How to sort out Ajax and RIA frameworks

Confused by a dizzying number of Ajax frameworks? You are not alone. Curl's Richard Monson-Haefel, formerly of Burton Group has some suggestions for the Ajax and RIA developer.

There are so many Ajax frameworks that even Richard Monson-Haefel, who has been working in the rich Internet application (RIA) space since its inception, finds it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

You have to determine which Ajax framework out of 200 or 300 you chose from.
Richard Monson-Haefel
VP of developer relationsCurl Inc.

Monson-Haefel left Burton Group earlier this year to become vice president of developer relations at Curl Inc. Curl had technology based on MIT research, which he liked so much he joined the Cambridge, Mass. company to support its RIA platform. But in an interview with SearchSOA.com, Monson-Haefel temporarily doffed his Curl hat to offer his assessment of where the Ajax framework market stands today.

It is not a market that is easy to predict and it may be that way for some time to come as he explains.

"I used to do the Ajax survey with Ajaxian.com where I put out all the Ajax flavors and asked people which they used," he recalled. The first year, 2005, there were 48 frameworks that appeared to be top of the list for what was then an emerging technology, and he thought that was too many.

So he wrote a paper for Burton Group that said there's no way the ecosystem can support 48 frameworks. He was sure it was going to consolidate.

At that time, he thought the Ajax market would follow the path of the early SOAP toolkit market, which had a lot of players in the first few years of the Web services revolution, but then consolidated around one Java toolkit.

But in 2006, when he did the next survey, he found 160 frameworks. The year after that, 2007, 240 frameworks showed up in his survey.

Last year, he realized that what he expected to happen was not happening. As he recalls: "I didn't see the Ajax framework market consolidating at all."

Frameworks that were leaders in 2005, Prototype and script.aculo.us, which had 53 percent of the market share in his first survey, began to lose their luster. In his most recent survey, those two leaders had dropped to 32 percent.

As he views the Ajax framework market today Monson-Haefel does not see a clear leader.

"It's more and more unclear which ones are dominant," he said. "Some that were once dominant are becoming just bit players."

Two Ajax frameworks that are now popular, jQuery and ExJs, were not even around for his survey two years ago, Monson-Haefel notes.

Proprietary RIA
He has a theory for why the Ajax framework market with its open source players is still a hodgepodge in flux.

As RIA moved into the enterprise, the enterprise IT professionals sought the security of vendors with proprietary products: Flex from Adobe Systems Inc., Silverlight from Microsoft, General Interface from Tibco Software Inc., and newer companies like Curl and Nexaweb Technologies Inc.

"When people started doing serious development that required very large frameworks, they pretty much turned away from Ajax and turned to Flex, Curl and Silverlight, which are proprietary runtime technologies," he said. "The reason is that whether it's Curl or Silverlight or Flex, there's one vendor that completely controls the runtime, they can ensure consistent execution across platforms. The vendors offer a safe harbor. You don't have to worry about the open source project evaporating before your eyes."

In Monson-Haefel's view, the vendors have moved away from Ajax and embraced proprietary runtimes. Tibco has even announced it will leverage Silverlight for non-Ajax RIA development

When Web 2.0 with RIA moved into the enterprise space, the inability of Ajax to scale and provide the required security drove IT departments to the safe harbor of proprietary systems from vendors they knew, in Monson-Haefel's view.

Beyond that, it is difficult for enterprise IT managers to sort through the 200 or 300 Ajax frameworks currently vying for their attention, he said.

"You have to determine which Ajax framework out of 200 or 300 you chose from," Monson-Haefel said. "It's just not clear which one is going to be there. jQuery right now is the second biggest one after Prototype, and it wasn't even in the survey the year before because nobody was using it. It's really an unpredictable market. DWR, which was one of the hottest ones in 2005, along with Prototype and Scriptaculous, is number 10 on the list now."

Ajax and RIA are not the same thing
So there is a question that begs to be asked: How is a developer to make sense of this?

"Let me take off my Curl hat for a second," Monson-Haefel said. "I'll tell you Curl is not the best solution in all cases."

For developers needing to add interactive features to a Website, but who are not developing a full-blown application that runs in the browser, he said Ajax is still the best choice. And his recommendation for that kind of development is Prototype and script.aculo.us.

"They've been on the path for the last three or four years," Monson-Haefel said. "They are losing ground to others, but nobody has dominated like they have. There's a much larger community and much larger resources around Prototype and script.aculo.us."

For more information
SOA needs RIA – Burton Group

RIA renaissance versus JSF dark ages?

For more serious RIA applications where a motorcycle company might invite users to configure the bike of their dreams, he recommends Adobe Flex. Microsoft Silverlight is still a work in progress in his view.

The best fit for his new employer is where the RIA is doing heavy lifting in processing and requires a high level of security that is not vulnerable to root kits and other damaging hacks. In the Curl approach, as Monson-Haefel explains, the runtime is downloaded onto the user's PC and then quarantined in a sandbox so spyware cannot reach out into the operating system.

With the runtime on the PC, the processing is faster, Monson-Haefel said. This all comes together in a Japanese bank using Curl RIA technology to allow customers to run analysis applications on their accounts, he said.

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