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Upgrading to Ajax apps increases productivity

Ajax-powered user interfaces can dramatically improve the usability of Web-based applications, says Understanding Ajax author Joshua Eichorn. This leads to an increase in productivity.

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Chapter 3, Content chunking pattern of 'Ajax Patterns and Best Practices' 

Find out why internal apps are ripe for replacement with Ajax-based apps, what common mistakes users make when debugging apps and where you can find helpful toolkits for simplifying Ajax development.

What changes has Asynchonous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) brought to Web development that impact enterprise IT environments?

Josh Eichorn: Ajax has caused many IT environments to take a new look at Web-based applications. Web-based applications now have a much broader problem set they can address. In Web development processes, the biggest change is looking at JavaScript as a primary development language. In the past, IT professionals might have looked at JavaScript experience as "nice to have"; Ajax has moved it to a requirement.

How can corporate IT managers use Ajax in their workday lives?

Eichorn: Ajax is a great solution for internal applications. Environment control lets you reduce the complexity of Ajax development and high speed networks remove any latency-related performance problems. This makes internal applications a good target for Ajax-powered usability improvements. Just upgrading any multi-process search selection process to a Google Suggest style, search-as-you-type dropdown will save you large amounts of time on a daily basis.

What are the advantages for IT managers of working with Ajax applications versus non-Ajax apps?

Eichorn: The biggest advantage is that Ajax opens up a new set of problems to Web-based applications. The rich user interface and easy access to large datasets makes it possible to replace the last holdout Visual Basic applications with easy to manage, upgradeable Web-based applications.

Ajax-powered user interfaces can also dramatically improve the usability of Web-based applications which, in turn, improves productivity.

Could you offer some basic tips for determining when a non-Ajax app would benefit from having Ajax technologies added to it?

Eichorn: When deciding to add Ajax technologies to an existing application, I normally start with a review of what the application does. The biggest targets are slow, multi-step processes and interactions with large datasets. Any time you're creating a pop-up window to accomplish a task, you'll normally have a good target for Ajax usage.

My overall rule is to see if completing a task in the application take too long time complete. If that's true, then I look to see if the slowness is related to the accessibility of application data. If that's the truth, then you have a good target for Ajax.

In your book, you offer a start-to-finish update of a non-Ajax app. What are some key processes in this update approach?

Eichorn: Identify areas where adding Ajax would have the greatest benefit. Pick a library or libraries that will provide the tools to you need to implement your chosen targets. Implement any back end changes that are needed. Test those changes before adding in the Ajax Update. Let the end users review the usability of your changes and add in visual queues. Provide feedback to your users so they know what is going on.

What are your three favorite toolkits for simplifying Ajax development?

Eichorn: I use mootools or script.aculo.us for adding effects and graphical elements, such as drag-and-drop and animations.

I use HTML_AJAX for integrating my PHP code and performing Ajax calls. When I'm looking for widgets, like trees, I use the Yahoo User Interface Library.

What are the most common mistakes people make when debugging Ajax?

Eichorn: People forget that they are still just making HTTP requests. If you look at what you're sending to the server and what it is returning, all the interactions that are hidden in your JavaScript code suddenly become clear.

Do you see Ajax technologies expanding outside of Web app development in the future? If so, how?

Eichorn: The basic focus of Ajax is adding an invisible communications channel between the server and the client. From that perspective, Ajax really isn't anything new. Client-server applications have been doing that for years.

But Ajax does allow you to build service-oriented applications where much of the application state and logic fit in the browser, and the server just exports a generic set of operations that can be consumed by any client. This idea is a lot broader than Ajax. If you use Ajax to implement SOA applications in your browser, I think you'll also follow that same pattern into your thick application development.

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This was first published in November 2006

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