Monday, 8 June 2009

Q&A With Grant Ronald

(This is a reprint of an article published in the UKOUG's Select magazine early this year)

When talking about Oracle Forms and JDeveloper, one Oracle personality stands out among others - long time blogger Grant Ronald from Oracle Corporation UK. Grant has for a long time “pimped” Oracle Forms and its big brother JDeveloper at Oracle events and user groups events around the world. His popularity is shown by his blog receiving on average 2000 hits per day. Lately, to reassure Oracle customers that Oracle intends to keep on supporting Oracle Forms and show that Forms has a future inline with JDeveloper, Grant has been responsible for the Oracle’s Forms Modernization message.

Chris Muir from SAGE Computing Services Australia conducted the following Q&A session with Grant to get the low down and latest on Forms and JDeveloper, as well as a little about Grant himself.

CM: What role do you currently play at Oracle and what does your day job entail?

Grant Ronald
: Well, my title says “Group Product Manager” and the products I cover are Oracle Forms and Oracle JDeveloper. As a Product Manager you are responsible for the success of the products in your area. That encompasses everything from working with developers on features, the marketing department on campaigns or delivering presentations at events like Oracle World. In the morning you can be rolling your sleeves up and getting into code with a developer, and in the afternoon you can be meeting with the CTO. It’s that varied.

CM: How did you get into this Oracle gig anyhow? What’s your background at Oracle and computing in general?

Grant Ronald: Back in the early ’80s, home computing was slowly starting to take off with computers like the Sinclair Spectrum, Vic20 and BBC home computers, and it seemed like a new an innovative field to get involved in when I left school. So I got my degree in Computing Science then joined a small IT outfit in the UK that eventually got consumed by EDS. It was a pretty typical development role for about seven years, mainly focused on military applications, and my last job was designing, developing and leading the team for the development of the user interface for a military email system.

This took me up to 1996 when I fancied a change, and Oracle was looking for people with development experience on Unix and Motif in their support organization. So I joined Oracle Support where I eventually headed up the group who supported the local EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) teams in Forms, Reports and Discoverer. Given that I was working closely with the Oracle Product Management team in this role, I was eventually persuaded to make the jump into Oracle Development!

CM: Ok, now for some tough questions worthy of any Q&A: You’re currently known via your blog for discussions on Oracle development including Forms and SOA, and presentations in Oracle Developer Days around the world. Previously you were also known for you work on JDeveloper. Why the change? Has Oracle internally panicked about the impression (my emphasis) customers are getting that Oracle has killed Forms, and now the need for Forms advocates?

Grant Ronald: There has not really been a change. The thing is, we’ve never stopped talking about Forms. I’ve got the air miles and passport stamps to show that we were still presenting Forms at Oracle World, ODTUG (Oracle Development Tools User Group), UKOUG (UK Oracle User Group), DOAG (German Oracle User Group) and dozens of other events covering EMEA, APAC and the Americas.

The Forms OTN page is still a hive of activity: news, events, whitepapers and how-to’s. Maybe people thought we had stopped talking about Forms because we were also talking about other technologies as well. Ten years ago if you developed on an Oracle database then you pretty much used Forms, simple as that. But the world has changed and there are other things to talk about now. Which makes sense, if you think about it; there is more need and more demand to be talking about the “new” stuff, especially when it is evolving at such a rate.

CM: On discussing Forms and considering that some Oracle customers are confused on the future of Forms, can you outline Oracle’s commitment to Forms in terms of existing versions and Oracle Support?

Grant Ronald: I think the strongest statement we have is the fact that we published a statement of direction five years ago and that statement remains true today. We’ve always said that we are committed to Forms and that there have been no plans to desupport it. That line has never changed. Regarding support, we’ve recently just extended the support date for 10.1.2 (the latest release of Oracle Forms) and Forms 11g is in development, having already had positive reviews from our beta testers. So we are lengthening the support dates, we are working on the next release and we are also discussing enhancements and features for post 11g. I think that’s all good news.

CM: Could the problem with Oracle Forms just be an image problem? It’s never been known for sexy development (a’la grey screens of boredom), and especially now that the web world, web rich clients, AJAX etc have taken off.

Grant Ronald: The sweet spot for Oracle Forms has always been the ability to rapidly develop rich, transactional business applications. So you see Oracle Forms applications in your government offices, airlines and bank back-offices etc. The need for visual “bells and whistles” is less at the fore than, for example, an online shopping application where a user makes a snap decision, often based on visual aesthetics, as to whether they will use the site.

But there is nothing to stop you pushing the boundaries of the visual aspects of Oracle Forms. We have customers who are using some of the features of Oracle Forms, like PJCs and Java beans, to really push the boundaries of the Forms UI. Like this story. So there is nothing to stop you modernizing your Forms application, starting with an update of the user interface.

CM: So what plans do Oracle have in addressing Forms customers?

Grant Ronald: We are continuing to present at all the major events and user groups. In addition, we’ve launched a focus page. This includes recorded webcasts on Forms strategy, calling web services from Forms and Forms new features. There are also white papers and customer stories as well. This is also being backed up by a roadshow which to date has hit nearly 20 countries.

For those Forms customers who are taking a step into the Java world, we have a dedicated site on OTN as well as dedicated developers guides, books and Oracle University courses.

CM: Consider an Oracle shop with a large legacy Oracle Forms application that is running well but in a desupported version of Forms. Should they have any intentions of upgrading their Forms installs and what are the risks if they don’t?

Grant Ronald: Our roadmap for Forms customers is “upgrade and integrate”. So the first point to consider is upgrade. There are, of course, benefits of upgrading but you also have to consider the risk of not upgrading: running your business applications on desupported software that is neither security nor bug patched, or being certified on newer OS or database versions. Are you managing the risk that some piece of this stack may change and destabilise your applications (e.g. a forced O/S upgrade), or are you just hoping that this software tower will hold up with no means of support. It’s your call.

Which takes us to the next point: integration. By web deploying your Forms on the application server, you are positioning yourself on a platform on which you can integrate both your legacy applications, and new services and applications.

By following the “upgrade and integrate” roadmap, you can limit the risk to your business applications while still positioning yourself for your long-term strategic goals.

CM: Consider an Oracle shop with a large amount of SQL and PL/SQL programmers who are cognisant in Forms. Which Oracle development technology should they pick for maintenance and extension of the existing system: Forms, Apex or JDeveloper/ADF?

Grant Ronald: The simplest answer is really to pick the technology/tool that suits you best. If you are extending your existing Forms application it may be that you build new business logic in the database that could be shared between Forms, Java and Apex applications. Or you might decide that you really want to exploit the power of Java and so JDeveloper and ADF would be a natural choice. Many customers are closely aligned with Oracle’s business applications and so the Oracle Fusion technology stack may drive the choice of development tool. I try to discourage customers to think in binary terms when choosing tools. The reality is that you will probably have a mix.

CM: You mention that JDeveloper and ADF would be the natural choice for an Oracle developer. Why?

Grant Ronald: As I mentioned earlier, I look after Oracle Forms and Oracle JDeveloper. One reason for this split in roles is to bring my 4GL Forms experiences into JDeveloper and Oracle ADF. When I first joined the JDeveloper team I was amazed how developers were willing to write lines of code for common actions that I set with the click of a checkbox in Forms. Part of my job is to ensure that the kind of rich features a Forms developer takes for granted are implemented in JDeveloper and Oracle ADF.

JDeveloper and Oracle ADF is also a natural choice because it’s the route our own Applications Division is taking. Our next generation Fusion applications are being built using JDeveloper and ADF. So, as the technology choice for Oracle’s own Fusion Applications, the technology is built with the Forms/Database and PL/SQL developers in mind. No other tool or framework can make this claim.

CM: What skills do you see a Forms developer needing in moving to ADF, and what approach do you suggest to a development team in minimising this learning curve?

Grant Ronald: There is a learning curve in moving to any new technology but with JDeveloper and ADF we are really smoothing out that learning curve and lowering the barrier at which you can start to become productive.

Of course, the bottom line is that you will need some Java knowledge, but how much depends on how far you want to get below the covers and customize the behaviour of the framework.

With an overview of ADF and some basic Java language skills, you can go a long way: building business services, validation, page flow, rich UI interaction, LOVs, graphs – stuff that you couldn’t even consider if you weren’t using ADF.

But if you have made a strategic choice to develop on the Java platform, I’d expect you to still have some members of your team who have a more advanced knowledge of the platform so they can make architectural decisions and set up best practices. We are also working on giving you the learning aids to get up to speed. We have developed a number of Oracle University courses specifically targeted at the Forms audience moving to Java. There are a number of books already published and more in the pipeline that are aimed at opening up the platform. And of course, we have a dedicated focus page on OTN and the essential ADF developer guides for 4GL developers.

CM: Recently you’ve been focusing on SOA technology integration with Forms. Why advantages do you see this combination providing? What challenges do Forms programmers face with integration?

Grant Ronald: The benefits of a service based approach are already well documented: loosely coupled, reusable implementations of business processes gives a more flexible, agile architecture that is better aligned to the business.

Much of the work we are doing with Oracle Forms now is to allow your existing Forms application to hook into the SOA world. The ability to call out to web services and for those services to call back asynchronously is one example.

CM: Grabbing your crystal ball, given your long-term experience in development, where do you see Oracle development in 10 years time?

Grant Ronald: I think the clearest view of the future can be seen in Oracle’s own business applications. Oracle’s Applications Division have upgraded to the most recent version of Forms, while looking to exploit the benefits of a services oriented architecture and a standards based platform. Using JDeveloper and Oracle ADF, they are taking developers from a background including Forms, PL/SQL and Peopletools, and making them productive on the Java platform.

I think this gives the clearest indication of where Oracle development is heading and I think there is a great comfort in knowing that the technology choices you are making are the ones Oracle is betting its business applications on as well.

CM: Finally, moving out of the Oracle arena, what keeps you kicking out of work? I know you play in a band.

Grant Ronald: I play a bit of keys in a band, and that mixed with a few weekends out biking helps balance out all the fun I have at Oracle!

No comments: