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ColdFusion Authors: Yakov Fain, Jeremy Geelan, Maureen O'Gara, Nancy Y. Nee, Tad Anderson

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ColdFusion: Article

The Future (and Past) of E-commerce

The Future (and Past) of E-commerce

Sometimes simple technologies combine in ways that create massive innovation and opportunity. The Web itself is a modern example. Formed as a simple request/response document delivery mechanism, the core technologies of the Web -- HTML and HTTP -- central to a broad computing platform shift. It's because these technologies were so simple and accessible that the Web exploded the way it did.

In 1994 we saw that this simple technology could be extended with two other well known, simple technologies -- scripting and databases. With CFML and a basic database engine, the Web could be used both as a publishing medium and as the foundation for interactive online business. Like the Web itself, technology platforms such as CF have evolved to meet the new demands of online businesses. CF 4.0 represents a mammoth release for Allaire, with major innovations in rapid development, scalable deployment, open integration and total security.

But, hidden inside CF 4.0 is another "simplicity revolution". Evolving from the basic need to exchange query data between CF servers, the Web Distributed Data Exchange (WDDX) emerged as a simple technology that solves enormously complex problems.

WDDX is an XML-based technology that enables the exchange of complex data between programming languages, creating "Web syndicate networks". WDDX consists of a language-independent representation of data and a set of modules for a wide variety of languages that use WDDX. (For more technical details or to download the WDDX SDK, check out www.WDDX.org.) WDDX and the different WDDX language platform modules are all open-source, freeware technologies and don't require CF.

WDDX improves what you can do with the Web in three major ways:
1) it can be used as the foundation for building Web syndicate networks, where the content and commerce assets of Web sites are exposed and shared to other sites on the network;
2) it increases platform interoperability and legacy migration;
3) it increases the performance and usability of Web applications.

WDDX can radically change your Web-business model. Until now, most companies and site developers have seen their investments in Web systems and Web sites as primarily being aimed at endusers who access applications through Web browsers.

Recently, however, all kinds of companies have begun to realize that their application assets could be leveraged in more substantial ways by exposing them as "services" to other applications on the Web. Based on Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a network increases exponentially with every node added to the network, these companies are building Web syndicate networks where applications serve both endusers AND other Web applications.

A good example can be drawn from e-commerce. Any merchant setting up a commerce site will have backend shipping and fulfillment requirements. This often involves a Web application invoking and tracking a shipment via a provider like FedEx. In the world of Web syndication, FedEx.com is less an enduser site and more an automated portal into the FedEx business computing infrastructure. And, the data and services that are performed with FedEx can be done in an automated fashion using any Web application server or programming language, over HTTP and using WDDX.

In another example, the owners of a Web site offering recipes for Italian food lovers might want to offer additional content and commerce features. Additional content could include popular books on Italian cooking from Amazon.com (including all of the books' details, user reviews, etc.) and even a custom user interface for purchasing.

All this could be handled under the hood -- with the recipe site using ASP, and Amazon.com using CGI and a custom C++ application -- with the recipe site providing a custom content and commerce experience that s molded into the user experience.

Web syndicate networks open new business models based on the networked economy. Without a doubt, it's the most exciting application of WDDX.

Huge challenges continue to face Web application builderss. By their nature, Web applications often involve tying together data from multitudes of disparate systems. They involve integrating with legacy code and applications, even coexisting with desktop fat-client applications based on Visual Basic, MS Access or even Java. WDDX eases this by providing an open, cross-platform and cross-language model for sharing data.

Because WDDX is XML-based, moving complex data between systems can be handled using simple text strings. And since WDDX is available for use with Java and COM, your application data can reach systems built with almost any common desktop programming tool or OS platform. Often referred to as XML Middleware, this use of XML allows you to "tunnel" data between systems, despite differences in implementation and runtime environments. WDDX shields you from having to know anything about XML itself – all transformation and data exchange happen under the hood, using things like XML and HTTP as transports for application data.

The platform interoperability advantages are important to Web developers forced to work in mixed Web application environments. With WDDX you can reuse code and data, preserving your technology investment and supporting richer development and deployment models. This is important to customers who are concerned that an investment in a given platform is closed and can't be used in the future. WDDX provides a conduit to your Web applications that can be reused by other applications.

One limitation of the basic Web architecture is that with an HTML-based user-interface you're limited in the richness of interactivity that can be provided to an enduser in the browser itself -- HTML is a static user interface. One secondary effect of this is that simple forms of interactivity require additional requests to the server, increasing server load and decreasing the application's performance.

In the past few years, the capabilities of the browser have increased through the use of JavaScript and DHTML. The 4.0 level browsers have rich programming models that can be used to create flexible and interactive user interfaces. But these have been underleveraged because of browser incompatibilities, and it's been difficult -- if not impossible -- to move application data between Web browsers and application servers. So despite an increase in the capabilities of Web clients, even simple data binding has been impossible.

WDDX provides a simple, lightweight cross-browser solution to increasing usability and performance in your Web applications. Because JavaScript supports WDDX, you can easily move data between any server-based applications and browser-based applications using JavaScript. In this model, you could have a database query on the server passed to a JavaScript browser where it works with the data locally, rendering it using the Document Object Model and DHTML, then passing any changed data back to the server when it's completed. The WDDX SDK includes extensive examples for using WDDX to enhance DHTML user interfaces and to create data-binding and offline browser applications.

I strongly encourage you to check out WDDX via the project homepage (www.wddx.org), and let us know what you think.

More Stories By Jeremy Allaire

Jeremy Allaire is one of the key people behind ColdFusion. He was one of the co-founders of Allaire Corp, which was later sold to Macromedia, where he joined as the CTO and turned his attention to helping evolve Macromedia Flash into a next-generation rich client platform. He is a regular author and analyst of Internet technologies.

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