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Grassroots computing languages hit the big time

Oracle deal shows that PHP and other scripting languages--once considered toys by serious programmers--are going corporate.

Once considered simple toys by serious programmers, scripting languages are becoming first-class citizens in the world of corporate software development.

Database giant Oracle is expected to announce on Monday a partnership to make it easier for businesses to create custom applications for its products using PHP tools from a company called Zend Technologies. PHP is an open-source scripting language used to build Web pages.

The upped commitment to PHP from Oracle is the latest of several moves by large software vendors, including IBM, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, to capitalize on the growing popularity of scripting, or "dynamic" languages.

News.context

What's new:
Scripting languages have not been widely used for corporate development, but businesses and IT pros are now looking to these simple tools to streamline the creation of custom in-house programs and thus avoid late or overbudget applications.

Bottom line:
Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and others have taken note. These big software makers hope to tap into the growing interest in scripting and also broaden their customer base by attracting smaller companies--which may not have IT departments well-versed in Java, C++ and other relatively complex programming languages typically used to build custom business applications.

More stories on PHP

Scripting languages have been used to build millions of applications on the Web, but in general have not been adopted widely by corporate developers. But more and more businesses and IT professionals are looking to these languages as a way to simplify and speed the creation of custom in-house programs, thus avoiding the now all-too-common logjam of late or overbudget applications.

"Scripting (languages are) just getting more popular and powerful simply because they're easy to use," said Tim Huckaby, CEO of consulting firm and Microsoft partner InterKnowlogy. "It's all about time to market and money, not about how elegant it is underneath."

By teaming with Zend, Oracle can tap into the growing interest in PHP and encourage use of its namesake database. Currently, more than 20 percent of Zend customers use Oracle databases, according to Pamela Roussos, vice president of marketing at Zend.

Oracle could also broaden its customer base by attracting smaller companies, which don't necessarily have high-powered IT departments well-versed in the type of programming languages typically used to build custom large-scale business applications. Java, C, C++ and Visual Basic are relatively complex. In contrast, scripting languages can be wielded by people without a computer science degree or a lot of training.

Oracle's own line of development tools and the associated "middleware" to run custom business applications are based on Java. Similarly, IBM, BEA Systems, Sun and others continue to invest in Java standards. Microsoft tools, meanwhile, are based on its proprietary .Net software.

Zend takes the open-source PHP software and builds development tools specifically aimed at corporate developers.

Bulking up
PHP is one of several scripting languages designed for rapidly building Web applications that's getting more attention from industry heavyweights. PHP is the most widely used, but others include Python, Perl and Ruby.

Generally, people use scripting languages to build Web applications that do not require very fast performance, such as a high-volume transaction system. But investments by mainstream business-software companies are increasingly making scripting tools, some of which have been around for decades, more industrial strength.

Earlier this year, IBM penned its own agreement with Zend to make PHP better suited for writing applications that tap into IBM's DB2 and Cloudscape databases. On its developer site, IBM has expanded the technical material available to PHP developers.

Though Microsoft has stayed clear of open-source scripting languages in its products, last year it hired Jim Hugunin, the creator of a language called Jython. Hugunin is working on a project called IronPython, which aims to add support for Python in Microsoft's .Net Common Language Runtime.

At the same time, Microsoft continues to invest in making its flagship Visual Studio line better for Web development. In the second half of this year, it will introduce a low-end tool called Visual Web Developer Express designed around C# or other Microsoft-supported languages.

More people within corporations are using scripting languages to rapidly assemble business applications, sometimes even taking an existing application template and modifying it, said Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's product unit manager for Web platform and tools.

"There's a very large community of people who identify themselves as scripters or self-taught," said Guthrie. "That's a key customer segment we're going after."

Java creator Sun earlier this year launched Coyote, an effort to make scripting languages function within NetBeans, the Sun-backed open-source tool platform. NetBeans right now is for Java development only, but the Coyote project will let people write code in Groovy, Jython and eventually other scripting languages.

These efforts represent a shift in how the largest software development vendors market to their customers, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk.

"For the last couple of years, pretty much every major vendor had one answer to a wide set of business challenges, particularly for people on the Java side--that answer was Java," O'Grady said. "But now they're seeing the grassroots growth of these technologies."

Threat to Java?
The growing popularity of scripting has prompted some Java developers to ask whether Java risks being replaced by simpler alternatives.

Proponents argue that tools built around languages such as Python or Ruby are gaining in popularity because Java development is too complex for many jobs.

"What I think we're seeing in the rise of the scripting language is that Java is overkill for a lot of projects," Tom McQueeney, a software architect at a large consulting company, said in a blog posting.

Detractors claim that programs written with scripting languages could be more difficult to maintain than Java applications.

Meanwhile, some efforts are intentionally blurring the line between Java and scripting languages.

A language called Groovy is being designed specifically to run in the Java virtual machine on PCs and servers. An initial version was released in April.

That close tie to Java makes Groovy a complement to, rather than a replacement for, Java, according to the technical committee in charge of Groovy, which includes representatives from Sun, IBM and the Apache Software Foundation.

"Groovy can be a low-threshold language for developers new to the Java platform as well as a productivity-enhancing tool for experienced Java developers," according to the Groovy expert group in the Java Community Process.

Though developers will continue the debate over the merits of different languages, O'Grady said traditional languages will increasingly co-exist with scripting languages as the latter become more sophisticated--and accepted.

"It comes down to different tools for different jobs," said O'Grady. "These languages, like PHP, have been doing good jobs in business situations for a while and not just because they're fast. They've proved what they need to prove."