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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Flash Killers – Java FX, Microsoft Silverlight, Groovy and Xoetrope

It wasn’t meant to be this way, but I spent most of the IJTC talking to people about Flash Killers. Technologies that look good, work in any browser and are powerful enough to deliver enterprise applications with no installation.

  • Dejan Bosanac, was speaking on Scripting in the JVM. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his book which (for the first time) has got me seriously considering Groovy. Maybe I’m about 3 years behind everybody else on this , but I get there in the end! Dejan’s book (Scripting in Java: Languages, Frameworks, and Patterns) is available on Safari
  • Guillaume Laforge talking on Groovy completed what Dejan had begun. Ironically, I didn’t see the talk , but it was the reaction of the people that did that got me interested.
  • Xoetrope (an Irish Open Source company sponsoring the conference) was demonstrating the XUI framework. Initially I thought that the world did not need another Java presentation framework. What changed my mind is that this has two edges – the first is the IDE – a plugin for either Eclipse or Netbeans , similar in drag and drop style to Visual Basic but generating clean XML Files. The second is that you can deploy on the Desktop (as either SWT or AWT/Swing), or as JSP / HTML. You can download XUI (and IDE plugins) from sourceforge.
  • Richard Bair from Sun were talking about Swing and Java FX (more below). Sun is threating to deliver on the intial promise of Java Applets (Write once, deploy anywhere).
  • Strange for a Java event, but Microsoft was giving out disks containing Silverlight – a time limited Visual Studio Professional with Expression Studio (inc Web / Design / Blend / Media).

(I’m still too traumatised by James Strachan and his Corba coloured underpants to talk about Apache Camel. And that was before Mark Proctor and Emmanuel Bernard starting talking about the size of their …. audiences 🙂

None of the above technologies really solve what I’m looking for; Ideally we’d have a version of Flash (that almost everybody has installed / designers know how to make look good) with Java embedded in it (we need the processing power of the client). Think modern version of Java Applets. Realistically we’ll have to go for 2nd best as such a thing doesn’t exist.

More on the Java FX Stuff: James Weaver of the JavaFX blog was good enough to talk through these requirements. I came across James blog after reading his book (cover below). While the book covers Java FX and FX alone (but does it well), I’ve been promised a blogpost on deploying a JavaFX Script via Webstart. With that, and if Sun makes good their promises on consumer usability in the next version of Java, then maybe we have a Flash Killer. While Sun has dropped the ball in the past (note that it was Microsoft and not Sun handing out CD’s) the response times for the FX team for a casual query about Webstart (which is not their area) gives me some hope.
JavaFx Book Cover

Microsoft Silverlight – Web 2 IDE – Event

Fergal Breen asked to blog about the Dublin Silverlight event, but Stephen Downey beat me to it. (Update: Ken McGuire is also writing about the event)
Microsoft silverlight logo

Microsoft Silverlight is a flash competitor; It looks good and is well worth checking out, but I’ve got my reservations if it is truely as portable as Flash (see comments on Tom Raftery’s Silverlight launch post). All the same, Silverlight is going to be big (it’s backed by Microsoft), and the IDE / Editor is setting a good standard.
Not sure? Go to the Event and make your own mind up.