Thursday, September 07, 2006

Which Web Framework Do You Want to Use Today ?

Yes, it has literally come to this point, where you need to rummage across hundreds of pages to decide upon the technology / framework that you will use in the Web tier. In designing an enterprise application, we had converged upon Struts way back in 2001, since the only other available alternative was to write one ourselves. Things were so simple those days!

Struts - Reunited!

Struts is now like a broken family with a number of subprojects, each trying to carve its way to the mainstream - thanks to some decent heads we may see the light of Struts 2 (aka SAF 2) release very soon. Struts is one of the members in the milieu of action-oriented Web frameworks that still give HTML the respect of being a transaction oriented protocol by offering *Action* as the principal abstraction. But from whatever I have seen of Struts 2 (and their adoption of WebWork codebase), I think it is on its way up to where it belonged a couple of years back. And it also offers integration with all sorts of other frameworks in the world -

  • it uses Spring as the IoC container and has a proposed integration with Spring Web Flow

  • Don Brown has recently announced a JSF integration (the holy grail of unification of action-oriented and component-oriented paradigms) by a clever usage of the Interceptor stack

Spring MVC - Struts 1.x++

Among the other dominant players in the action-oriented world, I like Spring MVC a lot and have really found nothing to complain about it. It offers definite improvements over Struts 1.x wrt the programming model in that it has -

  • a strong data binding and validation mechanism that uses Spring's data binder and validator

  • IoC for easy testing (that's bread and butter for any Spring offering)

  • seamless integration with multiple view technologies

  • the best integration with Spring on earth

I guess the main factor between choosing either of the above 2 will be the developers' expertise that u have on your team. But Struts has a stronger community and a much larger user base that Spring MVC.

Components on the Web - The Java Server Faces

This is the latest standard from Sun and offers the component model for Web frameworks. While the action-oriented frameworks use *actions* to push request into the model and the view, JSF uses components throughout. The entire view is modeled as a tree of components and it is the responsibility of the “ViewHandler” implementation of JSF to create and render the component tree using the underlying view technology (the default is the JSP).

JSF is an attempt to align Web UI tier to the rich client metaphor of desktop applications - I am not very sure if this will scale. HTTP is stateless and having a heavyweight stateful component model plugged in there implies an equally heavy-duty maintenance cycle(state saving and rendering). That's precisely the complaint that we hear for JSF (see here, here and here) and no wonder we find people like Jacob Hookom and Ed Burns desperately trying to get some ways out of this through partial statelessness of the component model, the JSF Avatar Proposal and the other extensions in jsf-extensions.

Till today, JSF has scalability problems for large enterprise applications - the specification is a neat component model with typed event handling, encapsulated markups, separate validators and converters and a well-documented lifecycle. The problem is the implementation, which is a serious roadblock towards scalability of performance. Inspite of all these, JSF may be the platform of the future because of tool friendliness, enhanced support for developer productivity and the backing of the big daddy.

I would not dare to push into a full blown JSF based Web tier in my large scale performance sensitive, clustered enterprise application.

Another close relative in this world of component oriented Web frameworks is Tapestry, hailed by many as technically much superior to JSF. But, Tapestry has a long learning curve, is basically a single man show and has long release cycles with least concern for backwards compatibility.

My Stack

It is quite useful to use a mix-n-match solution stack, since most of the frameworks offer nice integration (a symbiosis of sorts).

  • For stateless pages that need raw speed, I would go for action-oriented frameworks. Whether it is Spring MVC or Struts 2 will depend upon the expertise that my team has. Spring MVC offers more powerful Spring integration (obviously), but Struts has stronger community presence - so it is really a matter of judgement on the spot.

  • For rich component oriented pages only, I would go for JSF and Facelets with backing beans having Spring services injected within, but have the action controller from Struts 2 or Spring MVC. So, JSF usage is limited only for very specific cases which will really benefit from the rich component model.

  • Lastly for dialogs and other flow intensive pages, I would pick up Spring Web Flow, since it is the best in stateful flow management with rich support for continuations (BTW, what's the deal with Struts Flow - the latest download is a 2004 snapshot!). I know SWF integrates with JSF, but I am not very sure about the current state of integration between SWF and Struts 2.

The above stack is pretty heavy and uses multiple frameworks. I have not tried this out (may be I should) - I hope the integration points work out as promised by each party. It will be great to hear from all of you about your recommendation for the Web-tier stack.


Ignacio said...

IMHO JSF is a neat standard with some pretty poor implementations. The problem is serializing the view between requests, which is behind 90% of the forum threads and FAQ entries. This seems like a feature that 99% of the people do not understand and do not like. Sigh.

Out of that, the navigation model is neat, the validator/converter thing works like a charm and the DI architecture fits nice.

Now if only there was a decent implementation.

Debasish said...

Exactly! That's what I too have mentioned in my post. Hopefully with the efforts of Jacob Hookom, Ed Burns in jsf-extensions, things will improve.

Martin said...


Looking at Struts Ti Phase 2 (which will be implemented in SAF 2.1 or 3.0) I see the current version of Stripes.
Stripes is also "one man army" as you said for Tapestry, but Tim Fennell writes Java code for a 5 SAF developers ;-)


Debasish said...

Hi Martin -

I had a look at Stripes. The problem is *too many options* in this space - no wonder people complain about Java endorsing Frameworkitis :-(. I am still looking for the holy grail stack - sigh !

- Debasish