Matt Raible has been building web applications for most of his adult life. He started tinkering with the web before Netscape 1.0 was even released. For the last 16 years, Matt has helped companies adopt open source technologies (Spring, Hibernate, Apache, Struts, Tapestry, Grails) and use them effectively. Matt has been a speaker at many conferences worldwide, including Devoxx, Jfokus, ÜberConf, No Fluff Just Stuff, and a host of others.

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Highly Interactive Software with Java and Flex

03.19.2010
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This morning at TSSJS, I attended James Ward's talk about Highly Interactive Software with Java and Flex. Below are my notes from his talk.

Application have moved from mainframes (hard to deploy, limited clients) to client/server (hard to deploy, full client capabilities) to web applications (easy to deploy, limited clients) to rich internet applications (easy to deploy, full client capabilities).

Shortly after showing a diagram of how applications have changed, James showed a demo of a sample Flex app for an automobile insurance company. It was very visually appealing, kinda like using an iPhone app. It was a multi-form application that slides right-to-left as you progress through the wizard. It also allowed you to interact with a picture of your car (to indicate where the damage happened) and a map (to indicate how the accident happened). Both of these interactive dialogs still performed data entry, they just did it in more of a visual way.

Adobe's developer technology for building RIAs is Flex. There's two different languages in Flex: ActionScript and MXML. ActionScript was originally based on JavaScript, but now (in ActionScript 3) uses features from Java and C#. On top of ActionScript is MXML. It's a declarative language, but unlike JSP taglibs. All you can do with MXML is instantiate objects and set properties. It's merely a convenience language, but also allows tooling. The open source SDK compiler takes Flex files and compiles it into a *.swf file. This file can then be executed using the Flash Player (in browser) or Air (desktop).

The reason Adobe developed two different runtimes was because they didn't want to bloat the Flash Player. Once the applications are running client-side, the application talks to the web server. Protocols that can be used for communication: SOAP, HTTP/S, AMF/S and RTMP/S. The web server can be composed of REST or SOAP Web Services, as well as BlazeDS or LC Data Services to talk directly to Java classes.

To see all the possible Flex components, see Tour de Flex. It contains a number of components: core components, data access controls, AIR capabilities, cloud APIs, data visualization. The IBM ILOG Elixir real-time dashboard is particularly interesting, as is Doug McCune's Physics Form.

Next James showed us some code. He used Flex Builder to create a new Flex project with BlazeDS. The backend for this application was a JSP page that talks to a database and displays the results in XML. In the main .mxml file, he used <s:HTTPService> with a URL pointing to the URI of the JSP. Then he added an <mx:DataGrid> and the data binding feature of Flex. To do this, he added dataProvider="{srv.lastResult.items.item}" to the DataGrid tag, where "srv" is the id of the HTTPService. Then he added a Button with click="srv.send()" and set the layout to VerticalLayout. This was a simple demo to show how to hook in a backend with XML.

To show that Flex can interact with more than XML over HTTP, James wrote a SOAP service and changed <s:HTTPService> to <s:WebService> and changed the "url" attribute to "wsdl" (and adjusted the value as appropriate). Then rather than using {srv.lastResult.*}, he had to bind to a particular method and change it to {srv.getElements.lastResults}. The Button's click value also had to change to "srv.getElements(0, 2000)" (since the method takes 2 parameters).

After doing coding in Flex Builder, James switched to his Census to compare server-execution times. In the first example (Flash XML AS), most of the time was spent gzipping the 1MB XML file, but the transfer time is reduced because of this. The server execution time is around 800ms. Compare this to the Flex AMF3 example where the server execution time is 49ms. This is because the AMF (binary) protocol streamlines the data and doesn't include repeated metadata.

To integrate BlazeDS in your project, you add the dependencies and then map the MessageBrokerServlet in your web.xml. Then you use a services-config.xml to define the protocol and remoting-config.xml to define what Java classes to export as services. To use this in the Flex aplication, James changed <s:WebService> to <s:RemoteObject>. He changed the "wsdl" attribute to "endpoint" and added a "destination" attribute to specify the name of the aliased Java class to talk to. Next, James ran the demo and showed that he could change the number of rows from 2,000 to 20,000 and the load time was still much, much faster than the XML and SOAP versions.

There's also a Spring BlazeDS Integration project that allows you to simply annotate beans to expose them as AMF services.

BlazeDS also includes a messaging service that you can use to create publishers and subscribers. The default channels in BlazeDS uses HTTP Streaming and HTTP Long Polling (comet), but it can be configurable (e.g. to use JMS). There's also an Adobe commercial product that keeps a connection open using NIO on the server and has a binary protocol. This is useful for folks that need more real-time data in their applications (e.g. trading floors).

I thought this was a really good talk by James. It had some really cool visual demos and the demo was interesting in showing how easy it was to switch between different web services and protocols. This afternoon, I'll be duking it out with James at the Flex vs. GWT Smackdown. If you have deficiencies of Flex you'd like me to share during that talk, please let me know.
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Comments

James Taylor replied on Fri, 2010/03/19 - 11:28am

Good summary on Java and Flex. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the Flex vs. GWT talk as well.

Nabeel Manara replied on Fri, 2012/01/27 - 9:10am

we were going to chose flex for a project and wanted to use some of the Ilog components.... the cost was beyond prohibitive for a small company...

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