Microservices Expo Authors: Elizabeth White, Mehdi Daoudi, Pat Romanski, Flint Brenton, Gordon Haff

Related Topics: Microservices Expo, Java IoT, Adobe Flex, Machine Learning

Microservices Expo: Article

Form(ing) Standards - Recycling Old Stuff Can Be Incredibly Painful

I am on my favorite soapbox - “standards” – standards around form filling

I am on my favorite soapbox - "standards" - standards around form filling. Generally speaking, no discussion of standards could be complete without an assessment of the state of play of the not so humble Adobe Portable Document Format or as most of us know it, PDF. I debated the merits of the PDF back in the late 1990s (an astonishing 14 years ago) and with the passage of time, a few things have changed but in some respects they are the same.

The reason this topic is quite focal for me at the moment, is the fact that I continue to see customers and prospects take a hard line in wanting to retain their existing PDF documents and at the same time, make them more technically relevant to the continuing trend of trying to eliminate paper forms and improve back office efficiency by avoiding the need for people to laboriously transcribe data from electronic forms into application screens of key record keeping systems like SAP ERP.  This is an area where Winshuttle has made some significant in-roads in helping customers eliminate transcription from Excel and InfoPath into back office ERP systems through an integration layer built around the Microsoft product suite.

Adobe has been around since the early 1980s and the idea of PDF was to create a document format that wouldn't require special processing by the computer, and could be viewed and printed regardless of the installed OS - first version was released in 1993. At the time there was the Macintosh, OS/2 from IBM, DOS and early versions of Windows.

By the mid 1990s, PDF documents were pretty ubiquitous for electronic documents. You needed a reader, which you could often get off a Bulletin Board or bundled with some of the many distributable software packages available at the time. A frustration experienced by many continued to be the fact that Microsoft didn't natively support generating PDF documents from spreadsheets, presentations and Word, and was fighting on several document writing fronts, including against the languishing WordPerfect.  Microsoft did however have Envoy, a program that allowed a reader to read Microsoft Office documents; the availability of this product meant that partners and customers that did not use Microsoft products could still view Microsoft documents.  In 2000, Microsoft released an initial version of an XML-based version of Excel which it incorporated into OfficeXP, later in 2002 Word followed and when Office2003 was released Office open XML was pretty much standard.

Adobe took a little longer than Microsoft to embrace some degree of openness and it was only in 2001 that the PDF specification was opened up for use. Officially, in 2008, it was released as an open standard. But, as Joel Geraci points out on Quora, an Acrobat 1.0 PDF still renders 100% correctly on Acrobat X, more than 15 years later.

This bit of history is important to understand why PDF has been so successful. Consider that despite our relative resistance to generating paper copies of documents, when we do need to reduce an electronic document to a hard copy, it needs to be pretty much pixel perfect. We want the images to appear where they should, we want the fields to line up vertically and we want the pagination to appear at the correct break points in the document. The combination of printers, supported font faces, paper sizes and margins can result in some very interesting outcomes and this too has driven the improvements in products like Microsoft Word to allow a true WYSIWYG experience.  Of course, I try to discourage printing as much as possible and then find myself very frustrated when I discover that the idle printer at home won't print anything because the ink cartridge is as parched as the Gobi desert or the rollers on the laser printer have become as hard as rocks and won't pick up the paper. The visual experience is nonetheless important, especially for form filling.

Many organizations provide online form entry, either regular HTML rendered forms or PDF documents.  PDF also supports embedding of JavaScript to help with the form behavior or data validation.

Some great perspectives on the pros and cons outlined by Quick PDF are:

  • PDF is supported across multiple platforms. This means you see a document exactly as it was created, regardless of what platform it was created on and regardless of the application environment you are viewing it on, whether it be a mobile phone, an Android tablet, an iPad, a Microsoft, Apple or Sun operating system .
  • There's imaging hardware independence too, you can print the same document on a cheap dot matrix printer as well as on a high-end publishing plotter.
  • The documents are relatively compact, the text only versions are compressed, though versions that have encryption or contain images or are scanned documents that have not been processed with an OCR engine can be large.
  • PDFs can contain multimedia elements, such as: graphics, video and audio files, hyperlinks, hotspots and multifaceted multimedia objects.
  • Even As already mentioned, PDF's can be protected. The author has several security options including locking the file so, that it would open only after entering a correct password as well as supporting annotation, or preventing editing, copying content or printing.
  • You can use PDF as many organizations do, on the Internet, but HTML files are much more efficient.
  • You can use PDF to exchange graphics, but most desktop publishing applications support  TIFF, PNG, EPS and JPEG.
  • The focus of PDF is visualization and presentation of the document.  As a consequence it often doesn't preserve the document's logical structure.
  • PDF files often prove hard to modify. It is extremely difficult or even impossible to add a text block or an image to an existing PDF file if you didn't originate that document.

Returning to my problem or frustration of the moment, I looked at the form that was presented to me recently and tried to figure out just how much effort was going to be involved in manipulating this document to work with a Winshuttle Web Service connecting it to SAP. As the support partner at another company stated, "The challenge we have with PDF forms is that the form filling functionality of PDF is much more advanced than the form creation capability of MS Office.  So for us to replicate a PDF form in MS Office, we need to work with imperfect tools to do so. It is essentially like trying to edit an image that has been created with Adobe Photoshop with Microsoft Paint. The advanced tools in one program are just not available in the other."

There had been some hopes that we could simply do a like conversion of PDF content to  MS Office formats, however, when a PDF form is converted to MS Office format, some features (i.e. table lines, boxes, etc) get converted as graphics, which sometimes makes it difficult to edit freely as you would with a simple text document.  Most automation conversion software cannot produce "fillable" forms per se. So don't pin any high hopes on PDF to MS Office converters.

The tricky thing with PDF forms is that they require quite a bit of work sometimes, depending on the nature and complexity of the form.

At face value, the task should have been fairly straightforward. The problem we concluded is that the method used to build the Adobe PDF form doesn't conform to any of the contemporary interactive form standards either for PDF or for MS Office. In addition, one of the characteristics that I discovered emerging in another installation is a seemingly random approach to naming technical objects. Developers have an uncanny ability to come up with some of the most curious names imaginable for technical objects, and although some of them are very descriptive, if there is missing information in either the name or in the documentation of the technical object then supporting them at some later stage will prove to be troublesome especially if the initial developer has moved on to another assignment.

My conclusions? If you're determined to recycle an existing Adobe form, make sure that it is one that has been developed against the backdrop of accepted fillable form standards. Don't be too optimistic about being able to integrate it with anything except itself. Even if the form will never be integrated with anything - it will just be used to gather data - be careful about the types of fillable fields that you use.

Secondly, when naming your technical objects, try to build some degree of intelligence into the naming convention and apply this consistently. Calling a form, for example,  applicationform.pdf is great if you only ever have one application type to support or if you have an overarching all singing all dancing application form. The same sense of standards should apply to your metadata as well.

Finally, be careful about your choice of an Adobe PDF. Do you really need the data to be entered into a pixel perfect document format? Will an Excel-based form, for example, get you to the same place? Even an InfoPath form may be a better proposition. Excel is pretty ubiquitous these days at least. You don't' have to set Excel, InfoPath or even PDF as the standard but you should understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these document types.

Further Reading

PDF vs Markup Language - Clinton Jones

How did the PDF file format become the de facto standard for document publishing? - Quora discussion

Microsoft InfoPath or Adobe Forums? - Kristian Kalsing

More Stories By Clinton Jones

Clinton Jones is a Product Manager at Winshuttle. He is experienced in international technology and business process with a focus on integrated business technologies. Clinton also services a technical consultant on technology and quality management as it relates to data and process management and governance. Before coming to Winshuttle, Clinton served as a Technical Quality Manager at SAP. Twitter @winshuttle

@MicroservicesExpo Stories
"We started a Master of Science in business analytics - that's the hot topic. We serve the business community around San Francisco so we educate the working professionals and this is where they all want to be," explained Judy Lee, Associate Professor and Department Chair at Golden Gate University, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
For over a decade, Application Programming Interface or APIs have been used to exchange data between multiple platforms. From social media to news and media sites, most websites depend on APIs to provide a dynamic and real-time digital experience. APIs have made its way into almost every device and service available today and it continues to spur innovations in every field of technology. There are multiple programming languages used to build and run applications in the online world. And just li...
There is a huge demand for responsive, real-time mobile and web experiences, but current architectural patterns do not easily accommodate applications that respond to events in real time. Common solutions using message queues or HTTP long-polling quickly lead to resiliency, scalability and development velocity challenges. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Ryland Degnan, a Senior Software Engineer on the Netflix Edge Platform team, will discuss how by leveraging a reactive stream-based protocol,...
The general concepts of DevOps have played a central role advancing the modern software delivery industry. With the library of DevOps best practices, tips and guides expanding quickly, it can be difficult to track down the best and most accurate resources and information. In order to help the software development community, and to further our own learning, we reached out to leading industry analysts and asked them about an increasingly popular tenet of a DevOps transformation: collaboration.
We call it DevOps but much of the time there’s a lot more discussion about the needs and concerns of developers than there is about other groups. There’s a focus on improved and less isolated developer workflows. There are many discussions around collaboration, continuous integration and delivery, issue tracking, source code control, code review, IDEs, and xPaaS – and all the tools that enable those things. Changes in developer practices may come up – such as developers taking ownership of code ...
The dynamic nature of the cloud means that change is a constant when it comes to modern cloud-based infrastructure. Delivering modern applications to end users, therefore, is a constantly shifting challenge. Delivery automation helps IT Ops teams ensure that apps are providing an optimal end user experience over hybrid-cloud and multi-cloud environments, no matter what the current state of the infrastructure is. To employ a delivery automation strategy that reflects your business rules, making r...
Cloud Governance means many things to many people. Heck, just the word cloud means different things depending on who you are talking to. While definitions can vary, controlling access to cloud resources is invariably a central piece of any governance program. Enterprise cloud computing has transformed IT. Cloud computing decreases time-to-market, improves agility by allowing businesses to adapt quickly to changing market demands, and, ultimately, drives down costs.
Modern software design has fundamentally changed how we manage applications, causing many to turn to containers as the new virtual machine for resource management. As container adoption grows beyond stateless applications to stateful workloads, the need for persistent storage is foundational - something customers routinely cite as a top pain point. In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 21st Cloud Expo, Bill Borsari, Head of Systems Engineering at Datera, explored how organizations can reap the bene...
How is DevOps going within your organization? If you need some help measuring just how well it is going, we have prepared a list of some key DevOps metrics to track. These metrics can help you understand how your team is doing over time. The word DevOps means different things to different people. Some say it a culture and every vendor in the industry claims that their tools help with DevOps. Depending on how you define DevOps, some of these metrics may matter more or less to you and your team.
"CA has been doing a lot of things in the area of DevOps. Now we have a complete set of tool sets in order to enable customers to go all the way from planning to development to testing down to release into the operations," explained Aruna Ravichandran, Vice President of Global Marketing and Strategy at CA Technologies, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
"We are an integrator of carrier ethernet and bandwidth to get people to connect to the cloud, to the SaaS providers, and the IaaS providers all on ethernet," explained Paul Mako, CEO & CTO of Massive Networks, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
"Grape Up leverages Cloud Native technologies and helps companies build software using microservices, and work the DevOps agile way. We've been doing digital innovation for the last 12 years," explained Daniel Heckman, of Grape Up in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
"NetApp's vision is how we help organizations manage data - delivering the right data in the right place, in the right time, to the people who need it, and doing it agnostic to what the platform is," explained Josh Atwell, Developer Advocate for NetApp, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 20th Cloud Expo, held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
"Outscale was founded in 2010, is based in France, is a strategic partner to Dassault Systémes and has done quite a bit of work with divisions of Dassault," explained Jackie Funk, Digital Marketing exec at Outscale, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 20th Cloud Expo, held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
"I focus on what we are calling CAST Highlight, which is our SaaS application portfolio analysis tool. It is an extremely lightweight tool that can integrate with pretty much any build process right now," explained Andrew Siegmund, Application Migration Specialist for CAST, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Let's do a visualization exercise. Imagine it's December 31, 2018, and you're ringing in the New Year with your friends and family. You think back on everything that you accomplished in the last year: your company's revenue is through the roof thanks to the success of your product, and you were promoted to Lead Developer. 2019 is poised to be an even bigger year for your company because you have the tools and insight to scale as quickly as demand requires. You're a happy human, and it's not just...
The enterprise data storage marketplace is poised to become a battlefield. No longer the quiet backwater of cloud computing services, the focus of this global transition is now going from compute to storage. An overview of recent storage market history is needed to understand why this transition is important. Before 2007 and the birth of the cloud computing market we are witnessing today, the on-premise model hosted in large local data centers dominated enterprise storage. Key marketplace play...
Cavirin Systems has just announced C2, a SaaS offering designed to bring continuous security assessment and remediation to hybrid environments, containers, and data centers. Cavirin C2 is deployed within Amazon Web Services (AWS) and features a flexible licensing model for easy scalability and clear pay-as-you-go pricing. Although native to AWS, it also supports assessment and remediation of virtual or container instances within Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform (GCP), or on-premise. By dr...
With continuous delivery (CD) almost always in the spotlight, continuous integration (CI) is often left out in the cold. Indeed, it's been in use for so long and so widely, we often take the model for granted. So what is CI and how can you make the most of it? This blog is intended to answer those questions. Before we step into examining CI, we need to look back. Software developers often work in small teams and modularity, and need to integrate their changes with the rest of the project code b...
Kubernetes is an open source system for automating deployment, scaling, and management of containerized applications. Kubernetes was originally built by Google, leveraging years of experience with managing container workloads, and is now a Cloud Native Compute Foundation (CNCF) project. Kubernetes has been widely adopted by the community, supported on all major public and private cloud providers, and is gaining rapid adoption in enterprises. However, Kubernetes may seem intimidating and complex ...