Development: Visual Dataflex the way to go?

Visual Dataflex is a programming language of sorts which may be best described as belonging in the category of Visual Basic for Applications, the older style of Visual Basic and maybe even a very little bit of .Net. It’s simple and good in what it does. Simple? Why! I hear you cry. Fear not, I will explain why I think this. First though, I’d like to touch on what it can do for you?In brief: Visual Dataflex allows you, as a developer, quickly create multi-user database programs with moderate requirements such as searches, reports, input and XML. As an example: you could readily make a program that involves keeping track of orders, customers and other notes. The language’s primary selling point, or so I understand, is its simplicity and speed.

Visual Dataflex, a product of the Data Access corporation, is build on the technology of earlier version that have been around since as the era of DOS. During this period of time a number of developers who were tired of the constantly changing architectures and operating systems decided they needed a way to run their programs on a number of architectures. What they build was called ‘the Runtime’!

As a direct result, all versions of (Visual) Dataflex up until today have been build upon this system, much like the VBRUN libraries Visual Basic required in earlier days. Only present day versions of Visual Dataflex, versions 8 and 9 have their runtime embedded with the program, making them seem like a native executable. As a minor side note, present day programming with either Mono or .NET also makes use of interpreters. It’s the familiar technology wave-form.

Visual Dataflex is fully multi-user and record orientated. It can be installed on a server for example and then be used across a number of workstations without fear of data corruption. It works only so-so unfortunately with present day systems because of problems caused by the caching system modern windows versions use. Also, file based multi-user access just doesn’t cut it compared to the speed of SQL databases. The latter however is not an issue with the kind of programs Visual Dataflex is intented for. And besides, it can be solved too.

Visual Dataflex (from here on refered to as VDF) is also capable of using said SQL servers using a bridge interface between its native data-access method and the SQL server, effectively making it somewhat of a hybrid record based input. I have not had experience with this method though so I cannot comment on that.

Now that we’ve talked a little about the technology, it’s time to take a look on how it looks to work with. VDF has its own language which is a mix of object pascal and basic. This results in a pleasantly simply language while maintaining a lot of power, should Data Access have wanted this. As it is, a lot of complex things are hidden which, for this language, is very good. It has support for classes and objects, functions, procedures and all the normal non-essoteric language functions you can think of. Unfortunately the language has some perculiarities too which remind me much of, well, assembly language? Do not worry though: it doesn’t look like assembly. It just feels like it sometimes.

VDF includes a full IDE too, letting you easily place your text input boxes, buttons or tab pages. It also includes several tools, helping the developer to rapidly create tables and their associated rules for dismissing or accepting a record for saving or deletion. Off course a simple program for checking and altering the contents of a table is also included. Creating a simple input program for customers, complete with tabs, tables and compilation can be completed in mere minutes. Unless you’re trying to do this on a 386 SX 25Mhz off course. Go read up on hardware first then.

In fact, the only point where you’ll be typing in anything for the creation of such a program are field names for your tables. And, even those you could do without if you were insane. The rest is just simple point and drag. Or your perpetual click. It’s a no-brainer solution for simple problems and this methology extends partially to larger programs as well.

Data Access has taken a lot of care to provide you with a large foundation at which to build your programs and with these simple clicks your entire relation updates across tables are taken care of. Transparantly. Within little time you’ll have the code to produce reports which use the internal report engine or the interface to Crystal Reports (which off course is available seperately). Sadly enough, when your program becomes too non-standard in relation to the foundation provided for you, one starts getting into trouble. At this point the foundation will start to work against you and quite heavily too. It’s not designed to be flexible, it is designed to do what it was designed for easily and rapidly. And this it does.

Unfortunately, the general public knowledge of the Dataflex language is very restricted. Not very much developers exists for it and this has a direct impact on the amount of articles and source examples that can be found. Not to mention other resources that help developers in rapidly getting aquinted with a language. One method might be is is the trial and error method of building a program with the helpfile or just examining the example programs included. A book or two might even be available.

This lack of attention is partly caused by the lack of marketing. I have the impression Data Access caters to a niche market alone and that might be for the best because it will increase support for this segment. The other one is the cost for developers. Data Access requires runtime licensing. Which basically means that for every program your company markets you must pay. This is quite a downside in my opinion. Interested developers however can find a demo version of the software on the company website and Data Access also markets character mode unix and linux versions.

The future for this market is unknown however. Now that big M is changing to a simpler development methology and runtime it is uncertain what advantage using VDF might bring. Only those that already have invested time, money and people into this language will find it difficult to switch over. Even so, this is a good programming language for developers seeking to build programs that require data input and output in the form of reports or programs. Think about accounting programs, customer programs, order tracking. This is where VDF excels.

About the Author
The author of this review has over three years experience in Visual Dataflex and has a great deal of general knowledge and experience with the IT branch. He is, off course, a great fanatical reader of OSNews.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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