Thursday, August 20, 2009

Choking on Java

As you can tell from my blog I am a long time Java developer who likes to flirt with dynamic languages. Not surprisingly my two favorite languages at this point are Groovy and Ruby. Therefore, I enjoy working with the Grails and Rails frameworks. After working with Java for so long I was starting to get tunnel vision around a single language. After all, Java is a general-purpose language that can do anything if you bend it enough.

However, Java is not always the best solution for all situations. Obviously, Web development is one of those glaring areas where Java can work but might not be the best candidate. I began developing web applications with Java using plain old servlets and jsp pages. Like most Java developers I also discovered Struts 1. While some of the components of the framework seemed a little strange, Struts was better than my homegrown attempt. So I developed with Struts for a while but I was not entirely satisfied. Of course there were other issues to tackle outside of the presentation layer including persistence, transaction handling, and other services. So I evaluated JDO, EJB, and Hibernate. I finally settled on Hibernate but there was still a mess between my presentation tier and my persistence layer. Later I found Spring and glued everything together. After evaluating countless presentation frameworks I refined my Java Web stack over time using Stripes, Spring, and Hibernate. This combination took a lot of experimentation but I was able to make Java conform to the web in a relatively lightweight manner. The point is that I had to do a lot of bending here.

When Rails first came on the scene I was fairly closed minded mainly because of my investment in Java. How could this newcomer trump all my hard work or be as robust as Java? Well after taking Rails out for a test drive I quickly realized how over-architected Web development was with Java. It reminded me of so many early math classes where it would take several pages of computation to achieve a result. Then more advanced math classes introduced techniques to achieve the same results in just a few steps. I appreciated the simplicity of solving a problem with less computation and yielding the same results (or better). Doing less work for the same results once I understand the underlying theory works for me.

But with RoR there was a fair bit of voodoo so I became less intrigued by Rails and wanted to know as much as possible about Ruby. Ruby turned out to be a fun language with constructs that are currently not available or easy to achieve with Java (i.e. closures, better mixin techniques, creating your own DSLs with builders, everything is an object, etc). I quickly realized that I could code much more expressively and achieve the same functionality with a lot less lines of code. Testing my code with a dynamic language instead of Java was also enjoyable because it was simpler. I actually wanted to do testing! Exposure to a new language like Ruby actually improved my Java code (and made me resent how noisy Java is). So now I am an aspiring polyglot with an open mind to new languages.

Not long after I looked at Rails I saw that Grails 0.3 was available (I think I first saw it on So the Java camp was attempting to answer Rails with Grails. OK fine, I took a look at Grails and this is when I was first exposed to Groovy. Groovy offered much of the same dynamic capabilities as Ruby and worked well with my existing Java code (mostly). And Grails offered much of the same convention over configuration principles like Rails. Even better I could integrate my Grails application with my existing Java code. It was like winning the World Series of Poker when I hooked up my existing Spring beans and Hibernate annotated domain objects with Grails. Grails automatically recognized my Spring beans and seamlessly added all of the GORM dynamic methods to my domain classes.

However, I still liked the Ruby language slightly better than Groovy because it did not carry the Java baggage along with it. So now I have a language and a framework that are great for new development, but I could not reach out to my existing Java classes or external libraries with Ruby. Then I found JRuby. JRuby allows me to write Ruby code and integrate with my Java code, Spring beans, etc. However, if I was going to use Rails and wanted to follow their paint by numbers framework then I was stuck with ActiveRecord. Also Rails does not have a service layer concept so my Spring beans did not naturally fit in the Rails framework. I quickly found out how to create a Spring bean factory in JRuby so my Rails controllers could access these services.

As much as I like JRuby there are some things that I want. First, I would like to see JRuby continue to strive for near Java performance. I do realize that we are talking about a dynamic language but I believe that this can be achieved. Second, I think that JRuby needs to provide easier integration for popular open source frameworks like Spring and Hibernate. Why shouldn’t JRuby/Rails emulate Grails the same way that Grails “borrowed” from Rails. Maybe the JRuby team could offer these items as gems to supplement the Rails framework. Or maybe this will be a pluggable feature with Rails 3? This is about bridging the gap between the Java and Ruby communities. Finally, I want to see Engine Yard offer commercial support and training for JRuby (which seem inevitable now that Charles Nutter is at EY).

While building Rails applications is fun, deployment can be a pain. I think that the leveraging JRuby/Rails on a Java platform makes a lot of sense here. Ruby contains several gems for integrating your Rails application in a Java environment. First, there is the Warbler gem, which allows you to take your Rails application and package it up in a standard war file format. So now your Rails application can be deployed on any standard Java container. Second, there is a Glassfish gem for deploying your applications without Warbler. The JDBC-ActiveRecord gem allows you to use your JDBC drivers to connect to your database instead of the Rails drivers. By deploying your Rails application on a JVM you get extra benefits like simpler deployment strategies, better threading support, and easier ways to scale. So while you might want Rails for development, the JVM might offer better services for housing your application. Even if you don't have to integrate any Java code you should still consider JRuby for Rails development IMHO.

So, if you choose to use a dynamic language should you use Grails or Rails for Web development? I do not think there is a cut and dry answer to this question. In this case, the lines are a little blurry because the underlying languages seem to be converging in capabilities. However, I will provide my 2 cents on this issue and watch the comments for this entry fill up. Let me start off by saying that I like both frameworks for different reasons.

Let's start with Grails. Grails is great for Java developers that have existing experience with Spring and Hibernate. The migration to Grails will benefit these people the most because they understand how Spring and Hibernate work. Grails is pretty much just a wrapper around these frameworks so when problems arise they will have the same issues that had to be solved before. The benefit is that this is a great way to get started with a dynamic language (like Groovy) and start to understand what all the fuss is about using a familiar set of tools. Plus, as I indicated earlier you could drop in your Spring beans and Hibernate classes and watch them work out of the box. You will need a deep understanding of Spring and Hibernate when things go wrong to troubleshoot problems as they arise. This is where things might break down for developers that do not understand these frameworks.

Now let's talk about Ruby on Rails with JRuby. Working in Rails is just a fun way to develop. Rails was created solely to solve the domain specific problem around web development. And Rails developers seem to introduce easy solutions to mundane problems. There are lots of plugins and gems that can make Rails even more enjoyable. However, there are thousands of Java libraries available that you might want or need to integrate with. As a Rails developer why wouldn't you at least give yourself the option to tap into those libraries?

So how does everybody win? I believe that everyone will benefit if these two communities come together. I have observed the Java and Ruby communities for some time and seen a lot of mud thrown from both sides. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself why these two groups cannot see that they really need each other at some level. Is this more of a cultural gap than a technical one? Java is infused into so many organizations and is not likely to go away any time soon. What better way to get your Rails application deployed in a Java shop than making a case with JRuby? Also, if you want to evangelize and strengthen Rails as a popular development platform why not build on top of one of the largest existing infrastructures? Rails will only survive by gaining acceptance as a viable framework.

As for Java developers that think that Rails is not a good solution for Web development I say they are passing judgment without entertaining the idea. Let's face it, Java is legacy. If you still think that JSF provides rapid development or think WebSphere is a great application server then you probably will not buy into this blog entry. As technologists we need to find and accept better ways to solve problems. Maybe Rails is not the end all solution for Web development. There are many emerging frameworks like Seaside, Django, Lift, Sinatra, Camping and more that believe they have a better mousetrap. This is a sign that people believe that Java is too complicated and over-architected for web development.

Let me summarize by overstating how much Web development has changed. Java developers and Ruby developers need to understand how the JVM can benefit them. Web development using domain specific languages and dynamic languages are hot and over architected Java solutions are not. But there is a middle ground and whether you choose Grails, RoR, or some other framework to simplify your web development you are probably on the right track. Finally, both the Java community and the Ruby community have things to offer each other to secure their survival.

Well off to look at more Scala...


Casper Bang said...

Best blog entry I've read in a while. It's nice to see, unlike just a few years ago, how Java developers are slowly waking up to the realization that Java does a lot, but doesn't do anything particularly well.
In this day and age you can get away with saying such a thing without getting your head ripped of, which means we're moving forward as a profession. For the love of god, I can not understand how anyone can be productive or will chose to work with JSF.

Unknown said...

Bah. Java is only over engineered if you're running struts and velocity and spring and hibernate and whatever else you can think of.

Java started simple. Just servlets and it was easy as pie.

Don't blame the language for the third party libraries. Personally, I'm still happy with the basics and a disiplined approach. Granted, my client is getting fatter everyday--less stuff in java and more on JavaScript and flex.

Appologies for the poor iPhone keyboarding. :-)

Chandru said...

If you like Rails/Grails for web development, you might also like EasyWeb4J.

EasyWeb4J is very similar to Rails in design and works with plain Java. So you get close to Rails in productivity without losing out Java's raw performance.

You can get up and running with it in an hour max. Give it a shot I'm sure you'd like.

Unknown said...

Great blog man, you just said what the true developers think and want from those languages.

To me, no matter which is better, but how can I integrate them.

Gary S. Weaver said...

Great article, but three comments: (1) "Java is legacy"? I think that is taking it a bit too far in 2009 at least. Has it past its heyday? Definitely. But legacy? Not quite. I think it is safe to argue that there are still many, many more new large applications being written in Java than Ruby or JRuby. (2) I am all for Ruby and JRuby. Ruby definitely has its merits and JRuby also for many of the reasons you stated. However, you fail to mention how the same freedom and ease of development in Ruby/JRuby can get you into trouble in larger applications. While you can develop things faster, when you get stuck it can take a lot longer to track down the issue than a more well-typed language. This is not to say it is worse than Java, but each have their benefits. (3) Choking on Java? That is a little severe of a title. Overall though- good stuff. Please keep writing.

Ananth Chelladurai said...

Great post, worth suggesting the link to java folks.

Joel said...

Try Tapestry for web development, it's a real joy to work with. Tapestry 5 has been very well though out and is a lean, performant framework in which to deploy web apps, and the dev cycle is FAST.

Charles Oliver Nutter said...

Figured I'd stop in and drop a few comments relating to JRuby...

You make a really excellent point about Grails and how to figure out problems you eventually need to actually know how Spring or Hibernate or friends work. At least with Rails, if you know Ruby you can dig into Rails itself (it's complicated, but at least it's still Ruby). But we also recognize the benefits that Hibernate and friends give to Grails and will soon suppose Hibernate in JRuby with Rails.

Unknown said...

Very good post !!
One thing about using JSF/WebSphere/OAS, sadly most of us need to work on those technologies, not because we want it or because we think those are great technologies, but because most of the time those are company-wide desitions. As always, somebody sell the 'idea' to the manager and so everybody must stick with it :(
BTW, I am starting to use groovy/scala and I am having a lot of fun with them.