As an application server solution, ColdFusion is already proven. It's a highly viable way to get data-driven applications developed and deployed in Web environments. Now, Allaire's beta version of ColdFusion 4.0 leaps ahead with a bevy of new enterprise-grade features that should prove quite useful for distributed Web development and deployment.
I couldn't fully judge some aspects of the beta version of ColdFusion 4.0 that I inspected. Several of the features, such as server fail-over, are not yet completely implemented. Furthermore, I did find a number of bugs that need to be addressed prior to shipment.
There are two major components to ColdFusion 4.0 - the application server and the development environment (called ColdFusion Studio). Both ColdFusion components compare favourably to other application server solutions.
The ColdFusion application server component sports an embedded version of BrightTiger's ClusterCATS software, which enables multiple servers to act as a single deployment environment. The capability to cluster multiple application servers - with support for load balancing and fail-over planned for the shipping version - places ColdFusion in a league with rivals such as Netscape and Oracle.
I was able to set up a test cluster that contained six nodes, although I found some glitches along the way. I was not able to test the fail-over capabilities, but the clusters are expected to support server-level fail-over as well as load balancing.
This support will be included in the Sun Solaris version when ColdFusion 4.0 ships; the Windows NT version of ColdFusion will add this support later. The addition of fail-over support at the session level would increase ColdFusion's value relative to competing offerings.
As the middle tier of an N-tier computing architecture, ColdFusion's application server contains a good measure of manageability. Its browser-based administration tools are easy to use. In particular, I liked being able to set up and verify database connections within the interface. This support is on par with rivals such as SilverStream.
Support for data connectivity has also been expanded in this version with the addition of native drivers for Sybase and Oracle, as well as the capability to use Microsoft's OLE DB interface to access a variety of data stores, both relational and non-relational.
Like Oracle's and Netscape's application servers, this version includes support for CORBA objects on the middle tier. And Allaire has jumped ahead a bit with the addition of support for XML.
However, other application servers, such as the forthcoming versions of Lotus Domino and SilverStream, are expected to offer integrated access to enterprise systems, transactions, and applications. These include the likes of SAP R3, CICS, Domino applications, and AS/400 resources. ColdFusion 4.0 doesn't directly support these enterprise data stores, although they can be integrated into ColdFusion applications with some additional programming effort.
ColdFusion sites that use NT will also appreciate server-side support for domain security, the ColdFusion server's inclusion in the operating system performance monitor, and improved thread management.
Developers will find ColdFusion Studio a joy to use. There are new and expanded development options in this release that meet or even exceed other application server development tools.
Notable in this version is the support for version control, remote development, and project management tools. These enhancements put ColdFusion on par with other offerings, such as those of Netscape, SilverStream, and Oracle. These features worked just fine during my tests.
I especially liked the new support for interactive remote debugging found in this version. The integrated debugging tools enabled me to locate problems in my source code by setting breakpoints and evaluating variables as I stepped through my test applications. ColdFusion's debugging support matches that of rival offerings, and developers will find it most useful.
Other useful additions include the capability to edit in preview mode, spell checking, code validation, and site visualisation tools. The development interface is very easy to navigate with its tabbed windows for manoeuvring between files, data, help, and the like.
I found a second set of tabs useful during development. These tabs let me quickly flip from the source code to a design pane and then over to a browsing window.
Screen real estate is further preserved with a dockable palette and toolbars. I also liked the fact that I could save code snippets off to the side for later reuse or to share with another developer.
The ColdFusion Markup Language (CFML) continues to nicely augment the HTML and scripting components of ColdFusion Studio with greater power. Several new CFML tags can be found in this version, such as CFScript, which offers CFML usage inside of scripts.
While I did see a number of beta bugs, such as looping conditions when adding new application components and garbage on the screen after using built-in wizards, my overall impression of Studio's new features was quite positive.
If Allaire delivers the expected features for the Studio development tool as well as those promised for the application server component, ColdFusion will be a strong force with which to reckon. This promises to be a must-have upgrade for existing ColdFusion customers and a worthwhile option for organisations that need a solid Web application serving platform.
The Bottom Line
ColdFusion Studio 4.0, Enterprise Edition, Release Candidate 2The updated version of this Web application server software features new additions that address scalability, security, and support for distributed development teams. Although the beta version is still a tad rocky and not yet feature-complete, if the shipping version is delivered as expected, this release of ColdFusion will be well worth considering.
Pros: Management tools to simplify the move to distributed, application-clustering environments; support for security standards; well-thought-out development environment; good remote debugging capabilities; team development tools; source code validation.
Cons: Beta bugs; several features not yet fully implemented; fail-over support presently limited to server level only; lack of integrated support for enterprise resource planning and transaction systems.
Platforms: Enterprise Edition: Windows NT and Sun Solaris; Professional Edition: Windows NT; ColdFusion Studio: Windows 9x, Windows NT.
Price: $733 for ColdFusion version 3.1 includes a free update to 4.0. Ship date: early November.
East Coast Software
(Australian distributor for Allaire)
Tel (03) 9821 4848