When you embark on a new enterprise development project, it’s easy to convince yourself that the hard part is over once you’ve decided to go with Java. But the task of assembling the right blend of Java development tools, documentation, and run-time software can add weeks to your development schedule. And if you opt to use Sun Microsystems Inc.’s enterprise Java services — dubbed Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) — it’s even harder to evaluate which tools are suited best for your purposes.
That’s where WebGain Inc. enters the picture. The company, an independent company funded by BEA Systems Inc. (makers of the WebLogic J2EE server), is billing its new WebGain Studio package as a one-stop shop for J2EE development projects. Offered in Standard and Professional Editions, WebGain Studio attempts to pack everything an enterprise Java developer needs into one box.
We reviewed the Standard Edition, which combines the Visual Cafe 4 Java IDE (integrated development environment), an object-oriented modeling tool, a Web design environment, and a single-user copy of BEA’s WebLogic server. (The Professional Edition adds an object relational database tool).
Granted, in-the-trenches Java developers won’t need anything more than Visual Cafe — most programmers spend their time simply banging out code based on a senior person’s design, and that takes place entirely in the IDE. But project leaders, architects, and top-level coders could find WebGain Studio to be worth its premium price.
The heart of the matter
That said, Visual Cafe 4 Enterprise Edition is clearly the heart of WebGain Studio. This is the first version of Visual Cafe to appear since WebGain bought the popular Java IDE from Symantec, and Java developers have been waiting impatiently for this release. They won’t be disappointed: WebGain wisely kept Visual Cafe on course, continuing Symantec’s tradition of combining top-shelf editing, code management, and debugging capabilities with top-notch performance.
The new release updates Visual Cafe for the latest Java 2 compilers and JVMs (Java virtual machines). Symantec’s renowned JIT (just-in-time) and native Java compilers have also been revamped to support Java 2 compilers and JVMs.
But Visual Cafe’s appeal is not limited to Java veterans. Experienced Windows developers accustomed to Visual Basic, Delphi, or Visual C++ will feel right at home here. The user interface blends Java with native Windows elements to create an unusually responsive Java development environment.
Moreover, Visual Cafe is snappy enough to make pure Java IDEs from competitors such as Inprise and Sun feel downright sluggish. For example, most of Visual Cafe’s windows, including its source code editors and property lists, scroll up and down when you use your mouse wheel. The mouse wheel won’t work on almost any other Java window, frustrating developers who must page through thousands of lines of code.
All things considered, Visual Cafe 4 is one of those rare development tools that actually makes you a better, more productive programmer.
Aboard the enterprise
The Enterprise Edition of Visual Cafe 4 lets you build, deploy, and import Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB). To facilitate local testing of J2EE components, WebGain throws in a restricted copy of the BEA WebLogic J2EE server. The company prevents commercial use by limiting the number of external (non-local) network connections to one, and because J2EE applications rely on network communication, this limit may interfere with even the most basic testing.
Still, WebLogic is ideal for the isolated testing that’s typically performed in the early stages of application design. Testing against a local J2EE server lets you conduct the kind of fearless experimentation that’s often not possible, or at least inadvisable, with production servers.
StructureBuilder rounds out the WebGain Studio bundle nicely. This simple UML (Unified Modeling Language) diagramming tool plugs into the Visual Cafe IDE. As you sketch out your design, StructureBuilder generates Java code that matches that design. Better yet, StructureBuilder lets you diagram and document existing Java programs, including Java code that you (or Sun) have already compiled. The capable built-in source-code editor obviates the need to bounce in and out of Visual Cafe.
We found StructureBuilder to be an invaluable tool for making sense of a project. Its features for sketching out object persistence — storing and retrieving an object’s state — and for building and deploying JavaBeans overlap with similar facilities in Visual Cafe.
But StructureBuilder’s approach is preferable for designs that originate in UML. As are other WebGain Studio components, it’s not the kind of tool that every developer would need, but it could come in handy for smaller designs that don’t require a full-fledged object-oriented modeler.
Of course, WebGain Studio is not without its flaws. Except for StructureBuilder’s pop-up window inside Visual Cafe, the various components bundled here are integrated only by virtue of sharing a box. In other words, there is no natural workflow — you don’t get an all-encompassing project management facility to tie things together.
Inveterate Java developers are used to hopping from tool to tool as work progresses, but users accustomed to the cozy environs of Microsoft Visual Studio or Inprise Delphi may find WebGain’s fragmented approach to be unfriendly.
The package also feels a bit light on enterprise features. For example, Visual Cafe’s online help does not offer any J2EE documentation. The IDE will assist with EJB but not with other J2EE services. As for the rest of J2EE, you’re on your own.
And the bundled Macromedia Dreamweaver 3 HTML designer includes only the most basic support for inserting JavaServer Page symbols into HTML code. Dreamweaver is a powerful HTML tool and a favorite among Web designers, but it has little to lend to Java development, so it seems out of place in WebGain Studio.
In any case, I’d trade Dreamweaver’s place in this suite for a solid collection of XML tools, because skilled enterprise Java developers are usually too valuable to be deployed as Web designers.
Still, any development suite that features Visual Cafe 4 at its center deserves strong consideration. WebGain Studio’s $2,000 premium over Visual Cafe 4 Enterprise Edition is easily justified if you can put the modeler, Web designer, and restricted J2EE server to immediate use. Otherwise, just grab Visual Cafe 4, which remains the best Java IDE on the market, and pick up supporting tools as you need them.
Tom Yager is the East Coast technical director of the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
Business Case: WebGain has combined Visual Cafe with UML and HTML tools to create its studio bundle. The package is a worthwhile kit for designers and senior coders, but most developers will need only Visual Cafe.
Technology Case: The Visual Cafe Java IDE (integrated development environment) sports updated JIT (just-in-time) and native -code compilers for Java 2. The StructureBuilder modeling tool integrates well with Visual Cafe and is ideal for smaller designs.
+ First-rate Java development environment
+ Object-oriented modeling tool generates Java code
+ Integrated support for EJB and UML
– Bundled BEA J2EE server is limited to one network connection
– Suite’s tools and documentation do not cover enough J2EE facilities
Cost: US$4,995 for Standard Edition; $8,995 for Professional Edition
Platform(s): Windows 98/2000, Windows NT
WebGain Inc., Cupertino, Calif.; (888)-822-3409; http://www.webgain.com
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Prices listed are in US currency.