Adobe LiveCycle gives business apps a shot in the arm

Enterprise Suite 2 gives developers an alternative to Windows-only tools for creating automated workflows and improving user productivity

Adobe doesn't make enterprise business applications; but it does make those mission critical apps easier to use, accessible from mobile devices and quicker to build through its LiveCycle Enterprise Suite.

Watch a slideshow of Adobe's LiveCycle

Business applications such as SAP human resources, Siebel CRM, Oracle financials, or home-grown solutions are the lifeblood of most companies. They keep the organization humming and provide accurate data to executives, but these benefits can come at the expense of user friendliness. It can require months of training to perform even simple tasks with these monolithic back-end systems.

Yet today's employees expect their at-work apps to have the look and simplicity of their at-home apps, like iTunes or Facebook.

In 2004, Adobe introduced LiveCycle – a product suite that enables developers to build visual interfaces to complex applications and to automate business processes, while maintaining the integrity of enterprise data.

LiveCycle Enterprise Suite just received a major update to Version 2 (ES2). Improvements include the ability to design even better interfaces using rich Internet application (RIA) and Web 2.0 technologies, presenting users with more relevant data through task-specific dashboards, automated tools for developers and cloud development options.

Net results

LiveCycle ES2 is a Java 2 Enterprise Edition-compatible product running on industry-standard operating systems and Java application servers. ES2 includes numerous modules that range from connectors to enterprise content management systems and data services to PDF generation and rights management. Developers and business analysts build finished applications by combining these services.

For end users, applications usually appear in a personalized workspace that's accessed from a browser. For more flexibility, the new LiveCycle Workspace ES2 Mobile (available for the iPhone and Windows Mobile or BlackBerry devices) let users participate in business processes while away from their main computer.

Developers can build and test applications on enterprise servers or in the cloud using pre-configured LiveCycle ES2 instances on Amazon EC2. For this test, we took the cloud approach. Solutions are then deployed on your internal servers (a cloud production option should be available in 2010).

A fully equipped workshop

The key to the whole development process is LiveCycle Workbench ES2. It's a visual integrated development environment (IDE) with two main views, Process Design and Forms Design. The concepts haven't changed in this version, but usability is improved and authoring requires fewer steps.

You start by importing assets, such as images and interactive elements produced elsewhere, perhaps a Flash movie. In my test, I had no trouble importing assets or switching to the Forms view and dragging components onto a canvas to create a PDF form. I immediately noticed the new Action Builder because it reduces the number of clicks required to design interactive forms. For instance, you get choices for hiding and showing fields, so now there's no need to write any JavaScript.

Back in the Process Design, I added operations to a visual workflow that describes what happens to this form. This activity involves assembling appropriate ES2 services in the sequence you desire. For example, after someone submits a form, you might generate a PDF file and route it to a manager for approval. Once approved, it could be digitally signed and archived in a legacy document management system.

ES2 includes a number of prebuilt advanced process flows. As such, business analysts (who likely know workflows the best) can now help develop applications since little or no coding is necessary. Simply dragging objects onto the workflow diagram is often all that's necessary to bind the user interface to the required service, such as data validation. Previously, skilled developers had to do this part.

Creating Form Guides (a RIA wizard to help end users fill in forms) is yet another task that can now be completed without developer assistance.

After testing, you deploy the application, where it appears in a user's Workspace. Here, depending on the person's role, they can start the workflow (such as filling in the form) or review a request (that appears in their To Do list) if they are an approver. Overall, developing simpler applications should require about a day.

To take applications to the next level, ES2 has even more productivity tools and security functions.

First, the new Launchpad client (and Adobe AIR application) lets desktop users perform many tasks without accessing their Workspace. In one test, I built a function where users could assemble a PDF Portfolio containing multiple document types – by easily dragging the documents on to their Launchpad.

A LaunchPad could also be used to secure documents and handle reviews. Beyond ease of use, this means organizations don't have to purchase the full Acrobat application. IT staff controls the Launchpad user interface remotely, so new settings and policies automatically appear.

What's more, LiveCycle ES2 now automatically applies rights management to Microsoft Office documents. For instance, I restricted confidential information to certain employees or internal groups.

No reinventing the wheel

Perhaps most significant, ES2 now allows developers to easily reuse components. These might be snippets of forms that are created in-house – or nearly finished contributions from other Adobe customers or partners. The latter, called Solutions Accelerators, currently cover vertical industries (life sciences, financial services and government) and cross-industry human resources applications.

The quality of the accelerators' coding and documentation was impressive. I installed and modified the eSubmissions Solution Accelerator, which lets users collect and approve PDF documents required for filing new drug applications with regulatory agencies. Since this accelerator bundles review, commenting, approval and ondemand building blocks, I estimate the development cycle was cut in half for a production-ready application.

Additionally, this exercise was a practical test of assembling a PDF; I quickly added amendments, case reports, and videos to a PDF, then routed it for review. After the last approval, my working solution let me save the final documents in an EMC Documentum document repository.

LiveCycle ES2 requires much less coding for even more advanced development, too. Foremost, there's new application data modeling and a Workbench plug-in for Adobe Flash Builder 4 (formerly Flex Builder). When used together, a designer could create a RIA interface in Flash and then use drag-and-drop data modeling to link fields to multiple data sources.

Data as you like it

For both developers and users, one of the more interesting additions is LiveCycle Mosaic, which lets developers rapidly create intuitive, personalized applications. Each reusable "tile," which can be created in Adobe Flex, HTML or with AJAX technologies, is stored in a central, searchable catalog. These pretested components are then combined into composite RIAs.

While I didn't create any Mosaic applications, I assembled some finished parts – and was impressed with their visual appeal and tile-to-tile communications. For instance, one tile displayed a Microsoft Outlook calendar; clicking on an appointment displayed information about the client I was meeting in another tile – data that was pulled from a Siebel database.

Although production LiveCycle applications can't be hosted this year, the cloud-based LiveCycle Collaboration Service is available. I included this RIA component within my Mosaic application, giving users access to collaboration tools, including text chat, whiteboard and Webcam.

Clearly, enterprises have many development environments to consider, with Microsoft's .Net framework and Silverlight a major force. Further, the surrounding infrastructure, including Microsoft Office Communicator is deployed throughout many organizations.

Still, LiveCycle Enterprise Suite 2 holds some advantages. The underlining J2EE stack isn't tied to any particular operating system or application server. Similarly, development can be done on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux desktops.

Flash and Acrobat players are free, and widely deployed, so many developers are experienced with building rich applications for this software. LiveCycle lets you further extend and integrate these applications with back-end systems – much faster and easier than with other methods.

Heck manages portals for a large pharma company and writes about enterprise applications. He can be reached at mikeheck@comcast.net.

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