Web applications, internal applications or Web services that integrate older applications in new ways.

Who uses them? Some enterprise RAD tools are designed for power users. Others are designed to simplify normal development tasks, handling the architectural requirements of software development so programmers can work faster.

How much do they cost? That depends on how much automation you want to buy. Tools that require you to actually learn a programming language can cost as little as $100 per developer. Where most of the programming is done by the software, systems can run in the thousands of dollars per developer.

Must-know info? If you're looking for a tool to build applications that can be customized later by experienced developers, moved to different server platforms or targeted to clients, and easily documented down to the source code level, you'll want a tool that works with a standard development environment. If high productivity is more important, your choice should be governed by who's going to be doing the development work and which features you'll need for your applications.

Rapid development tools bring a range of power and users

While Web-based applications solved the problem of how to get applications to users and centrally maintain them, they presented new technical challenges for the rapid application development tools needed to build and deploy them.

Often, applications had to be totally rewritten with another technology, such as Java or C, before they could be put to high-volume use ? and that was anything but rapid.

Fortunately, a new class of RAD tools is making Web development easier and giving developers real enterprise-strength results. The main differences among the latest generation of RAD tools is how much of the programming code that forms an application they hide, and what form the applications take when they're deployed.

Although simplified products can make a wider range of people productive as "developers," there's often a trade-off in terms of how far the applications they create can be customized and where they can be run.

Tenfold Corp. has tried to minimize that trade-off. The company's EnterpriseTenfold tool can produce in two weeks applications that might take a year in other environments.

Tenfold's approach might not fit the architectural standards of some organizations, however, as it's based on a proprietary run time.

But tools such as Macromedia Inc.'s ColdFusion and Novell Inc.'s Extend let people with general IT skills create browser-based applications and even Web services, and deploy them on Java 2 Enterprise Edition application server ? without ever having to write a line of Java code.

For example, Novell's Extend product ? acquired by the company when it purchased Java application vendor SilverStream Software Inc. two years ago ? lets users visually connect data to create back-end services from existing applications and data sources. That even includes mainframe terminal applications. The services can then be wired with a visual tool into a portlet ? a Web application within a Web site ? or used to integrate the data source with other applications.

There's a way for organizations with existing development expertise to leverage the RAD approach as well. ColdFusion allows the mixing of Java with its tag-based application description language, as does Extend. And organizations with developers who know (or want to learn) high-level programming and scripting languages can also turn to visual development tools from companies such as Oracle Corp.

S. Michael Gallagher, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.

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