What Real Database Developers Are Doing With Blockchain, PWA, Docker, And Voice

This article originally appeared on Forbes Oracle Voice http://ora.cl/c8jM2

In the ever-evolving digital economy, fortune favors the curious. It also favors those who know how to make good use of data—the black gold of digital business.

“It’s a great time to be a database developer,” says Jorge Rimblas, a database developer who spoke at the recent ODTUG Kscope technology conference in Orlando, Florida. “But you have to keep learning” to stay on top.

Rimblas, a specialist in Oracle APEX, a popular tool for developing web apps in the Oracle Database, recalls his early years learning to write efficient SQL queries and wrapping his mind around large data models. Today, he’s polishing his abilities with REST services, plumbing JavaScript libraries, and sharing projects on GitHub. “I want to find technologies that challenge me, and help me share the data with more people,” he says.

Below, Rimblas and four fellow database developers talk about the technologies that are changing how they think about managing data, including blockchain, a new mobile development model called Progressive Web Applications, Docker, and voice assistants.

Put Blockchain to Work

When Adrian Png saw a tea company’s stock soar by simply adding “blockchain” to its name, he figured the hype had peaked and it was time to dig in and see what the technology had to offer a database developer.

“As a programmer you don’t just sit comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ve got to look out there to see what’s coming and get yourself ready,” says Png, who chronicles his explorations in his blog Thinking Anew.

As the former database manager for the British Columbia BioLibrary, Png built a bio library proof-of-concept using the open-source Hyperledger’s private blockchain products and Oracle APEX. The “library” holds tissue samples from patients with conditions such as cancer for researchers to study. Any use requires consent from the patient.

Because blockchain gives him a transparent, verifiable, and tamper-proof place to store information, he thought it could work for managing institutional access to data. “As the custodian of patient data, the library stores patients’ data securely in an Oracle Database, Oracle APEX provides the front end and says who I am,” he says, “and then Blockchain decides what I can see.”

With just this first taste of blockchain, Png, who’s now with APEX innovators, Insum Solutions, already is thinking differently about designing applications. “When you design a database application, you’re always thinking about securing your data and keeping it private,” he says. But when you build on top of a blockchain service, “you’re writing an application that’s designed to make data transparent and immutable on the blockchain.” He adds, “I wanted to see how blockchain and Oracle APEX gel,” and that went well.

Build Progressive Web Apps

This was Vincent Morneau’s fourth year at the ODTUG Kscope conference and, he admits, it’s the fourth year he submitted an abstract to teach fellow developers about a cutting-edge technology he knew nothing about. “It forces me to become an expert before I have to present it in front of an audience,” Morneau says.

This year, Morneau spoke on Progressive Web Apps, which allow a web application on a smartphone to deliver a user experience that’s much more like a native app, but without the download barrier that limits native app adoption. “People prefer using apps on their phone rather than web apps on the browser,” he says. “And a home screen icon just makes the app more accessible, it works when it’s offline, and it can also push notifications out to users.”

Morneau used Oracle APEX to build and show an app that runs in a browser and will also install on his Android phone. Progressive Web Apps open up a lot of possibilities for developers “because we’re not just building Web apps anymore,” he says. “We’re building apps” that are no longer differentiated from native mobile apps.

The data experts in Morneau’s session had tough questions about how his app cached and moved data from the Oracle Database but otherwise seemed convinced that he was onto something important.

Join the Docker Faithful

When Martin D’Souza talks to fellow technologists about application development, he often explains his conversion to using Docker: “Once I saw the light on Docker containers, I realized how wrong I had been in my previous development process.”

Docker allows D’Souza to create a container for a resource he needs to build an app, such as a specific version of Java or Oracle Rest Data Services. Then he can simply point his data to the container. “If the app I’m working on needs a different version of ORDS, I don’t have to install that version on a virtual machine and make sure all the dependencies are installed correctly, I just have to point my app at another container with the right version of ORDS,” he says.

Or, when he’s working with another developer who’s on a different laptop, he can simply send him or her the Docker container and they can begin collaborating. “It has sped things up in so many ways,” says D’Souza. “There’s a whole Docker community out there and I say, ‘I want to do X’ and someone out there has already built it and I download it and I’m up and running.”

Bring Voice to Enterprise Apps

Can voice assistants make interacting with enterprise data easier, and even fun?

Jorge Rimblas says yes. He connected Alexa to his company’s timekeeping and billing application built in Oracle APEX.

“Now I can tell Alexa to pull up a job in my APEX app and add hours. Or tell her I’m done for the day and she’ll say, ‘Yay,’” Rimblas says of the proof-of-concept he built for his company. Rimblas likes that Alexa’s markup adds voice inflection to her responses. “It’s sort of like HTML,” he says, and it allows him to add personality and wit to exchanges with his applications.

But “it took a lot of testing and debugging” before Alexa would return the answers or take the actions he wanted, he warns. “You’re in the logs of the Oracle side to see if you reached the information and on the Amazon side to see why she’s not hearing it.”

The investment in learning to integrate with voice assistant is worth is, says fellow database developer Christoph Ruepprich. “There are a gazillion things you can do with a voice assistant,” he says. “It can call up a screen, read back some results, or trigger actions in the application.” It is, he says, a perfect approach for situations where people have their hands busy. “If someone is working for an airline and they’re working on an airplane and they need a part, they can say ‘Hey Alexa, do we have this part in stock? Can I have it brought out to me on the shop floor?’” he says. “Or show me the schematics for this or that.”

The growing interest in voice interfaces is also fueling interest in chatbots. Intelligent bot capability in Oracle Mobile Cloud Service, for example, provide prebuilt interfaces to voice platforms such as Google Home and Alexa and to messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

Ruepprich agrees that his database skills are a great starting point for working with voice assistants. “Because that’s where your bottlenecks are,” he says. “If you don’t write efficient SQL then your great voice app isn’t going to work as well as you want.”

Jeff Erickson is an editor-at-large for Oracle.

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