Eating your own dogfood – use of Oracle Development tools within the Oracle Applications development group

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Reporting: birth of a new tool: XML Publisher

For Reporting there is very interesting news. Apps is shortly switching over to a new reporting framework, called XML Publisher.

Reporting has always been somewhat of a challenge for Oracle Apps. They did not seem to be able to get it exactly right for all customers. Either they needed additional data – or less – on the report or they wanted different layout or output formats.

Apps has decided on a different course, whereby there will be a fairly rigid separation between content – which data must be in the report – and the layout – what should it look like. Existing RDF (report definition files) will be used as definition of the content: they contain the SQL queries etc. that specify what data is assembled for creating the report. The second step, morphing the content in the desired layout and output format, will be performed by XML Publisher. The content is published by the Reporting Engine as an XML Document. XML Publisher takes the XML, applies an XSL-T Stylesheet and renders the result in one of many output-formats, such as PDF, text-file, HTML, Excel-format etc.

Apps will ship a substantial library of stylesheets for creating generally desirable outputs for the reports. These will replace the RDF files where it comes to defining layout and look and feel. There are currently no plans for a tool that can automatically convert RDFs into XSL-T templates. Customers can very easily customize the standard Apps reports by editing the XSLTs. Oracle Apps will still take care of providing the data that is presented in the report, though of course by editing the underlying RDF-file (or its successor format).

Currently, XML Publisher is not planned to have a UI, a graphical XSL-T editor. You can use (plug in?) your own 3rd party XSL-T Editor to create the stylesheets used by XML Publisher to render the report.

John told me that in the US many Government agencies are already publishing XSL-T stylesheets that allow organizations to create reports such as Tax-forms in the layout required by the federal agencies. He expects many more such stylesheets to become available in the near future.

I am not exactly sure what functionality XML Publisher will offer over and above standard XSL-T transformation engines. I suppose at least better management facilities.

An interesting reversal of the XML Publisher functionality could be the following: A PDF Form – in the same layout as would be produced by XML Publisher when reporting data – is used to allow users to enter data. John gave the example of Clinical Trials where paper-forms are filled in over and over again. An electronic form in exactly the same layout can be produced using a PDF Form. The input in this form could then be returned to the XML Publisher Engine that would strip away the layout and produce the content (filled in data) as end result.

XML Publisher will also be bundled with the Oracle 10g Database in the near future, which makes it available to non-Apps customers. John could not give me an exact timeline for this bundling.

Open Source

Student Registration system – almost a Student specific ERP. Open Source initiative from University of Ohio. John stresses that the challenge of ERP-type applications is not so much development – as hard as that can be – but primarily the implementation. Working with the customer, configuring the software for the specific requirements of individual organisations etc. He does not believe in an Open Source model for the implementation effort – which would basically mean people coming to your site, implementing the software and not charging any money for that.

He did describe an Open Source style project Oracle is contemplating and may be sponsoring in the near future. It does not deal with Open Source Software Development, but instead entails an Open Source project for Content Gathering and Management. Oracle Health Care, a module for Hospitals, Doctors etc., has to deal with lots of medical terminology. One of the characteristics of that terminology is that it widely varies across the globe and even across universities, research facilities, private hospitals and public facilities. Terms used for medicines, protocols, diagnoses, treatments etc. vary a lot even though they may refer to the same things. To make Oracle Health Care useful to a wide audience, the system should be able to ‘translate’ between the various ‘dialects’. That means, it needs to have a humongous dictionary or repository with all relevant terms in all dialects.

Oracle is contemplating to start and sponsor an Open Source project that will build up such a knowledge base of medical terminology. Of course its contents would be available to the world – that is the open source part of it – and it would allow Oracle to deliver a widely useful Health Care Module. In this case, it seems hardly viable for Oracle by itself to gather all contents for such a repository.

When I asked him specifically about Oracle Apps’s stance on adopting Open Source technology, the likes of Struts, he specified that there is no policy against using these components. Each component is evaluated based on its own merits.

Standards & Guidelines and Reusable Frameworks

I asked John whether the enormous experience gathered in the Apps development organization with use of Oracle technology and doing Oracle based development could not somehow be shared with the rest of the world. Undoubtedly Apps must have assembled piles of Standards & Guidelines, Hints and Tricks, Checklists and reusable components, utilities etc.

He told me that indeed they are working on plans to publish first of all a number of their development frameworks to allow Apps customer developing extensions to the Apps product to use the same frameworks Apps developers themselves use.

Slightly further down the line, they also intend to make Standards & Guidelines available, for Programming with Oracle Technology and for User Interface design. Currently, they are editing their Standards and Guidelines, mainly for two reasons:

  1. some of the guidelines are not phrased in a way that Oracle thinks should be exposed to customers (“You are an idiot if you do it this way�), though it may get the message across
  2. more importantly, many of the guidelines may assume a certain base knowledge of technology, terminology and implicit ways of working that without rephrasing them, they would not be clear enough for outsiders

John could not specify exactly when they would start making these documents available. The decision of shipping them only to Apps customers or publishing them on OTN for the rest of us, like the BLAF guidelines, is also still pending.

Miscellaneous

I asked John whether Apps makes use of HTML DB or intends to make use of it. He started with an elalorate answer in which he explained all the strengths of HTML DB and then concluded: we have no plans for using it.

John spoke briefly about an effort going on between Apps and the ServerTech department, responsible for developing the database, that addresses upgrade challenges. With Apps implementations getting more and more globalized – heavily pushed by Oracle itself, recommending customers to consolidate their worldwide IT activities in globalized data centers with global instances of the E-Business Suite – downtime as a result of upgrades must be minimized. A substantial portion of unavailability of Apps instances as part of an upgrade is caused by the invalidation and subsequent recompilation of zillions of PL/SQL packages. Apps and ServerTech are looking at ways that prevents a large portion of the need for this recompilation.

Apps of course are a big user of the Oracle Workflow engine in the database server – I believe they practically invented it. With the recent acquisition by Oracle of Collaxa’s BPEL product, many people wonder about the future of Workflow and Oracle’s ProcessConnect product. John did not have details at this point – nor has anybody else I have spoken about this – but it seems inevitable, he said, that some sort of merger between these products will come about. Given the fact that BPEL is an industry standard, the Oracle BPEL process manager seems likely to lead the way in such a synthesis. Apps will not rush into a migration away from Workflow – is my impression.

Remaining Questions

Some questions I had planned to ask but did not have time for:

How is development organized? Do you apply XP principles?
Do Apps developers participate in discussion forums such as the ones on OTN? Do they go out and share their experience in articles or presentations during conferences?
How are developers in Apps organization trained and kept up to speed with new technological developments?
What tools is Apps using within the development environment, for testing, quality control, incident management?

What is Apps’ position on implementation of Business Rules – data oriented business logic in specific. Should that be in all tiers (client, middle and server)? Or should that be inside the database and where necessary for user feedback reasons sometimes in the Client? Does Apps make use of Declarative Database Constraints (as far as I know they did not do so in the past, has that changed?)? If not, why not? What is the Apps way of enforcing constraints?

Do you intend to make intensive use of the Java integration features in Oracle Forms?
How is your software configuration management process organized? Based on what tools? (I believe to know that a technology that has the same roots as the product we know as Oracle Software Configuration Manager, often used in conjunction with Oracle Designer, is the cornerstone in the SCM for both the Apps and ServerTech divisions. Staff previously from the Oracle Designer & Oracle Repository teams in the UK now work on this technology).

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About Author

Lucas Jellema, active in IT (and with Oracle) since 1994. Oracle ACE Director for Fusion Middleware. Consultant, trainer and instructor on diverse areas including Oracle Database (SQL & PLSQL), Service Oriented Architecture, BPM, ADF, Java in various shapes and forms and many other things. Author of the Oracle Press book: Oracle SOA Suite 11g Handbook. Frequent presenter on conferences such as JavaOne, Oracle OpenWorld, ODTUG Kaleidoscope, Devoxx and OBUG. Presenter for Oracle University Celebrity specials.

17 Comments

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  4. Pingback: AMIS Technology blog » Blog Archive » The Future of Oracle Applications - John Wookey at OOW 2006

  5. Pingback: AMIS Technology blog » Blog Archive » Session on XML Publisher - The Successor to Oracle Reports?

  6. Today I heard that John Wookey now has overall lead for all of Oracle Apps. Mr. Ron Wohl, previously his boss, apparently is away on sabbatical leave. In hindsight, I have come close to the sun….

  7. Very interesting article… It’s amusing that Oracle have been stressing for years that
    Forms will remain part of the development toolset in Apps.. I guess it boils down to there
    not being a viable alternative until ADF and JSF.

    I’ve been using ADF/UIX on and off since it first came out and it’s interesting to see
    it being used in anger now. If it’s implemented well and allows for Pluggable L&F then
    it really will allow clients to develope a corporate look and feel throughout their ERP
    and Back Office as well as using Portal etc….

    If this doesn’t occur, then Oracle will lose out signifcantly to Axapta, where integration
    with the desktop will be seamless (aparently)

    What will really blow the doors off proper Apps customisation and integration is when
    OC4j becomes the host for the applications tier… Bring it on!

    Chris

  8. We can but hope that Oracle SCM will come back in some form one day. At the moment, things don’t look good. Two of the three pro-OSCM Oracle employees you mention are no longer with the company, and the remaining members of the Oracle SCM team are focussed on internal Apps support only. The existing version of Oracle SCM is still fully supported, of course.

    The day that new development on Oracle SCM stopped coincided with Microsoft’s announcement about their new “Team System” replacement for Visual SourceSafe. I’m pretty sure it was a coincidence, but it served to highlight that development lifecycle support is still a really important competetive area. I thought that future releases of Oracle SCM would be the basis of a strong Oracle offering in this area (some of the stuff that was being developed internally was very cool: integrated bug tracking, task tracking and version control). Oracle SCM also had a great selling point that you mention: it’s used by Oracle to version control the huge amount of code that comprises the Oracle database.

    There are a number of fundamental architecture issues with Oracle SCM 6i/9i that were, for the most part, resolved in the “7.x” releases that we use internally. IMHO, part of the problem with Oracle SCM was a failure to release a “7.x” version externally. For a long time, the team were focussed on providing a hosted version control solution (a bit like SourceCast) that never really took off. In the meantime, a lot of customers started using 6i/9i and because most of the development effort was on “7.x”, customers were not seeing a lot of improvement in the 6i/9i code base.

    It seems that now, the strategy is to support existing Oracle SCM customers fully, but concentrate new functionality (in JDeveloper) around third party version control systems like CVS and Subversion. The rapid change in direction was a bit of a surprise to many (myself included: I was responsible for the Oracle SCM integration in JDeveloper, so it had a bit of an impact on my priorities).

  9. See response from Steve Muench in his weblog

    Also interesting: an interview by Tim Anderson with Ted Farell (Architect and Director, Application Development Tools Division, Oracle Corporation). Ted Farell sais – among many other things -: “We do have solutions today. One of our consulting departments has built a product called JHeadStart, and that will allow you to draw a business flow diagram and it will generate a Java application for you. ”

    What he says about the next release of JDeveloper (10gR2 I believe, due in November or so) is encouraging:

    Tim: What about refactoring and pattern-based tools in JDeveloper?
    Ted: In the next version which you should see sometime this year, the JDeveloper IDE has full-blown refactoring.[...] In the next version of JDeveloper we have pretty much all those features that you find in Eclipse or IntelliJ. We’ve focused back on the core developer, whereas in the 10g release the main focus was getting ADF integrated, and to target the high level business developer. We’re now shifting resources back onto the core developer as well. So there are two paths that we take, the ADF enhanced mode, and the pure “just give me an IDE� type of developer.

  10. Brian: if Oracle SCM (or at least an enhanced version of it) is used by such critical and humongous environments such as Oracle ST and Oracle Apps, would not such a product be a much sought after tool for the rest of the world? At some point I believe msrs. Fisher, Bradshaw and Thomas were ready to take on the world (primarily ClearCase) for doing SCM at the Enterprise Level. Do you what happened? Is there any chance of a ‘return with a vengeance’ of SCM at Oracle?

  11. Excellent and insightful article. From our point of view (in tools development), Applications are indeed our biggest customers.

    I know a little about the way that Apps and ServerTech (development tools now come under servertech too) organize version control. Most of ServerTech is now using a tool called ADE. This is a front end interface to version control which originally used a ClearCase back end. These days, most products in the ServerTech division are using ADE with an Oracle SCM back end.

    Likewise, Applications have a frontend SCM interface called Arcs. They’re in a process of migration between the existing back end for Arcs and using Oracle SCM too.

    The big, obvious benefit of both Arcs and ADE is that you can replace the back end SCM system without having a major impact on your developers.

    Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Oracle SCM has effectively reached the end of the line in terms of new feature development. The version of Oracle SCM we use internally (much improved from OSCM 6i/9i) will likely never be released as an external product. Much of the development of Oracle SCM in the UK has been wound up. The remaining members of the Oracle SCM team in the UK are now actually part of the Applications division, working directly on Arcs.

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