Monday, August 9, 2010

I'm not smart enough to use Java EE

I don't seem to be smart enough to use Java EE.

Reading the Java EE tutorial certainly helps. It's very good at explaining a lot of the how, though not as much of the why; there isn't a strong overview of what EE is and how it fits together, but there's plenty on how the parts work and how to use them. Before sitting down for some quality reading time, I was totally lost. This is not something you can dive head-first into. After reading the tutorial I'm only very confused. [Edit 2012: The tutorial seems to have more overview info now, or I understood it better this time around. It's still hard to see what uses what, builds on what, and relates to what from the tutorial though.]

UPDATE 2011: I seem to be managing despite the learning curve and the quality challenges, and am trying to help others avoid the same suffering I went through by providing some overview level documentation on how it all fits together and what all the damn acronyms mean.

UPDATE mid-2012: It's two years since I wrote this, and sometimes I still struggle with the complexity of the Java EE stack. JSF2 in particular feels significantly over-engineered and doesn't have documentation to match its complexity; it feels as complicated as the rest of Java EE put together without close to as much useful documentation (and lots more bugs).

The remainder was written in August 2010, not long after I moved from Swing development over to Java EE 6 - unbeknownst to me, just as Java EE 6 implementations were in their infancy and not in any sense stable or production ready.

Problem 1: Acronym soup

Seam. Struts. Tapestry. Weave. Weld. JSF. JSF2. JPA. JPA2. EJB2. EJB3. CDI. Hibernate, EclipseLink, etc. J2EE. JARs in OSGi bundles in WARs in EARs. Glassfish. JBoss. Tomcat. Jetty. @Inject. @EJB. @Resource. @PersistenceContext. @javax.annotation.ManagedBean. @javax.faces.bean.ManagedBean. @Named. @Stateless. @Stateful. Spring. Servlet filters. @javax.faces.bean.RequestScoped, javax.enterprise.context.RequestScoped, @javax.faces.bean.SessionScoped, javax.enterprise.context.SessionsCoped, @javax.faces.bean.ApplicationScoped, javax.enterprise.context.ApplicationScoped, javax.enterprise.context.ConversationScoped, @javax.faces.bean.ViewScoped. @Singleton. DAOs and data access layers. JTA. JNDI. JMS. RMI. Deployment descriptors (web.xml, etc). Vendor deployment descriptors (sun-web.xml, sun-resources.xml, etc). Various config files, some of which have an effect even when empty (faces-config.xml, beans.xml). Maven plugins, oh god the maven plugins. RichFaces, MyFaces, IceFaces, PrimeFaces, SeamFaces.

Java EE makes me understand how "non computer people" feel when listening to programmers talk.

Problem 2: Bad or incomplete documentation, narrow-view docs without an overview

For a newbie, it's extremely hard to understand the layering, and made even more confusing by the mixing of specs (eg JAX-RS, JSF2) with implementations (eg Jackson or RestEASY, Mojarra or MyFaces). Each project's documentation talks largely about its self in isolation.

Most of the documentation, even the Java EE 6 tutorial, focuses on narrow parts of the spec without ever trying to help you understand how it all fits together. Some overview documentation that focuses on the basic concepts is sorely needed.

It doesn't help that the JSF2 spec is [wording edited] a very dense document that specifies but does not document or explain JSF2. The assumption seems to be that you'll get a book for JSF2[/end edit]. [Added 2012:] Many recommend Core JavaServerFaces over JavaServer Faces 2.0, The Complete Reference; I certainly found the former helpful.[/end added]

Problem 3: Legacy, duplication, and specs created in isolation

Part of the problem is that there are several generation of "technology" that are mashed together in an overlapping mess. For example, J2EE6 uses CDI with Weld, but everyone already does this with Spring, which also does all sorts of other things so you might want to still use it even though you're doing DI with Weld in a J2EE container. Your objects might be being managed by some combination of JSF2 @ManagedBean lifecycle management, @EJB lifecycle management, Weld, or (if you're using it) Spring.

Or does JSF2 actually use CDI to manage its beans via Weld? Who knows! (Update: the answer is "Maybe", btw. If you're using CDI, JSF2 beans are managed with CDI as implemented by Weld. Otherwise they're managed by JSF2 its self.) Every framework uses every other framework or has semi-transparent integration hooks for them - hooks that mostly work, but with some subtle bugs or limitations. Every framework claims to make everything simple, while adding yet another layer of nightmarish complexity. Specifications inevitably have a reference implementation from Sun/Oracle/JBoss, and an Apache implementation, so you have to figure out what the relationship between the implementation names and the spec name is for each, what they actually do, which implementation you might want to choose and why, etc.

When trying to learn about this stuff, it's hard to find materials that don't already assume you know the older technologies and just want to update to the newer ones. Hell, it's hard to figure out what the older ones and newer ones even are, or why you should want to use one over the other.

The J2EE platform releases are supposed to help with that, but seem to add complexity more than remove it, due to the need for backward compat, support for older frameworks and code that uses them, the messy overlap between different specs, the way different specs each added feature like injection in different and incompatible ways, etc.

Problem 4: Too much magic, not enough visibility when (not if) the magic breaks

There's so much transparent management of application state, object lifetimes, request handling, etc that it becomes quite hard to figure out what your app is actually doing, how and when to do something, or how to alter some part of the automatic behaviour when you need to. As for debugging... good luck following your app though a JSF2 request lifecycle.

Heaven save you if you forget to put an empty beans.xml magic marker file in a project. It'll be NullPointerException soup with absolutely NO indication that CDI is turned off. Obvious and simple with experience, hell when I first got started.

Struggling? You're not alone

On the other hand, it makes me feel better when really, really smart people point out that all this architecture makes it hard to see what you're actually trying to do.

... and all this means that paradoxically, even as we have higher and higher level programming tools with better and better abstractions, becoming a proficient programmer is getting harder and harder.

.... and really, reading the manual makes it a little more approachable. Entirely avoiding JSF2 in favour of something sane like Vaadin or even Play if you're so inclined will help even more.

1 comment:

  1. Right to the point!
    I'm happy to see you're doing steady progress into the wonderful world of Java EE.


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