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Oracle updates free Application Express developer tool

The newest version of Oracle Application Express promises to make it easier for companies to build applications on top of Database 10g, and one communications software firm is banking on it.

Oracle says the newest version of its free Application Express software makes it easier for developers to build applications for Database 10g using nothing but a Web browser.

The newly released Oracle Application Express 2.2, which first debuted as HTML DB in 2004, promotes the reuse of Web applications by letting users bundle applications and dependent objects like tables, images and seed data into one file. The database giant says this makes for a plug-n-play scenario because those bundles can then be quickly installed into other Oracle databases running APEX.

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Other new features of APEX include an item finder that lets users search within applications, the ability to conduct component-level export, and an Access Control Wizard for controlling who gets access to applications.

"What we liked about it was that all you needed was a brain and a browser," said Larry Foster, vice president of technology with Fairpont, N.Y.-based Paetec, a software company that uses APEX to build its Pinnacle Communications Management Suite. "In the beginning, when it was HTML DB, you had to install it separately, but now it installs with Oracle 10g and up."

Foster said that early incarnations of APEX were too lightweight and of little use to Paetec, but as the technology matured, newly added features made the software worth a second look. Today, he says, Paetec's customers are pleased that most of Pinnacle's functionality resides within the database, making it easier to support and customize the suite.

APEX now supports standard software deployment requirements such as the ability to export not only applications but individual windows, Foster said. The vice president said he's also pleased that the software includes a development environment for SQL and that creating sophisticated forms is now an easier process.

"Some of this stuff was already inherent to client-server applications," Foster explained. "But then you had to buy a client developer's kit and you had to buy all this other stuff, where here, everything is on the database."

Foster said his firm considered developing in Java but decided to opt for APEX. With Java, Paetec would have needed to manage a separate application server, he said.

"You've got one backup command. Just using the standard Oracle backup procedure, you can back up literally everything in the application, including the interface and all the customizations," Foster said. "The customers can port it from platform to platform, and we think that's a very powerful feature as far as our customers being able to cut down the lifecycle costs of the application."

Oracle says it's had upward of 260,000 downloads of APEX since its first release, and the company estimates that there are about 20,000 regular users of the software. Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research has reported a twofold increase in developer adoption of the software over the past year.

Michael Hichwa, Oracle's vice president of software development, says that most of the people getting good use out of APEX have a solid comprehension of SQL, in that they generally know how to mine their databases for data using SQL statements.

"This tool is perfect for that because it really complements our installed base's confidence in the SQL language," Hichwa said. "You don't have to know JavaScript, you don't have to know HTTP or HTML or cascading style sheets -- all of those Web things that are just getting more complicated by the day."

Not all wine and roses

Despite Paetec's generally positive experience with APEX, there are some areas where Foster thinks the software could improve. Specifically, he'd like to see the system improve its graphics and get more robust dashboard capabilities.

Foster added that he would like to see the product scale better to meet the needs of large operations like Paetec, where as many as 30 engineers are working with the product at any given time.

"It wasn't designed for that," he said, "but [Oracle is] starting to see more environments like us using it now."

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