Google App Engine beta

Easy dynamic Web sites

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Google App Engine beta

Pros

  • Fast and easy Web-app development, uses Google's cloud of computers

Cons

  • API not as rich as Amazon's SimpleDB, limit on resources

Bottom Line

It is almost unfair to review the Google App Engine when it is just a beta operation, but Google has a habit of leaving some tools in beta form for a long time. There are a number of places where the documentation and the code suggest that Google will add more functionality pretty soon. The basic framework and the database are both quite nice, although limited. We can imagine Google adding better automatic features for generating the CRUD (Create, Update, Delete) routines common in these applications. Integration with Google's Wallet might also be quite useful, although it's bound to be complicated by the banking system. Some people have already experimented with mapping the Google Web Toolkit to the system, even though that's written in Java and translated into JavaScript. Google might also provide some good tools that allow the different hosted applications to share user information, in essence allowing a user to move their preferences and some of their data to other applications. This kind of inter-application linking could be pretty cool. Time will tell what Google delivers. In the meantime, this is a good sandbox for playing with simple database applications. There's a very good reason why the beta version has a waiting list.

Would you buy this?

With Google's App Engine, you write a bit of code in Python, customise some HTML and bingo, you've got your database-backed dynamic website up and running in a few short minutes. When the world starts flocking to your web application Google's cloud of computers adapts to the load, handling everything the public demands.

One of the joys of being a Web programmer is heading to a dinner party, a haircut or a reunion and fielding the pitches for everyone's dream for a brilliant Web application. Everyone is always happy to cut you in for 5, 10, maybe even 15 per cent of the equity if you just build out the website that's sort of like a combination of Twitter, AltaVista, Eliza, TurboTax and the corner chemist, but cooler.

Google App Engine is meant for dreams such as these. You write a bit of code in Python, customise some HTML, and bingo, you've got your database-backed dynamic website up and running in a few short minutes. The magic comes when the world starts flocking to your web application, and Google's cloud of computers quickly adapts to the load, handling everything the public demands. There's no need for you to buy servers, load balancers, or special DNS tables. Google's application cloud handles all of the grungy deployment headaches.

We played around with the App Engine SDK and, sure enough, developed and deployed applications on the desktop with just a few minutes of work. We didn't upload them to the cloud because we didn't make it into the beta program, but we were able to simulate the experience on our office server. The billions of hits haven't shown up yet, but it has only been a few hours now. It works and it is quite simple.

Google me this

A trickier question is deciding whether this is really what a future Web application really needs. There is little doubt that App Engine makes it simple to get incoming data, make some decisions, store it in a database and then move on. The more complicated questions are often political, technical and almost aesthetic. There will be a number of programmers who look at App Engine and melt with excitement, and there will be many who tilt their head like a dog that can't understand his master.

Being a Google Python lover certainly helps, but it isn't necessary because the language isn't that much different from the other scripting languages. A good programmer should be able to shift gears quickly and easily. There are rumours that Google has a number of other languages waiting around the corner, but there are equally good arguments that this may not be happening as soon as some devotees would like.

Java programmers, in particular, are used to being known as providing the most scalable and flexible applications because the language and the API are some of the most sophisticated ensembles around. The J2EE standard nurtured tools that simplified some of these problems, even though it never really turned out to be as simple as the sales literature promised.

Today, Java's sophistication is probably hurting the language as much as helping it. A quick survey of Web-hosting services shows that shared hosting for JSP applications begins at a price up to 10 times that of some Python shared services. The JVM may speed things up and provide better service, but it comes with a hefty memory footprint. If the brutally competitive Web-hosting business can support five Python sites for every Java site, then perhaps Google is more interested in the long tail, the niche Web sites, than the big iron.

There are other advantages that probably encouraged Google's choice of Python. The most popular implementations are open source. and the language's creator, Guido van Rossum, works there.

This must have made it much simpler for the company to create the slightly crippled version of Python that runs on the app server. This sandbox forbids some potentially dangerous operations such as writing to the file system, a feature that could pretty much prevent building Flickr-like upload services unless you feel like storing these big blocks of data in the database.

Your code isn't allowed to spawn subthreads, and it better be efficient because it looks like App Engine will kill any thread that takes too long. This is probably necessary given the endless loops that will be created by newbies, but it pretty much means that App Engine is really just for front ends to databases that don't do much independent thinking or computation.

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