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Brian Cogan analyses the opportunities presented by webMathematica, an online version of the successful Wolfram software.

webMathematica is a server product that allows remote users to access specific Mathematica applications and packages over the Web or intranet. Users may not need the full functionality of Mathematica, and need not even know they are using Mathematica. They simply want to carry out certain calculations routinely. Not only can the entire range of Mathematica's numerical, graphical, and symbolic functionality be made available, but remote users can also access the specialised bespoke routines and the commands in add-ons such as "Control System Professional" or "Digital Image Processing".

Users of webMathematica may be working in an industrial environment and want to calculate returns on investments, or the rates of chemical reactions, or the current carrying capacity of cables. Some calculations may use confidential data or algorithms that a company may wish not to circulate widely. Alternatively, the calculations could be safety-critical calculations where an employer needs to ensure that the correct procedures are followed. Having company-approved algorithms for safety-critical calculations ensures that corporate safety policy is intrinsic to all calculations and designs.

Other users may work in the academic world and want to provide problems and examples for students. Researchers who want to share or publicise their work, or to encourage others to adopt their approach to a particular problem, may want to put their algorithms on a server and allow others to try them out. Authors can make available live, interactive books and journals.

A service provider such as an electricity utility or a telephone company may want to provide its customers with the ability to calculate what tariff is appropriate given their usage of the utility. Financial institutions are yet another category of potential users. They could offer their clients the facility to calculate mortgage repayments, potential returns from a portfolio, interest payments, or simply the cost of a term loan.

Mathematica Server Pages (MSP) drive webMathematica. These pages are based on Java programs called "servlets" that run on a web server. MSP technology allows standard HTML pages to contain Mathematica commands. These pages are called "MSP scripts" and when the Mathematica commands they contain are executed, they display the result on the page.

Of course, an application such as webMathematica needs a front end. Using a web browser as a front end for Mathematica has several advantages. Firstly, it provides a familiar interface for those not used to Mathematica’s standard front end. Secondly, workers in an average IT department will find it is easy to set up a web browser. On the other hand, the Mathematica standard notebook interface works extremely well as a front end and is a very convenient way to access the underlying Mathematica kernel. This standard notebook interface is easily integrated into web applications and is actually essential for generating images and rendering MathML.

MathML is a standard for displaying and reusing mathematics on the web and inside a browser. MathML conveys information about the visual appearance of an equation as well as the meaning of the equation. It creates "live" documents and it is effectively a third generation of text display. The first generation is a passive medium such as HTML or PDF. The second generation is editable and uses programs such as Word and MathType. Using MathML, it is possible to copy, paste, and then evaluate formulas directly from a web browser.

Some experience of Mathematica, web hosting, application hosting and monitoring tools, as well as knowledge of web server administration, HTML, and HTML forms is required to install and manage webMathematica. Software such as Java Run Time Environment (JRE 1.1 or higher) and a servlet container (supporting the 2.0 API or higher) is also required. Final setting up requires root or administrator privileges on your server. If users already have a web server and a servlet container, webMathematica is readily added to the existing setup.

As with any other server product, there are security issues involved with installing webMathematica. Mathematica contains commands for reading, deleting, and editing files and for launching processes that hackers could abuse. Wolfram Research has included security features to ensure that webMathematica does not compromise server security.

Making a package such as Mathematica available to employees, students, customers or clients over the web or intranet represents a reversal of the trend from distributed processing and a return to the beginning of computer networks with centralised intelligence and data processing. This is to be expected in our interconnected age, and the administration and management of such a centralised system is simpler. Clients can use a standard web delivery system so there are no special requirements for installing and administering software on individual machines. Installation, licensing, upgrading, access and security all come under the control of a single entity within an organisation and senior management can monitor and control such a centralised system more readily.

The philosophy of making applications available to a client base from a centralised location will, I am sure, become a familiar aspect of computer use in the future.

The cost of making Mathematica available over the web or intranet depends on which "Mathematica Service" you opt for and what you want to use it for. "Premier Service" users get webMathematica for free whereas other charges vary depending on whether the application is "professional" or "amateur".

You can use the online Reader Enquiry service at Scientific Computing World to make contact with organisations referred in this article, or to visit relevant websites.