The term fourth generation techniques (4GT) encompasses a broad array of software tools that have one thing in common: each enables the sof...
The term fourth generation techniques (4GT) encompasses a broad array of software tools that have one thing in common: each enables the software engineer to specify some characteristic of software at a high level. The tool then automatically generates source code based on the developer's specification. There is little debate that the higher the level at which software can be specified to a machine, the faster a program can be built. The 4GT paradigm for software engineering focuses on the ability to specify software using specialized language forms or a graphic notation that describes the problem to be solved in terms that the customer can understand.
Currently, a software development environment that supports the 4GT paradigm includes some or all of the following tools: nonprocedural languages for database query, report generation, data manipulation, screen interaction and definition, code generation; high-level graphics capability; spreadsheet capability, and automated generation of HTML and similar languages used for Web-site creation using advanced software tools. Initially, many of the tools noted previously were available only for very specific application domains, but today 4GT environments have been extended to address most software application categories.
Like other paradigms, 4GT begins with a requirements gathering step. Ideally, the customer would describe requirements and these would be directly translated into an operational prototype. But this is unworkable. The customer may be unsure of what is required, may be ambiguous in specifying facts that are known, and may be unable or unwilling to specify information in a manner that a 4GT tool can consume.For this reason, the customer/developer dialog described for other process models remains an essential part of the 4GT approach.
For small applications, it may be possible to move directly from the requirements gathering step to implementation using a nonprocedural fourth generation language (4GL) or a model composed of a network of graphical icons. However, for larger efforts, it is necessary to develop a design strategy for the system, even if a 4GL is to be used. The use of 4GT without design (for large projects) will cause the same difficulties (poor quality, poor maintainability, poor customer acceptance) that have been encountered when developing software using conventional approaches.
Implementation using a 4GL enables the software developer to represent desired results in a manner that leads to automatic generation of code to create those results. Obviously, a data structure with relevant information must exist and be readily accessible by the 4GL. To transform a 4GT implementation into a product, the developer must conduct thorough testing, develop meaningful documentation, and perform all other solution integration activities that are required in other software engineering paradigms. In addition, the 4GT developed software must be built in a manner that enables maintenance to be performed expeditiously.
Like all software engineering paradigms, the 4GT model has advantages and disadvantages. Proponents claim dramatic reduction in software development time and greatly improved productivity for people who build software. Opponents claim that current 4GT tools are not all that much easier to use than programming languages, that the resultant source code produced by such tools is "inefficient," and that the maintainability of large software systems developed using 4GT is open to question. There is some merit in the claims of both sides and it is possible to summarize the current state of 4GT approaches:
1. The use of 4GT is a viable approach for many different application areas. Coupled with computer-aided software engineering tools and code generators, 4GT offers a credible solution to many software problems.
2. Data collected from companies that use 4GT indicate that the time required to produce software is greatly reduced for small and intermediate applications and that the amount of design and analysis for small applications is also reduced.
3. However, the use of 4GT for large software development efforts demands as much or more analysis, design, and testing (software engineering activities) to achieve substantial time savings that result from the elimination of coding.
To summarize, fourth generation techniques have already become an important part of software engineering. When coupled with component-based development approaches (Section 2.8), the 4GT paradigm may become the dominant approach to software development.