Out Of My Comfort Zone: Building a Web App

If you read Fundamentals of Storage Systems – Stripe Size, Block Size, and IO Patterns you know I built a little web tool to help you with sizing and estimating your RAID array’s performance. This is way out of my area of expertise. Luckily for me I like a challenge and had a guiding hand from some friends. I haven’t done any web programming since I wrote a photo album mod for Snitz! forum package in 2002, using classic ASP. I still get thank you emails from folks that have been running it for years. Needless to say my skills are a little rusty. My first instinct was to fire up Visual Studio 2008 and build an ASP.net page tied to a back end SQL Server 2008 database. Well, ASP.net is just different enough that I was struggling to do the most basic things. So, I thought it would be good to “get back to basics”. A very good friend of mine has been a professional web developer for the same company since about the time my photo album came out. He lives and breathes web technology. The problem was he doesn’t do ASP.net at all. Everything he does is standards compliant HTML and JavaScript. I told him about my spread sheet of calculations and my desire to turn it into a web page. Joe quickly begged me to leave him alone. Once I calmed him down, he did a little sample page to get me on the right track. I took a look at it and thought it would be easy to goof around in this JavaScript stuff. I was wrong. What a convoluted world web developers live in.

I hacked on it the weekend before Christmas and was pretty happy with my handy work, right up until I showed it to some people. Comments like “Kill it with fire!” were common. I explained what it was and that took some of the hostility out of the feedback. The next Monday I asked the two lead web heads at work to look at it. Once Ben had washed his eyes out with bleach he told me under no certain terms could he fix it. My powers of persuasion, and a threat to never approve another schema change, helped bring him around. He explained several new technologies to me I wasn’t aware off, like CSS. Ben showed me quickly how to format the page so peoples heads wouldn’t burst into flames when they saw it. He also spoke of things like Ajax and JSON. Being the clueless data guy that I am I turned to my trusty friend yet again, Google.

Quick Definition List

JavaScript, the underpinning of the modern dynamic web 2.0 world.

Ajax (asynchronous JavaScript and XML, a group of interrelated web technologies that allow for dynamic web design.

JSON (JavaScript Notation), a lightweight data-interchange format, a way to structure data like XML implementing name/value pairs and ordered lists.

JQuery, a JavaScript library used to traverse HTML elements and build dynamic content easily.

JavaScript Implementation

What struck me was just how much had changed, yet stayed the same. One of the things I’ve always hated is no two browsers render the page the same way. If it worked in Firefox it didn’t work in IE. The other thing I didn’t realize for quite a while was any of the browsers would happily run the worlds worst code. I’m not talking poorly written code, I mean flat wrong. They will let any old JavaScript run. JavaScript is defined as a loosely typed language. The way it is implemented it goes from loosely to sloppy very quickly. Don’t get me wrong here. The language specification EMCAScript, is solid. The implementations are very poor in most browsers and that is where the problems developing for JavaScript really come in. I’m not saying JavaScript is slow, quite the opposite in fact. It is just difficult to make sure you are actually writing the correct code. Having worked with Visual Studio for quite some time, I’ve become spoiled with having my IDE tell me when the syntax is wrong before I hit the compile button. So, I was back to Google again looking for tools to help me out.

The Tools

I quickly settled on Aptana Studio 2.0 to do the actual code work. I also used Notepad ++, which is by far the best text editor in the world. with Aptana Studio allowing me to see errors in real time and use the preview function to look at page renders without having to have browser windows open. I did look at Microsoft’s new Expression Suite 3.0. It is nice. The designer is slick, but in typical Microsoft fashion it mangles some parts of the code that I then have to fix by hand. Aptana Studio also has a built in JavaScript minimizer that shrinks the size of your JavaScript files for quicker load times. Aptana Studio doesn’t enforce the use of line terminators and when I compacted my JavaScript it wouldn’t load. I did some additional digging and found an awesome Lint tool for validating JavaScript JSLint. My favorite thing about it is the quote and link on the front page “Warning: JSLint will hurt your feelings.” I knew I had found the right tool. After several passes I got my code to validate and minimize without any errors. I quickly looked for other Lint based tools and found one for JSON as well JSONLint.

The Work

Over the course of a few weeks I tinkered with the page, adding features, correcting mistakes and cleaning up the layout. The biggest thing that I learned is just how fast JavaScript can be. Even after I did the initial page I had no doubt a database would be involved at some point. I had compiled a small database of hard drives and their characteristics and wanted to add that to the page. The problem was I would basically have to redo the page again in asp.net or some other dynamic language to pull the data from the database. So, I cheated. As a proof of concept I built a JSON structure with a sample of the data to load the drop down list box and all the variables dynamically. I was stunned at just how fast the page was to respond. I hacked together some T-SQL that would generate the JSON object from my database, all 1200 entries. I cleaned it up a bit made sure that JSONLint validated it ran the minimizer on it and plugged it in. Holy cow, it worked! It was also still very vast. I just couldn’t believe it. The only drawback is having to update the JSON if I add new drives to the database.


What I’ve Learned

The main takeaways for me on this project are simple, web development stinks. Now I know why web folks have a hard time with T-SQL, they already have to be experts in five or six different technologies across two or more platforms. I use to introduce Joe as “My friend who does JavaScript”, now I know is is a hard core developer! What I build is simple and works. I think the layout is tolerable. If you have any suggestions or feed back just drop me a note.