Front-end integration

Traditional EAI deployments are thorny, expensive endeavors that frequently go overbudget well before completion. For some projects, such as a call center scenario in which users typically are forced to navigate multiple screens and to tap numerous applications to accomplish a single task, taking a front-end approach to integration can reduce costs and complexity.

Joining the fray of competitors vying to smarten up application integration at the desktop is Digital Harbor with the release of its PiiE (Professional Interactive Information Environment) Express 2.0. PiiE (pronounced “pie”) employs XML and a J2EE middleware server to facilitate data requests, pushing just-in-time data and alert services between its fat-client applications on the desktop and the back-end applications, data sources, and Web services that feed them.

With its visual data-binding facilities, PiiE lowers the technical requirements of application integration, allowing business analysts – rather than expensive programmers – to build composite applications quickly and cheaply.

On the downside, we found PiiE’s feature set to fall short of offerings from Altio Inc. and Curl Corp., vendors that have been advancing the rich-desktop space for some time. Furthermore, Digital Harbor’s platform and client support remains limited to Windows and Solaris in this early release. As a result, we limited our recommendation for PiiE Express 2.0 to a score of Consider.

We found installation and setup of PiiE to be a no-brainer. With seamless integration of both server-and client-side components, the easily navigated administration interface made for trouble-free management of the entire process, including user setup and registering EJBs with the container for deployment.

The PiiE’s server, named the Blended Media Server, provides connector services through XML-based messaging service EJBs, creating a bridge between rich clients on the desktop and disparate back-end data sources, applications, and middleware. The Blended Media Server supports state and session management, encryption, application management, and integration with existing LDAP implementations.

Application Browser, the client-side component of PiiE, facilitates all of the behind-the-scenes application management, including services, data interdependencies, caching, and version control, with the Blended Media Server. The two work in consort to stream only the data necessary to update the desktop application.

Although we would prefer to see broader client support, our PiiE applications ran with the look and feel of a local desktop application, carrying the additional benefit of Digital Harbor’s Application Linking and Embedding, which allows components within applications to be interlinked. Because information sharing and application-level interaction is handled locally, behind a single interface, PiiE avoids the pitfalls of the repeated server calls necessary to refresh static HTML documents.

The Console Builder, PiiE’s drag-and-drop development environment, enabled us to quickly build applications from a palette of objects, automating data binding and triggering interactions based on Digital Harbor’s own HAML (Hyper Application Markup Language), used to facilitate run-time services and communications with the server.

Although we were quickly productive, building basic client-side applications using JDBC-accessible data sources, we were disappointed at the lack of built-in tools for tying to Web services (such as those found in Altio) or even pluggable adapters for packaged applications.

Future iterations of PiiE would benefit from improvements in data compression and scalability, and by the inclusion of tools that ease integration of complex enterprise systems, packaged applications, and Web services. Additionally, broadening platform support to include Linux and other open-source OSes might go a long way toward luring cost-conscious CxOs.

All told, we found Digital Harbor’s PiiE Express 2.0 to be a viable means of reducing the complexity of enterprise application integration. And, with the additional benefit of advancing services-based computing at the desktop level, PiiE represents a foray into next-generation smart desktop applications worthy of your consideration.

James R. Borck is a contributing editor in the Infoworld Test Center. Reach him at[email protected].

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