Monday 30 November 2009

Review - Oracle Application Express Forms Converter

Recently in the blogosphere - not just Oracle related blogs – I’ve noticed an increasing number of book reviews. Normally I’ve found these reviews are by authorities as part of the regular marketing campaign. As with other industries, new forms of marketing evolve – in this case one that facilitates professionals in the field an opportunity to provide critique on new texts.

I was recently provided the opportunity to review a book discussing how to use Oracle’s tool to convert Forms applications to Application Express: Oracle Application Express Forms Converter by Douwe Pieter van den Bos. This book, published by Packt Publishing, is the first of its kind on this subject matter, and you may have seen the cover if you regularly visit Oracle based blogs – particular specialising in Apex. This opportunity is in part due to the fact I’m presenting on this very topic at this year’s AUSOUG conference series.

It’s a tough topic. Oracle Forms has a large presence throughout the world, but it’s ageing. Support is consistently being extended, however this support is predominantly there to keep it stable. Oracle is suggesting to customers to move towards new environments such as ADF and Application Express.

Converters between technologies have been around for a long time, and Oracle offers an Oracle Forms to Application Express conversion tool. There are many facets to a conversion between technologies, and the industry is typically aware that a tool will rarely be a silver bullet. There are such fundamental differences between technologies and human interaction and guidance is always required.

Accompanying documentation with the tool is regrettably lacking. While it describes the conversion process using the product, it doesn’t go into detail about what else needs to be done - so the situation is ripe for a book offering.

When reading books, fictional, non-fictional – and the subset of that being technical manuals, I always seem to be lucky in selecting the good ones. I rarely find myself reading a bad book, which is lucky since like movies, I don’t want to stop regardless of how bad it is – curiosity killed that cat.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to give this book a less than enthusiastic review. To the author’s credit, it’s partially due to what I feel is not only a disappointing tool, but a difficult concept to actualise as software.

The book starts very well, dictating exactly what the book offers and provides no disillusion to the reader about what the conversion itself offers. David Peake’s foreword offers insight into how the tool came to be, and the author’s preface re-iterates how much work will be required to convert the application between the two disparate technologies.

Each chapter is just like the copybook for presenters. Say what you're going to say, say it, say what you've said. I like this, personally it reconfirms what you've learnt, and it makes it a little easier to find things in future. It reads very much like a blog or OTN article, which works well for me. I remember some texts from University being very dry as it just stated facts, where if the book almost forms a conversation between the author and reader, it makes concepts easier to learn and your attention is kept.

The book stated in the preface "because this book is written for developers and analysts who know both Forms and Apex." I think this is the perfect target audience as for this subject best value would be obtained by directing attention to developers who have a decent understanding of both products. Suggest to readers whose knowledge of Application Express is low to read an Application Express specific book such as Pro Oracle Application Express by John Scott and Scott Spendolini (so many Scotts!). As a reader of this book I really want to know the ins and outs of conversion – not just the tool itself but all considerations that need to be made since the tool will only handle a small percentage of the conversion.

For this topic I feel a fair and safe assumption would be, for example, a decent understanding of how to create an LOV in Apex. The author, however, spent time discussing some of these Application Express basics which detracted from the main topic of conversion. During my presentation I stated the assumption that the audience knew how to enhance Apex – this allowed me to concentrate on the issues that would be faced during the conversion and what components needed to be targeted.

On a positive note, it does make a presumption you've got decent knowledge about the sample application they're converting, which is fine if again you consider that you want to understand the process – not a description of the sample application which is really just a catalyst. There is always a concern that the sample application is tweaked and diluted to show the strengths of the tool. In a basic sample application I created during my experimentation, I found many more issues that needed to be considered.

After a strong start where we heard how difficult a conversion process can be, I felt the chapters were finishing too quickly. For instance Chapter 5 talked about “Getting your Logic Right” - where you can edit the queries used. I found this to be the buggiest part of the process and no mention of these problems were made.

At 10 pages, Chapter 6 on the actual conversion was thin. The author talked about how we can “edit the most important parts of the application”, yet he just seemed to describe aesthetics – even then to surface level detail. I found this process to be the source of the most frustrating elements of the conversion - item types weren’t carried across; ordering of items was indeterminate; and usage of UI defaults were necessary but not mentioned in the book. For a large application, the list of pages to be generated would create more confusion for the developer than to have just created all pages from scratch. My sample application caused generation errors, but why didn’t the author didn’t cover this possibility?

Chapter 7 is when we see the author question our knowledge of Apex, presuming we don’t know its standard features. The LOV example I found demonstrated the author deviated from the topic of conversion to that of educating about Apex, which is a shame because it was a good time to highlight the fact we were missing components from the conversion; describe how to properly address it; how long it may take to do so; and how we could use annotations to continue effective management of the conversion – probably the most useful feature of the conversion tool.

I think sometimes the author gets a little off topic, even though he promised not to earlier on when stating targeted audience. For example in his final chapter he talks about security and pulling multiple applications together, too far removed from the conversion process for my liking.

Documentation on Application Express is already pretty thin, especially when comparing against the comprehensive documentation found for the database. Don’t expect this to be the manual for converting your Oracle Forms applications to Application Express - it’s a wonderful starting point to understanding how to use the tool, but not great at mitigating likely issues of your conversion.

In the interest of fairness, other reviews of this book can be found on the following blogs:
Marc Sewtz
Roel Hartman
David Peake

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