Archive for March, 2007

The more I use Ruby on Rails, the more I become convinced that it is damn near the perfect framework for state government Web-based applications. Ruby on Rails in State GovernmentThat said, I don’t know of a single state, local, or municipal government that is experimenting with Rails in any meaningful fashion. I have a bunch of stored Google queries that have yielded woefully little information about the penetration of Rails into state government over the past year or so. I fear that is because there really has been little or no penetration.

When I think through the merits of Ruby on Rails and apply the pragmatic brush of my experience with state governments, I’m torn as to whether I believe Rails will ever gain a foothold in this arena. To articulate my ideas, I’ve enumerated, on one hand, my top three compelling arguments why Rails should be overwhelmingly successful in state government. On the other hand, I’ve listed the top 3 reasons why Rails doesn’t really stand a fighting chance. I’ve omitted what some would consider the “classic” selling points of RoR: ActiveRecord, Scaffolding, etc. By all means, I encourage you to look into these if you’re new to Rails. It’s just that they aren’t particular to adoption in state government. In the spirit of remaining optimistic, I’ll list the top 3 reasons Rails has a chance first.

Top 3 Reasons Rails Could Find a Home in State Government

  1. Convention Over Configuration – With this mantra, the Rails community initiated a full-frontal attack against the J2EE crowd (pre-EJB3, have you), where XML configuration files had become the tail wagging the dog. Ruby on Rails, on the other hand, makes all sorts of assumptions about what how things will work and requires developer intervention as the exception rather than the norm. In an environment where developers really do work an 8 hour day (or less), focus on delivering functionality and not on tweaking and re-tweaking the application architecture means significantly greater productivity.
  2. Painless Objects – For many developers, especially those transferring from procedural languages like COBOL or Visual Basic, objects do not come naturally. I’ve seen many state government developers spend years trying to catch onto the concept and still not get it. In Rails, objects just work out of the box, knowing how to deal with the database, providing easy validation hooks and manageable relationships. As a bonus, Ruby tends to be less intimidating to look at for COBOL or classic VB developers than do the C family of languages (C# and Java, in our case).
  3. Embodiment of Best Practices – From unit tests and separation of concerns to database migrations and standard environment definitions, everything is built into Rails. These things can certainly all be done in the Java and .NET worlds, the practices and tools just seem so much more external to the way of doing things and have not been universally integrated into the standard way of doing things in these languages. As an example, how many C# texts talk about unit testing? How many RoR texts don’t talk about unit testing?

Top 3 Reasons Rails Will Fail To Find a Home in State Government

  1. No Salesforce – Surprised that I didn’t mention cost in the reasons contributing to Ruby on Rails success in state government? That’s because it isn’t. The fact that the entire RoR stack is free means less “conventional” ways to make money on the software side of things. You won’t find IBM, BEA, or Microsoft pitching Ruby on Rails solutions to state governments. Furthermore, the large system integration vendors won’t be pitching it either. Without the software vendors and the SI’s, it’s really hard to get in the door at state governments.
  2. Knocked as Not Enterprise-Worthy– Ruby and Rails have been knocked since their inception as great for hobbyist but not enterprise worthy. This is a knock that open source software gets in general and when it’s a scripting language to boot, you might as well be buying your technology from Toys-R-Us. For the real story on this, I suggest that you take a look at Dare Obasanjo’s classic blog post My Website is Bigger Than Your Enterprise. Dare’s points are very good, and although they’re not 100% accurate, you gotta think, “if this works for Google and Yahoo, why can’t it work for me?”
  3. No Formalized Training Program – This may sound even more ludicrous than my first two points. What’s the right way of saying this… “it’s true.” Believe me, it’s a known fact that until there is formal training available for a technology and the big vendors are pitching it, it’s not enterprise worthy. Right?

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For those Rails developers using RadRails as your IDE, you might have noticed that, in the last several days, the RadRails site has slipped off of the face of the earth. Due to a very unfortunate run-in with their registrar and DNS provider, the nice folks at RadRails are apparently stuck in DNS purgatory. This little mishap coincided with the announcement of the Aptana IDE / RadRails merger. Due to the site outage, many folks missed out on the announcement all together… so I’ll repeat Aptana and RadRails are merging. The location of the RadRails download on SourceForge has not changed.

RadRails Now Under Aptana

Aptana has posted a brief roadmap for the new combined product. This should be exciting new for folks using RadRails. It was apparent that RadRails grew far beyond the initial expectations of its creators and, as Ruby on Rails skyrocketed in popularity, support was going to be an issue. The creators of RadRails did a great job of maintaining and expanding the IDE for a long time. They then made the greatest of sacrifices and, instead of letting their product die on the vine, they merged it with a likeminded product for the greater good of their RadRails users. It would be great if all open source project owners functioned in this fashion. 1 or 2 great products is much better than 9 or 10 mediocre products.

If you haven’t tried out Aptana, I encourage you to give it a look. It’s a great Eclipse-based JavaScript IDE. With planned support for RHTML integration and hopefully more extensive code assist capabilities to come, there is much promise in this merger. Not that it is required, by any means, but a high quality IDE will only serve to further Ruby on Rails case and attract more and more developers from the Java and .NET camps to at least give RoR a look.

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I’ve spent the better part of the last 6 years dealing with state government systems that manage information about citizens receiving government services. As creative as state government can be in some areas, presenting new and interesting visual metaphors for the management of citizen and case (i.e. collections of citizens) information is certainly not a forte. This problem is not solely the fault of state governments. Rather, it’s the product of state government business leaders’ lack of knowledge of the available options, educational obligation complacency on part of government’s IT partners, and the real or perceived difficulty of being visually creative in an environment where accessibility compliance is not an option.

There are ways around the accessibility compliance constraints; up to and including parallel functionality with both accessibility compliant and non-accessibility compliant versions. Education, however, is not always as easy to come by. With the technology supporting rich Internet applications, we can do so much more than could be done with an old 3270 mainframe terminal. Yet, across a broad swathe of in-house, outsourced, and packaged case management solutions, you’ll rarely find anything beyond some minimalistic styling and obligatory “smiling citizen” pictures that could not have been done 20 years ago. There are many new metaphors that we could use to make the data presented by case management applications more meaningful to workers. I present three of the more radical concepts below:

  1. Geospatial – Use a geographic metaphor to allow the discovery of relationships between individuals, cases, caseloads, or entire programs. With the advent of map mashups, this has surely become one of the more popular new visuals for creatively displaying data on the Web. For publicly accessible examples of what is possible, check out Chicago Crime and Citystat. These two examples represent visualizations of publicly available data in Chicago and Wasington D.C. , respectively. Also, these were built on top of relatively garden variety two dimensional maps. More recently, things are moving more in the direction of quasi 3 dimensional (a.k.a. “Bird’s Eye Views”) and fully navigable three dimensional models. If you haven’t seen Microsoft’s maps at all (or as of late), I strongly encourage you to give them a look. Right from your browser you get fully scrollable 2 dimensional maps and bird’s eye views of many major and non-major (check out the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg , as an example) US cities. As a bonus, if you’re using Internet Explorer, you can get fully virtual reality tours of several major cities. Firefox users, don’t despair, support is supposedly being added soon for Firefox too.
  2. Case Management Metaphors - Geospatial

  3. Temporal – Use a timeline metaphor to show a longitudinal time scale relationship between various events. These events could be various transactions within a case or across multiple cases. Simile Timelines are an exciting new way to model such relationships. Check out the example timeline for the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Notice especially how the top and bottom timelines interact together as you drag them independently. For bonus credit, check out how the scale of time changes in the most critical moments surrounding Kennedy’s assassination from months to days to hours to 15 minute intervals. Timline, much like the maps that support the geographic metaphor, has a fully API against which one can program. This leaves the possibilities for state government based uses of the timeline metaphor wide open.
  4. Case Management Metaphors - Temporal

  5. Network Graphs – Using the network metaphor enables the discovery of complex relationships between people and other entities. With a deep network of relationships in most case management systems, this is potentially one of the most useful new metaphors. Given the graphic and data intensive nature of displaying these relationships, it’s also one of the most difficult ones to implement technically. There are some great examples of this being done on the open Internet though, most of them using Flash. Check out Tracking the Threat’s terrorist network navigator. Imagine using the same thing to expand the network relationships in a case management system. Moritz Stephaner’s Relation Browser is also a great example of what can be done in this space. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of standard tools to build these types of models. The one tool that I know of (Prefuse) uses Java and Java Applets instead of Flash. Hopefully, we’ll see some key players recognize the opportunity and create standard tools to support this metaphor in the near future.
  6. Case Management Metaphors - Network Graph

These really are the more radical of the changes that I can think of. There are, of course, more rudimentary changes that can be made that could have just as profound of an impact. The use of pictures with personal profiles or the ability to perform full text searches on the system’s case notes (the unstructured data lifeblood of many systems) immediately come to mind. As much of a challenge as it seems to implement these suggestions for existing case management systems, the far greater challenge lies in adjusting users’ approach to leveraging these new features. A genuine knowledge worker approach is required to get the most out of these features. This is a proposition bound to be a very exciting opportunity for some and a very scary change for others.

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One of the most common misunderstandings or missteps in following a particular software process is to follow that process in a blind, one-size-fits all fashion. This is especially true if you are mandated organizationally to use a particular software process. Just as the founding fathers could not have foreseen the challenges of the modern world when authoring the Constitution, there is no way that the creators of a generic software process could understand the nuances of every particular project where their process would be used.

Processes need to be malleable so that they don’t incite the “baby with the bathwater” response in which the entire process is tossed aside because it proves too inflexible. Good processes can and should be customized. There are several methods that can be used to achieve this end. One of my favorite articles on this topic is an oldie from Per Kroll (“Dr. Process”), entitled How Can We Customize the RUP? In this article, Per lays out 3 basic methods that can be used to customize the RUP:

  1. Make comprehensive changes to the RUP with the Process Workbench (Heavy)
  2. Produce a custom RUP configuration using RUP builder (Lighter)
  3. Create your own development case and place it in the project-specific Web site. (BINGO)

First reading this article caused me to re-examine the development case, an often overlooked project artifact. I fell in love with the idea of the development case but the RUP and online examples I could find at the time didn’t live up to my expectations. Between online examples, my ideas, and a great section on the development case in the book Software Development for Small Teams: A RUP-Centric Approach, I pulled together a template that I’ve carried with me, more or less unchanged, until this very day. I’ve included a copy of this template for you to download. The version that is included in Pennsylvania’s BSCoE Software Engineering Process (SEP) is very similar in many ways. You can find that version in the center ring of the online SEP.

Software Process Customization and the Development Case

The beauty of the development case is that: (1) it’s very lightweight, just a Word file; (2) it works equally well with a commercial process tool or with no process tool; (3) facilitating a meeting to walk through a development case forces people to communicate about what will and won’t work for them and to make decisions that often have very beneficial impacts for their projects. The best part of the development case is that it works very much like object-oriented inheritance. Customizations from higher levels in an organization can trickle down to lower layers of an organization with customizations and/or additions being provided at every layer where this is required to add value.

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I finally got around to adding videos to the site that I’ve been accumulating over the last couple of years. I’ve blogged about investigating Flash video a number of times before. After putting a number of videos on YouTube and being disappointed with the quality of the end product after their compression and resizing process was completed, I decided to go it on my own.

The decision to make this move provided the necessary impetus to do the final research and prototyping necessary to make this a reality. From my experience, I’ve come up with the three things that you’ll need to host Flash Videos, aside from the source video itself, of course.

  • A server with plenty of bandwidth and the capability to stream media. Even though the Flash compression process yields fabulous results as compared to a raw video stream, these files are by no means small. I am seeing sizes of 6 – 12 MB per minute of Flash video depending upon the quality of the underlying source and some tweaking of the video encoder settings (like bitrate). Depending upon how much traffic your videos get, this could suck up quite a bit of bandwidth. With respect to streaming media, I suggest that you select a host that explicitly allows this or who gives you control over your server so that you can take care of this yourself. Beware that if you’re hosting on the Windows platform with Windows Server 2003, this server will not stream Flash videos out of the box. You’ll need to explicitly set the MIME type for the Flash videos.
  • A solid Flash video encoder. With the explosion of Flash media at sites such as YouTube, Google Video, and MySpace, the number of tools available to do consumer Flash video conversion are on the rise. These tools range from rank amateur stuff to automated server-side tools like those used by the big boys. In the consumer space, you’re paying for three things: ease of use; the video encoder (codec); and the flash player. The most important of these things to me (but I’m sure not to everyone) is the actual codec.

The codec is like the engine in your car. That is, you can buy those flashy spinner wheels and fat (phat, maybe?) muffler but without a good engine, you’re going nowhere fast. That said, there is quite a war going on in the codec camp based upon proprietary versus non-proprietary formats (VP6 versus H.264).

Hosting Flash Video - On2

From a consumer’s point of view, you either buy On2’s technology or somebody else’s since most everyone else supports H.264. Many of the counterarguments to On2’s codec revolve around the portability, openness and near universal adoption of H.264. From my tests, the VP6 (On2) encoded videos looked better and compressed to smaller file sizes. The encoding process, however, is a bear and will peg the most capable of CPUs at near 100% utilization during encoding. The real proof for me was in the marketplace. With many major media and technology companies (including Adobe, themselves) using On2’s codec, I’ve assumed (rightly or wrongly so) that people much more knowledgeable than I in this area have done their homework and are convinced that On2 offers something that H.264 products do not. What seals the deal is that On2’s standard bare-bones encoder package costs only $39. Granted, it’s not as slick or user-friendly as some of the others that I tested but it has the most horsepower under the hood.

  • A configurable (ideally scriptable) Flash video player. The player is the part that actually drives the Flash video and allows the user to interact with the output, moving the video forwards and backwards, setting volume, etc. Many of the video encoder packages include a selection of players out of the box; so you may not be required to pick up one separately. If your codec doesn’t come with a player or you’re not satisfied with your player’s capabilities, I strongly recommend that you take a look at Jeroen Wijering’s Flash player.

Flash Video - JW Flash Player

As you can probably see from the screenshot of the Flash control, Wijering’s Flash player is, well… not that flashy. What it lacks in glitz, it more than makes up for in power and flexibility. The player is very easy to use in its default configuration, playing either single Flash videos or running though multiple videos specified in an XML playlist. Furthermore, you can perform runtime manipulation of the Flash video by passing a set of parameters known as flashvars. This very handy feature alone makes this player standout head and shoulders above the rest. Finally, there seems to be a decent community support around this open source player with plugins built for popular tools like WordPress, Drupal, and Coppermine. This extra article by Jeroen provides some good guidance on embedding Flash. For specifics, it’s best to download the tool and play with the samples.

Hosting Flash video is really not hard once you have these three things figured out. Although I didn’t mention source video, it really is key in the equation. Videos that I shot on older still cameras needed to be scaled up in size and are a bit pixilated. Videos that I shot on my newer Canon A630 look much better, but they are not in stereo and show signs of pixilation even if I use optical zoom. From this whole conversion effort, my most important takeaway is that I’m going back to my Sony Hanycam Digital for shooting video. It yields the best video and sound quality. The only downside is the digital tape to digital file conversion process.

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