Web2 with Java:Struts2, Spring MVC, Flex, JavaFX and Google Web Toolkit

Originally posted on the O’Reilly Books OnJava blog. 

My fellow Java Developers. Two years ago I wrote an article on ‘Web 2.0 and Enterprise Java – move over Struts‘ looking at what was likely to replace Struts 1 (then and now a de facto web standard). How did our predictions fare?

Remember that article (and this one) isn’t looking for technical best, but which is going to be a best investment of your time to learn (in a mercenary commercial sense). And if you’re deciding which to use in a project , which framework is going to be easiest to support in 5 or 10 years time?

Broadly speaking, the frameworks we talk about break into two types: those that treat the web as a set of pages, and those that treat the web as a set of components (think Visual Basic, Delphi or Oracle Forms act-a-likes).

So , what has changed in the last 2 years:

  1. The rise of Spring. Not only has it gone mainstream, but the Spring MVC, Spring Webflow and Spring-JavaServerFaces are very powerful and widely used web frameworks. A sign of how things have changed is that for Sruts 1 the Spring guys wrote the integration for the (then) bigger Struts framework. For Struts 2 , the integration was provided by the Struts community. With the forthcoming Spring 3 release the framework is increasing momentum; More annotations and less XML in Spring MVC; Rest Web Services out of the box, support for Dynamic languages like Groovy and Spring Webflow becoming a more ‘just use it where you need it’ solution.
  2. Adobe Flex and OpenLaszlo – Flash graphical interfaces on the Web, built using Java. I don’t think these will be *the* mainstream choice but I do think the will be more than a just a niche. And for design led companies, nothing else (not even Microsoft Silverlight) can come close in terms of a user ‘wow’ factor.
  3. JavaFX and Applets done right (Jim Weaver has a good article on this). More of a competitor to Adobe Flash as both are rich content in the browser using an easily obtainable plugin. JavaFX will appeal to developers because of it’s Java like syntax. I hope I’m wrong, but for rich web content, would you put your money on Sun (an Engineering led company) or Adobe (an almost apple-like design led one)?
  4. Frustration with JSF (Java Server Faces). For the last 3 years I’ve thought that ‘*this* is the year of JSF. I’m still waiting not because of lack of demand (as web apps become more complicated and use more Ajax they become more like the JSF component based model). It’s now uphill for JSF as I (and a lot of other Developers) have given up. I’m still waiting for the ‘EJB 3′ moment when JSF becomes more simple and more usable. Remember , we ‘re not talking about technically best, but which is going to be in widespread use.
  5. Google Web Toolkit (GWT). Looking at it one way , GWT is JSF done right – a component based web framework , but one that is fast and has a lot of community support. Even then it took me a long while to warm to GWT – I’ve bad memories of web-components that hide their internals (remember Microsoft Interdev 10 years ago?) . What got me over the hump was thinking of GWT as a compiler not to Assembly or bytecode , but to Javascript and HTML.

How has Struts 2 got on in the meantime? I’m not sure. Remember , Struts 2 is very different from Struts 1. Conceptually it’s very similar to Spring MVC (Simple Java Beans based with configuration); Slightly easier to learn and maybe slightly less powerful than Spring (although both are more than capable for most Enterprise web applications.

The ‘I’m not sure’ bit comes from two (non technical) factors:

  1. Struts 2 hasn’t achieved the massive Enterprise developer mind share that Struts 1 did. It’s a better framework, but it’s got more competition.
  2. If you’re using Spring in the middle tier, why not have one less framework and use Spring MVC (instead of Struts 2) in the presentation layer as well?

Back to the previous predictions , how did we get on?

Scenario 1: Adding Ajax to existing Struts Applications. Use AjaxAnywhere – closest to the approach taken in the article Sprinkle Some Ajax Magic into your Struts Web Application. Despite writing this article , I see the frameworks evolving rapidly to the point where you would only take such an approach for adding Ajax to ‘Legacy’ applications.

How did we do? I’d maybe widen the choice of Ajax Libraries (to include DWR , Dojo, Prototype and others) but the basic idea of evolving rather than replacing your Struts 1 app still holds true.

Scenario 2: Need Ajax Now for a new Java Application. Use Appfuse as it gives Struts, Ajax (with DWR) and the possiblity of JSF integration now, all ‘out of the box’.

How did we do? I still recommend AppFuse, as it combines (name-your-web-framework) with Spring Hibernate(and other ORM) and Maven. However I’d now tend towards choosing Spring MVC (unless you’ve a reason to use Spring 2), given that you’re probably already using Spring in the mid tier.

Scenario 3: Medium Term. Use an implementation of JSF (either MyFaces or whatever Appfuse promotes – probably Struts Shale). Struts Shale (JSF) has so far released only ‘overnight’ builds. Apache MyFaces (JSF) tool support and Ajax capabilities are likely to improve over time. Both Struts-Shale and MyFaces are likely to play well with AppFuse , making it a safe bet for investing your time checking it out.

How did we do? Struts2 and Spring both still give you migration route to JSF. But do you want it?

So out of the creative ajax-induced chaos of 2 years ago, I see 4 or 5 clear choices in Enterprise web frameworks: Struts 2 (as a follow on from Struts 1). Spring MVC, due to the huge mindshare Spring has on the mid-tier. Google Web Toolkit , both as a natural home of frustrated JSF developers , and because who’s going to argue with the people who gave us maps and mail? Flex, because Flash apps done well just look so good. And JavaFX, because Applets-haven’t-gone-away-you-know.

In my view, we would have been delighted to have any of these framworks 5 years ago. And each (for different reasons) is likely still to be popular in 5 years time. Your missions now is to pick the one that suits your project needs.

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OpenLaszlo – Cool Flash for Clunky Java people

Flash is created by cool people who wear black and use Apple Macs. If you’re not sure as to what flash is, the chances are that if you’ve seen something on the web recently that made you go ‘wow’ for it’s coolness, then it was built using Adobe Flash.

To add substance to this froth Java people can use Flash (instead of normal web pages) to create cool pages that do useful stuff. For example Google Analytics uses Java and Flash to create a stunning User Interface. Even though Ajax and DHTML give you a lot of interactivity on your web pages, Flash goes one better at the small cost of not being as good for SEO and requiring a plugin (that most people already have installed).

So, what are you to do if you want to combine the coolness of Flash with the heavy lifting of Enterprise Java on the Server? The two main options are:

  1. Flex from Adobe is one way for Java people to create flash. The core toolkit is free, but the editor costs about $500 and that’s before you pay for using it on your servers. More details in the previous blogposts on Adobe Apollo and Adobe Flex.
  2. Open Laszlo Project is open source all the way, but does’t have a drag and drop editor (i.e. it’s more technical than graphical). Still , it allows you to create some cool effects , such as this Flash Clock.

Which framework will win out? I don’t know , and that’s before you even consider the Standard Java Web Frameworks such as Struts 2.

More (In progess) notes on Open Java and Flash are on the wiki. In an impulse buy , I bought the OpenLaszlo in Action yesterday. As an EBook , with rebate (coupon LZ35607 before the end of August) it costs about 10 Euro. Initial impressions are good (both for the book and Open Laszlo) , but I’m still working my way through it (so don’t quote me on it).

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Disclaimer: I get a rebate if you buy the book from Amazon, but not if you buy the (Cheaper) E-Book direct from Manning. I bought the E-Book this time, but have got free books from Manning in the past for having reviewed (as yet unpublished) JBoss items.

Moaning about Struts 1 won't help you move to Struts 2

(Struts is one of the most popular way for companies to build their websites. This was to be posted on Bill moaning about Struts 1 problems, but Bill’s blog isn’t accepting comments at the moment.)

Struts 2 Logo

Bill,

I hate to spoil your Struts 1 party , but most of these problems have been known for some time (and the Struts team would be the first to articulate them). Struts 2 is a huge improvement and , as you mention, there are good alternatives out there (including Spring MVC).

The problem is that migration from Struts 1 to (for example) Struts 2 , while easy, still carries a risk for the project in question. It can be hard to convince the business decision maker when all they see is pain (‘so you’re going to break the existing site?‘) for very little gain (‘where’s the immediate payback of upgrading?‘).

My advice is to stick with Struts 1 on existing projects. Use Struts 2 (or even better, Appfuse) on new projects. And for new code on existing projects, consider running them both side by side. They’re all tried and tested solutions.

Paul

Enterprise Java Developer Wanted

A good friend of mine needs an Enterprise Java Developer, to be based in Dublin Ireland (sorry , no Teleworking). It’s a contract position and the project is high profile and sounds quite interesting. The main reason I’m passing on it as the exact location is the only place where I cannot get to easily from Drogheda! One man’s poison is another man’s meat (or something like that).

With that information (i.e. next to none at all) I’m going to ask you if you’re interested. Yes , I could put all the buzzwords (the usual Spring , Ajax, JSF, EJB , Hibernate), but to be honest I don’t know where the technology road will take this project.

One small catch. We need to weed out all the muppets that are out there. So, you need to have been blogging about Java for the last couple of months. If you’re interested , leave a comment and I’ll pass on your details.

Google Spreadsheets Mean the end of Java

Or to be more accurate ‘Google Spreadsheets mean the end of Java as we know it’.
Google Spreadsheets Logo
Think about this. Who pays your wages Mr Java-Developer-who-has-just-had-a-couple-of-years-at-the-top-of-the-pile? Clients, or if you’re in a larger organisation , the business folks (i.e.’internal’ clients). Do you think any of them care about Java? Do any of them know what Java is? All they want is to get things done, quickly , and with as few mistakes as possible.

These business people would be happy to run their organisations on Spreadsheets. Do you remember the cartoon where Dilbert convinced the pointy haired boss that he could fly the plane using Excel? There’s more than a element of truth to this. I know of at least one US Fortune 100 company that (until recently) conducted most of it’s operations on little more than Microsoft Office and duct-tape. It worked, not very well, but it worked.

Until now , the next line would be ‘Excel (or any other type of Spreadsheet) is not secure / scalable / sharable / not web friendly’. That was until Google launched their Docs and Speadsheets. It’s an online version of Office with some spreadsheet functionality. Play with it a bit and you’ll see that there’s plenty missing. But this being Google , I’m willing to put good money on

  • (a) new features rolled out (think steamroller) and
  • (b) These Spreadsheets being massivly scalable / secure / sharable.

This being Google, there is also an API (developer page here). It’s got massive holes in it (e.g. you can’t yet use it to create a new spreadsheet). But when Microsoft bring out their version of online spreadsheets (and they will) not only will they clone the Google API (to get market share), they’ll need to go one further and introduce new features / remove the usage restrictions in order to compete.

So, secure, scalable, sharble online spreadsheets are here to stay. So lets take a look at Mr. (or Ms.) Pointy haired boss thinking about their new project:

  1. Hmm, I think we need to be able to gather which health plans our employees are enrolled in.
  2. OK, I’ll throw together a spreadsheet to show people what I want
  3. Before I’ll give to our friendly Java developer and let him ‘do’ a website from it.
    Soon I’ll just share this on Google.
  4. Great , Loads of people are now using it, I’ll just the (Ruby / PHP / Insert other language here) guy to add one or two extra features.
  5. Most Excellent. Why don’t we spin this off as a Web 2 company and sell it to EBay??

There you have it, Massively scalable , Highly secure websites (see Google Authentication API), without needing to know anything about EJB, JMX , JBoss, JDBC or any of the hard won knowledge that us Enterprise Java Developers have built up over the last 7-8 years. I’m exaggerating, but not much.

What do you think? Is Enterprise Java dead, or is Web 2 just another boost and a slightly different way of doing things for us Java people?

Other Java Posts from Technology in Plain English

Some other notes:

This article was originally published on the O’Reilly books OnJava Website.

Enterprise Java Presentation , Stephens Hotel , Dublin

You may remember we did the Enterprise Java presentation at DCU back in October for the wireless skillnet in Ireland. We’re doing a follow up presentation, this time in Central Dublin, on the 22nd January. The audience is mainly business people with some sort of interest or connection with technology.
Irish Dev has more details.

The topics covered include:

  • What Problem are we trying to solve?
  • Enterprise Java Architecture Overview.
  • Benefits to the Enterprise.
  • Alternatives (.Net , PHP , Oracle , Lightweight Java Frameworks , scripting)
  • Vendors (IBM, Oracle, Sun , Bea , JBoss and SAP)
  • Market Trends – Resource availability (can we get the people to do this?)
  • Enterprise Web 2.0 and Service Orientated Aritecture (SOA).
  • Integrating with other Systems ( Legacy Systems, Oracle etc)
  • Enterprise Java Beans 3 (EJB3)
  • Middleware (MOM, Rule Engines, Workflow)
  • Security – Application and Server Level including Java Access & Authorization Service (JAAS).
  • Frameworks (Struts , JSF, ADF, DWR, Spring, Hibernate)
  • .Net interoperability
  • What’s next for Enterprise Java?