Saturday, 29 December 2012

Review of Oracle APEX Best Practices (or the 200 day shower)



Over the past few days I have had two books on my bedside table: on my Google Nexus I have been reading David Eagleman’s novel Sum: FortyTales from the Afterlives, and whenever I put that down, I’ve been burying my nose in the dead-tree (i.e. non-ebook) version of Oracle APEX Best Practices by Learco Brizzi, Iloon Ellen-Wolff and Alex Nuijten. 

This article is about Oracle APEX Best Practices, of course, but let’s talk about the short story collection, Sum for a bit. One of the stories in the book hypothesises that in the afterlife we all relive our lives – with one difference: all our actions are grouped by an ‘order by’ statement. So instead of waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping, we spend 30 unbroken years asleep and then 40 continuous years awake. We spend 7 straight months making love, and then 6 full days clipping our toenails. We shower for 200 days. It’s a good book; read it.

Oracle APEX Best Practices is a good book too. I want to make that clear.  Two of the authors, Learco Brizzi and Iloon Ellen-Wolff are new names to me, but I have visited Alex Nuijten’s blog many times in the past and have never been let down. So I googled the other two authors, and what I read convinced me of their bona fides.

Not that the book doesn’t speak for itself. At 200-odd pages it is a good size; it is written in clear, precise English; and it covers Apex, from top to tail – from installation, through security and debugging, to deployment. It is mostly aimed at Apex beginners, but there is enough in-depth explanation in it to make it invaluable to intermediate Apex-ers too. It is a very good book.

But… 

In the afterlife in Sum, you spend 14 minutes experiencing pure joy, and then 27 long hours of intense pain. I have spent 2 full paragraphs praising Oracle APEX Best Practices; it is time to highlight my quibbles.

The first annoyance is this: to keep the page count down, the authors often ended sections with the url of some Oracle documentation or a blogpost containing more information. This is perfectly fine in an ebook, but what am I supposed to do with this in a paper book? I cannot type a 200-character url into my browser's address bar. Physical books cost more money than ebooks; they should not provide a worse experience.
My kingdom for a bit.ly!

I do also have some questions about the title. Best practices? This is a very good Apex book, no doubt, but I wouldn’t call it a best practices book. I expect best practices books to prescribe the way I develop my application and not just explain the options.

Finally, the authors occasionally struggle to stay true to their topic: Apex. In Chapter 2: Leveraging the Database, they spend 30 pages explaining how to use analytic and aggregate functions in Oracle databases. I was very grateful for the lesson – but what the hell is that doing an Apex book? What next - a fried rice recipe?

<\criticism >

Do not be put off by my quibbles; this is a good book. It was, unfortunately, released just on the eve of Apex 4.2 and therefore only covers up to 4.1; however, I do not think that this is a problem. Best practices are not version-dependent.

In Chapter 4, the authors discuss application security, advising on how to guard against SQL injections and URL tampering, and explaining Access Control Lists and dealing with password complexity rules using APEX_INSTANCE_ADMIN. And Chapter 5 is a 30 page essay on debugging and troubleshooting. Both these chapters are excellent and, along with the chapter on printing (BI Publisher, Apache FOP, Cocoon and JasperReports), are worth the cover price on their own (insofar as any software development book is worth its crazily-inflated price).

However, more than the long pieces on complex subjects, what I found useful in this book were the little reminders of things that I know and overlook: set up your User Interface Defaults before diving in and building your application, for example.

And even though I have said that the section on analytic functions, aggregate functions and index-organized tables should not be in an Apex book, I must concede that it is packed with useful (non-Apex) information.
According to Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, we spend 1 whole year of our lives reading books. I do not regret the hours that I have spent on this one. 

(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers, Packt Publishing, in return for an unbiased review)

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