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Eclipse-based development tools go full circle

Posted: 01 Aug 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Marc Erickson? CMA? embedded? spotlight? open source?

With the launch of the eclipse platform in November 2001, one of the most effective projects in the history of the free software movement revolutionized the industry.

The component-based tools and rich client integration framework that the Eclipse platform embodies is reshaping the technology and business landscape into a new, exciting ecosystem. Participants in this ecosystem are struggling to balance its opportunities and risks. While it is difficult to resist the temptation to leverage free technology, such use is rarely without cost, unexpected overhead, schedule delays and missed commitments. There are many benefits, but negative consequences may outweigh these if the platform is not used judiciously.

Thus, it is critical that enterprise managers maintain a conscientious awareness of why, how and when developers use Eclipse products. Concerns that can arise when using Eclipse tools in a production enterprise context include the following:

  • Unexpected hidden costs;

  • Inefficiencies and delays when developers believe technical integration implies functional integration;

  • Key elements in newly developed systems lacking formal support;

  • Lack of investment leverage when unique development environments generate unpredictable costs;

  • The multiplication of complexities due to conceptual inconsistencies across tools;

  • Violations of company policies;

  • Missed deadlines due to flaws that emerge late in development.

Economic impact
With the exception of non-participants Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Corp., most tools, Web server, database and middleware providers have embraced the component-based functional extension mechanism introduced by Eclipse. The availability of universal, high-quality IDEs and extensions for the Java development language, C/C++ and other languages is giving rise to an unintended and largely unrecognized economic impact that can shift costs from vendors to their customers.

Eclipse distributions are becoming significant ingredients in high-quality commercial development tools suites. Faced with price and feature pressures, some software tool vendors differentiate offerings by incorporating and extending Eclipse distributions, continually investing higher in the tools ecosystem. Through a variety of Eclipse plug-in extension packages available at low or no cost, developers can now access an endlessly growing array of features and capabilities. As plug-ins stand upon the shoulders of others, the Eclipse iceberg is giving rise to a more complex workbench mosaic.

Integration issues
Often, Eclipse is already installed, manually integrated and productive on the desktop of more aggressively competitive team members. They are often the leaders and offer help to others, unfortunately at a high hourly burden rate. Even if costs are obscured through productivity gains, an undetermined percentage of a developer's time is occupied by this overhead. A very conservative estimate of individual developer overhead for maintaining this environment is half an hour daily.

The ease by which independently developed features can be installed lulls developers into a sense of security that technical integration implies functional integration. Problems may lead to inefficiencies and time-consuming delays.

Safety and caution are mandatory when an organization opens itself to the use of Eclipse tools, and support is one of the most critical issues.

Pandora's box
The "thrill of the hunt" can motivate developers to build unique development environments without regard for company policy or the resulting hidden productivity losses. Free software is provided without formal support, and support for key elements in these unique environments will be absent. Organizations can quickly find themselves in the business of building and supporting development environments at an unpredictable cost and without investment leverage. Before flinging this Pandora's box wide open, commercial enterprises should evaluate and explore solutions within the ecosystem that help reduce risks or select solutions with similar benefits and none of the risks.

Individual developers may be tempted to use a do-it-yourself approach. At a small scale, this can be effective because independent effort is high-cost overhead and very hard to estimate. At a large scale, a do-it-yourself approach can be disastrous, since each individual platform requires a separate means of diagnosing problems. Costs multiply as large organizations try to coordinate developer teams and blend self-support and support services available from vendors. The logistics of acquiring, distributing, installing, testing and updating a large number of extensions from different sources can be staggering. Yet the real problem becomes achieving conceptual consistency across tools, functionally testing the integration and reducing complexity.

Conceptual integrity
Recently, organizations like Yoxos and Exadel have offered pre-packaged and tested Eclipse distribution bundles. This improves acquisition and installation convenience, and provides a supported environment.

Functional integration issues are much more challenging than simple packaging and compatibility testing. Tools developed separately by isolated teams incorporate very different conceptual symbolism. Across tools supporting Web-based or J2EE application development, no clear standard for representing a server, project or associated preferences exists. This is a potentially confusing tactical flaw that affects usability, and it will eventually be resolved. Collaborative projects like the Eclipse Web Tools Platform Project are working to deliver a conceptually uniform core design and implementation.

Two current offerings provide a supported, conceptually consistent enterprise-class Eclipse-based Web Tools environment. They are the WebSphere Application Development suites from IBM and MyEclipse from Genuitec. IBM's offerings are fueled by deeply committed integration throughout its organization. For years, anyone wanting to deliver tools from IBM has been doing it with the Eclipse platform. BEA and Borland have committed to their own Eclipse-based solutions, but delivery timeframes are not clear.

Providing solutions to risks
Eclipse has fundamentally changed the marketplace and enabled new customer-focused business models. While the success of Eclipse has created unexpected risks along with new opportunities, the technology ecosystem is righting itself by providing solutions to those risks. The more informed enterprise managers are about the risks and solutions, the better they will be able to capitalize on opportunities the ecosystem presents.

- Marc Erickson
President, Communications and Media Arts

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