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Smart Client Architecture and Design Guide
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Mobile smart clients are applications that run on smart devices Pocket PCs, Smartphones, and other small form factor devices such as set-top boxes. These applications are developed using the .NET Compact Framework, which is a subset of the full .NET Framework. The .NET Compact Framework has many of the features of the full .NET Framework, supports XML, and consumes Web services. It is optimized for use on small form factor devices, and it includes the Windows Forms designer for developing the user interface. By using the Visual Studio .NET Smart Device Projects, you can develop smart clients that will run on the .NET Compact Framework. This approach allows you to develop, test, and debug an application by using Visual Studio .NET on an emulator of the small form factor device. The use of an emulator significantly speeds up development and testing of these types of applications. Mobile smart client applications are typically used to provide mobile access to essential data and services, or to collect and aggregate data when the user is mobile. Examples of these types of applications are insurance and financial data-gathering applications, inventory management applications, and personal productivity management applications. This guide does not specifically focus on mobile smart client applications, although many of the architectural issues and solutions that it discusses are relevant to smart devices.
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Choosing Between Smart Clients and Thin Clients
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To choose the right application architecture for your situation, you must consider a number of factors. To determine whether a smart client approach is the most suitable for your application, carefully consider your current and future business application needs. If your application is based on an unsuitable architecture, it may fail to meet the requirements and expectations of the users and the business as a whole. Changing the architecture later to meet new requirements or to take advantage of new opportunities may be extremely expensive. A thin client architecture is often the most appropriate if you need to make an externally facing application available to a diverse external audience, while a smart client architecture is often the most suitable for an internal application that needs to integrate with or coordinate other client-side applications or hardware, or that is required to work offline or provide specific high-performance functionality through a responsive user interface.
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1: Introduction
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In reality these two approaches overlap to a great extent, and each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. You will only be able to choose the right approach after you carefully consider your requirements and understand how each approach would apply in your situation. Use Table 1.1 to help you choose between a smart client and thin client architecture.
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Table 1.1: Features of Thin Clients and Smart Clients Feature
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Provides a rich user interface
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Thin client
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Yes, but difficult to develop, test, and debug. Generally ties the application to a single browser. Yes, but only through COM components. No No No No
Smart client
Yes. Easier to develop, test, and debug.
Can take advantage of hardware resources on local computer Can interact with other local applications Can be multithreaded Can function offline Can perform well in low bandwidth and high latency environments Easy to deploy Low maintenance and change management costs Can be deployed to a wide variety of clients with varying capabilities
Yes Yes Yes Yes
Yes Yes Yes, although more complex thin clients may require a single browser.
Varies. Difficulty depends on application requirements. Varies. Costs depend on application requirements. Yes. Can be deployed on any platform that supports the .NET Framework (including the .NET Compact Framework).
Smart Client Architectural Challenges
The architectural challenges of smart clients differ from those of thin clients, and you will need to account for them in your application design. The benefits of smart client applications are significant, but you can realize them only if you address these challenges appropriately.
Smart Client Architecture and Design Guide
Smart clients allow data and logic to be distributed to the client computer, whereas thin clients tend to keep the data and logic centralized on the Web server and other back-end services. Although the smart client approach allows you to make the application more efficient, with no round trips to the server to determine next steps, you need to consider that the application and its data are now more widely distributed than with thin client applications, and modify your design accordingly. If you are implementing business rules on the client, you will need to update those rules as required, without updating the entire application. This may mean that you use differing mechanisms for updating the application and updating business rules within the application. By caching data on the client, you can significantly improve the performance and usability of an application, but you must ensure that the data is refreshed appropriately and that stale data is not used. Because many users can access and use the same data, you must also consider the effects of data concurrency. Your application must be able to handle data conflicts or reconciliation issues that arise because the application is now more widely distributed and can operate while offline. 3, Handling Data, covers these issues in depth. The .NET Framework provides a great deal of flexibility in how your smart client applications can be hosted. Applications can be run as traditional desktop applications or can be hosted within Office or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Many combinations are possible. For instance, a Windows Forms application can host Internet Explorer or Office components, and any host can subsume any other. You can factor volatile application logic (for example, business rules governing volume order discounts) into assemblies that are downloaded on demand over HTTP. Doing so obviates the need to deploy new versions of the client application as new application logic is developed. You can use the same model for additional (or infrequently used) application features, so that initial application size is kept to a minimum, and additional features are installed on an as-needed basis. You may choose to deploy your smart clients as composite applications, where many applications combine to form a coherent solution. Such solutions can be formed by coupling desktop applications, or by providing a generic shell application that houses multiple lightweight applications that together form the solution.
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