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Summary

Over the past few months, Oracle has been working overtime to help doctors, researchers, and government agencies fight the COVID-19 pandemic, plying in-house development tools to create and deliver to US physicians an app designed to help identify effective treatments for the virus.

Sometimes it really does take a village

The low-code/no-code movement has a new champion, and his name is Larry Ellison, Chairman of the Board and CTO at Oracle Corp. Toward the end of March, while engaging with US government officials on how Oracle and the tech industry as a whole could help to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Ellison made a bold commitment: Oracle would build, test, and deploy an application that would help physicians, by working with their patients, record and research the effectiveness of several, emerging COVID-19 drug therapies in just a few days.

Normally, a technology company like Oracle would respond to this challenge by first marshaling a huge number of designers, engineers, and stakeholders. This sizable group would then define the problem, design an interface, and then build a supporting architecture. This kind of methodology, of course, does not lend itself to rapid development. Instead, Oracle flipped this approach on its head, creating a “tiger team,” which consisted of Mr. Ellison and a small number of stakeholders, application developers, and domain experts. This group scheduled numerous Zoom web conferencing sessions throughout the development process to not just strategize but to also take direct action. The work done by this team carried on across a number of “always on” Zoom conference rooms by a team of more than 1,000 people, who were responsible for creating the underlying infrastructure necessary to run, manage, and secure the final app. This included setting up a fraud detection system, conducting load/stress testing, and the creation of a solid data store.

Oracle Database was an obvious choice to house the underlying data, upon which the team created a solid data model as the foundation for everything to follow. However, in building the user interface, Oracle chose a rapid route. It chose not to write in what could be considered its native tongue, the Java programming language. Instead, the company turned to its unassuming low-code/no-code development tool, Oracle Application Express (APEX). Why? Unquestionably, the company has a veritable stockpile of Java frameworks and libraries at hand, from which engineers could construct a working app. In short, given the situation, which called for the rapid creation of a highly focused user experience, Oracle chose to eschew traditional bottom-up coding methodologies and opt for APEX’s drag-and-drop approach to UI design, which doesn’t require hand-coding HTML, CSS, or JavaScript.

Putting the CTO to work, fighting COVID-19

With APEX as the development tool, Oracle felt it could safely put development into the hands of those who were closest to the problem, such as physicians, domain experts, and the original creator of the APEX framework itself, Michael Hichwa. Everyone on this small team worked directly on the app in real time, rapidly iterating interface (UX) elements and application flow. And because APEX works as a true metadata model execution engine, running on and tied closely to Oracle Database, they were able to test their assumptions and validate changes in real time as well.

The team still had to work late into the night over the course of several days, with members heavily leveraging a series of topical Zoom rooms to solve problems at speed. If a security question arose, for example, the team could readily pull one or more security experts into a predefined, virtual room dedicated to security to address the issue. Likewise, if the team felt that they wanted to extend the foundational code generated by APEX, they could quickly pull in a domain expert to address that need in real time. As an example, leveraging APEX’s use of web standards, it took the team less than two hours to convert the app to a “dark mode” interface by tweaking the app’s existing cascading style sheets (CSS) definition.

It’s important to note that Oracle did not take any shortcuts with regard to security and privacy. Fortunately, much of the work necessary to secure data exists natively within APEX and the underlying Oracle Database. Still, Oracle had to create and confirm compliance with HIPAA privacy requirements to ensure that patients could only see their own data and that the government could only access patient data in aggregate. The company also had to stress-test the app before release. Interestingly, the company did so using a very traditional dev/test methodology, asking more than 300 engineers to undertake this task.

Even with those extra steps, the final solution, branded COVID-19 Therapeutic Learning System, went live via computer, tablet, and mobile device on March 31st, taking less than two weeks from conception to delivery. This was no small feat, as this “one” app is actually made up of several solutions. There’s a registration system, an app for physicians where they can add and update patient data, and a daily update app for patients. Moreover, there are four distinct, internal applications spanning reporting, user support (including an 800 number and real-time chat), data management, and overall app administration. Oracle intends to employ this same approach to several other freely available COVID-19 response initiatives in the coming weeks and months. Given Oracle’s rapid application development (RAD) approach with this app, those are likely to follow on in short order.

More broadly, this effort points to three important lessons that should inform all enterprise IT practitioners. First, good software starts with a solid data model, built to serve the challenge at hand. Second, fast software often requires an inverted approach where domain experts can play a dominant and active role. Third, and relatedly, RAD tools like APEX are crucial to this process, because they allow these stakeholders to take an active hand in building the ultimate deliverable.

Appendix

Further reading

“COVID-19 Therapeutic Learning System,” covid19.oracle.com/ (March 2020)

“COVID-19 Omdia Analyst Advisory,”www.omdia.com/resources/product-content/covid-19-omdia-analyst-advisory (March 2020)

Author

Bradley Shimmin, Distinguished Analyst, Data Management and Analytics

[email protected]