Alternatives for Dynamic Web Development Projects

Dennis provides a starting point for developers seeking solutions for their web application development requirements.
Choosing a Scripting Language

As with database software there are many scripting languages available for the Linux platform. Several are appropriate for use as a server-side scripting language in a dynamic web application. The purpose of the server-side scripting language is to tie together the user interface presented to the user, which here will be written in HTML and accessed via a web browser, and the back end of the application or server system and database used by the application.

ColdFusion

One commercial product considered as an option was ColdFusion from Allaire (www.allaire.com). The Allaire product is widely used, and the server portion of the environment is available and fully supported for Linux platforms as well as on Windows NT. Allaire also offers a very nice development environment as part of this package called ColdFusion Studio that requires either the Windows 9x or NT platform to run. Both components are available via download for a period of evaluation or purchase from the Allaire web site.

The components of the ColdFusion package were built to support the ColdFusion Markup Language (CFML). CFML has a syntax that is similar to HTML in that there are opening and closing tags that provide functionality beyond normal HTML. These specialized tags intermingle or are embedded in the HTML application or page. The ColdFusion server works with the web server to intercept these special tags to allow for interaction with the database and server providing the back end of the application.

The impressions that I carry of this product and environment are very positive. It seems to be a very capable platform that is easy to set up and use. There also appears to be a large group of web-site developers using this program. I believe that casual interactions with colleagues are often very helpful when becoming familiar with a new language or software product. The similarities of the CFML to HTML would also make it easy for a novice to be up and running quickly. Additionally, ColdFusion works with Apache, another check in its plus column.

Drawbacks are, however, that the system requirement for the Linux version of the ColdFusion server, 512MB of RAM, is beyond the capabilities of the system that I have available for this application. The July 17, 2000 price list posted on the Allaire site reports a price tag of $1295 US for the ColdFusion Server 4.5 Professional for Linux. The Windows-based development environment will run another $495.00. If the budget for your application can absorb the licensing cost of ColdFusion, it deserves consideration.

Perl

In the Linux community Perl carries about as much respect as any programming language deserves to expect. It seems that beyond its use as a web-scripting language there is little that Perl cannot handle. Written by Larry Wall, open-source Perl was first released in 1987. Perl's latest version released this past March is version 5.6 and is available from http://www.perl.org/.

Perl is a very mature and viable alternative as a web-scripting language. There is a large developer community and a great deal of support available. It can be tightly integrated with the Apache web server and is available with most, if not all, Linux distributions. However, what I was hoping to find was a simpler solution for attaching my web pages to a database back end. Just because Perl is the most obvious solution didn't necessarily mean that is was the right solution. The simplicity criteria weighed heavily in my decision to examine ColdFusion and partially ruled out Perl in this case. I wanted to get my application up and running quickly with as small a learning curve as possible.

PHP

PHP (http://www.php.net/) is an open-source, HTML-embedded scripting language. Unlike Perl, which was born as a tool to assist in system administration, PHP was designed from the ground up to work with web pages. It seems to borrow from many programming languages that have preceded PHP, including Perl and C. The PHP FAQ discusses the differences between PHP and Perl:

The biggest advantage of PHP over Perl is that PHP was designed for scripting for the Web, where Perl was designed to do a lot more, and because of this, can get very complicated. The flexibility/complexity of Perl makes it easier to write code that another author/coder has a hard time reading. PHP has a less confusing and stricter format without losing flexibility. PHP is easier to integrate into existing HTML than Perl. PHP has pretty much all the “good” functionality of Perl: constructs, syntax and so on, without making it as complicated as Perl can be. Perl is a very tried and true language; it has been around since the late eighties. But PHP is maturing very quickly (www.php.net/FAQ.php#9.4).

From this discussion it would seem that PHP would be a good fit for the application I was building. There has also been some discussion as to how PHP compares with ColdFusion. The PHP FAQ gives a good summary but also points to a comparison of the two packages laid out by Mike Sheldon. Mike's comparison (http://marc.theaimsgroup.com/) appears even handed. He points out some strengths and functionality of ColdFusion that I had not considered. One of the most interesting is an abstraction layer to database interaction. In ColdFusion, the developer uses the ColdFusion administrator to set up a data source. Whether the source is Oracle or an ODBC connection is inconsequential with regards to the CMFL tag used to interact with the source. In PHP, each database that we may want to use has a set of functions that are specific to the chosen database. Mike also points out that ColdFusion is bundled with a search engine called Verity. PHP has no bundled search engine and does not have an integrated development environment.

Two areas I was surprised to hear that PHP had weaknesses in were that of error handling and the ability to handle dates. Because of the simple nature of this application, I don't see either of these weaknesses becoming a problem. I only intend to use one database, and there is a function set for each database under consideration for this application. I don't see the data abstraction offered by ColdFusion as being a bonus. In the final analysis, I selected four primary components for this application: GNU/Linux operating system, PostgreSQL RDBMS, PHP server-side web-scripting language facilities and the Apache web server.

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