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Interview with Eitan Suez, creator of the JMatter framework

02.06.2008
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I've interviewed Eitan Suez, creator of JMatter, software framework for constructing workgroup business applications based on the Naked Objects Architectural Pattern. Learn about the status of the framework and upcoming features that will help you increase your productivity on desktop application development.


Q. Thanks for taking this interview Eitan, can you tell us what is the JMatter framework?

A. JMatter is software that implements many of the pieces that make up business applications, generically. A core belief behind JMatter is: ultimately, what is unique about a business application is its domain, its business logic

As we all know, it takes much more than implementing an object model to be able to deliver a finished solution. The domain requires an infrastructure, it needs a harness that is often not there. In my experience a very small fraction of a project's budget ends up being truly dedicated to implementing the business logic. A far greater share is spent building the infrastructure. What does that infrastructure consist of? An application will often require these more "generic" facets:

  • security
  • authentication: restricting access to the application
  • authorization: fine-grained access control over an application
  • a user interface: the means to interact with the domain
  • crud: the ability, for example, to enter a new customer in the system, or edit a customer's information
  • persistence: the need to save/remember activity
  • search: the ability to mine data in various ways, to locate information
  • remoting: accessing an application's service remotely
  • reporting

What makes JMatter somewhat different from traditional frameworks is that an application's user interface is considered to be part of that infrastructure. So now I am in a position to answer your question:

JMatter aims to reduce the construction of a new software application to what is truly unique about it: the implementation of the domain model. All the other pieces are provided by the framework.


The consequences are dramatic:

  • large time savings
  • a specific application's codebase shrinks dramatically
  • a clean separation between application development and infrastructure development
  • large degree of code reuse
  • developers become more agile
  • you end up with very consistent applications
  • given enough time and effort spent building a solid infrastructure, you end up with high quality applications (less bugs)
  • certain fundamental rules of software application development no longer hold. specifically, this rule:

 

the cost of making a change to a software system late in the life of a software project is much higher.
conversely, it's cheaper to make changes early on, when less software has been built upon requirements that may change.


So the assumption here is that a software system is inherently not DRY. i.e. that if i revise my business logic in some
way, that it will have repercussions to the user interface (forms will have to be revised to reflect a new field, for example), repercussions to the way reports are constructed, ripple effects to the database schema, the authorization system might have to be revised to take a new action into account, and the list goes on. The entire application has to be retrofitted to take the change into account.

With jmatter, when you alter your business logic, there are no repercussions. the database schema derives from the domain model, the user interface, the authorization system, the search system, etc.. all reflect the domain model. That's the essence of jmatter (sorry it took so long for me to describe)

Q. If the database schema depends on the domain, how does the framework cope with new properties on existing domain classes ?

A. It's a fact of life that systems change over time, reflecting the dynamic nature of processes. Perhaps the nature of a business changes, perhaps a regulation mandates keeping track of information that was not essential before. In simpler cases, the need for an additional field may arise, or perhaps the converse: an existing field may no longer be needed. Sometimes a field is simply renamed perhaps to better reflect the prevalent business terminology.

How are such issues addressed today? The field is added both to the domain class and to its corresponding database table. In the rails world, the database is updated and rails infers a new domain property from the updated database schema. In JMatter's case, you add the field to the domain object in question and ask JMatter to perform the corresponding schema update. So JMatter is domain-centric, it is domain-driven.

Q. What about pre-existing databases? is there a migration path ?

A. Up until recently there wasn't, mainly because I haven't had the need in my own work to address this particular scenario. Over the last year or two I have had several requests to address the issue: can we construct a JMatter application based on an existing schema?

I'm glad to say that an independent JMatter user/developer in Minnesota, Jim Slack, recently contributed code to do just this. And I've taken the time prior to this last release to integrate the code into JMatter. The program in question (which is now available in JMatter as an ant target) analyzes an existing database schema, from which it derives the source code (Java) for the domain model, making certain assumptions. So now there is a migration path from an existing schema.

I have personally not taken the time to think long and hard about this problem. I prefer to study a business process and do the object modeling first. I believe it to be very important to "get the model right," so to speak. It seems to me the more natural approach.

I've been in many environments where the database schema had grown haphazardly, bit by bit, mainly by pressures to meet a deadline or a specific need. These schema usually have limited virtues in terms of being an elegant way to model systems. I believe many of us in the community know that the current picture is not so rosy. Database schema are typically vigilantly guarded against change. In the long term this mentality does a disservice to a system, forcing developers to bend over backwards to accommodate a structure that may no longer make sense. Just as we refactor code, I believe our schema could use more frequent and vigilant refactorings, that perhaps march in lockstep with domain changes.

Q. What made you begin writing the framework ?

A. I recall being introduced to these ideas when I attended a talk given by Dave Thomas (of Pragmatic fame) on this
framework named NakedObjects. This was several years ago. I bought the book, tried out the code, and got hooked. I couldn't let go of the ideas. Here was a way of building software that resonated with me. It's fair to say that I was infected by these ideas, and that I couldn't let go of them. That forced me onto the path of writing JMatter.

Q. Can you tell us more about the Naked Objects pattern ?

A. Abbreviated from the wikipedia entry the pattern is defined by these three principles:

  • All business logic should be encapsulated onto the domain objects
  • The user interface should be a direct representation of the domain objects
  • The user interface should be created 100% automatically from the definition of the domain objects


Q. The project site mentions Swing, have you thought in supporting other view technologies like SWT ?

A. As JMatter has grown, so has the implementation of its view mechanism. JMatter's current view mechanism leverages Swing, and sports many features, including:

  • home-grown scheduling / calendaring components
  • custom layout managers
  • form views, tree views, table views (the latest version even includes geographical mapping views)
  • a ui library for constructing wizards
  • a css library for swing
  • a visual command interface, similar to gnome do or quicksilver
  • an expose-like feature from jayasoft named jexplose


Adapting the framework to another widget toolkit is no small undertaking.So I have to carefully weight the cost of such an implementation to the value that might be derived from it. The big question in my opinion is whether or not to implement a web-based view mechanism. In my mind, the principal advantage of a web "front-end" is free remoting. I'm trying hard to keep separate the two ideas of remoting and widget toolkit, and am asking myself the question:

do we really want a web front-end, or do we want to be able to proxy some of the application logic behind an application server?


That said, I did build an alpha implementation of a web-based view mechanism as a proof of concept. The concept was validated.

The nakedobjects framework provides three alternative front-ends:

  • the first used a java-based widget toolkit,
  • a command line interface, and
  • a web-based interface


I personally would rather build on one, though I may not be able to ignore the web much longer.

Q. The web concept was validated, what about the proxy concept ?


A. So basically JMatter today is a two-tier solution. The proxy concept entails breaking the application logic in two, where all database-related work would be performed on the server-side behind an application server while the rest of the logic would remain on the client. The result would be a more "traditional" three tier system (client, app server, database).

The dominant practice today appears to be web services: marshalling calls from one end to the other, whether it be using a binary serialization mechanism, or text-based: xml / json. This approach is tried and true, but it's not generic, and seems tedious: it's the hard road to take.

I've looked at existing solutions. Let me start by taking Canoo ULC as an example. This particular product does something interesting. It implements something known as the half-object pattern for user interface components. This basically means that a user interface component has one foot on each end of the wire. When a user clicks on a button for example, the event is propagated to a handler method on the server side. In the reverse direction, when invoking a ui component method from the server side, that signal is propagated to the client. In this manner the "business logic" can be kept on the server while user interface (which supposedly contains no business logic) is remoted to end users. Several relatively modern web frameworks do something similar: perhaps WingS, Echo, ZK?

I think the right answer is to apply the half object pattern not to the user interface components, but to the domain objects themselves. I've looked at one specific product that really intrigues me: Terracotta, which allows for an object to be shared across multiple virtual machines. So changing, say, a property on a domain object on the server is immediately reflected on the client. This product however today seems to be focused on solving more traditional problems, such as replicating session state across a cluster.

Recently, I've stumbled across an entirely different approach which really excites me. I've started working on it; you'll find a very preliminary implementation in the latest release of JMatter. Today, JMatter applications are deployed via Java Web Start: an ant target bundles the whole application for you, and even creates the html page with the link to the generated jnlp file that autodownloads the client to the user machine. From there, java web start takes care of making sure the client application is kept up to date.

The download can easily reach 20MB. What fascinates me is that only perhaps 100KB of that 20MB (0.5%) is unique application code. The rest is generic: The JMatter libraries plus a litany of supporting libraries. So I've decided to apply the fundamental idea behind JMatter to deployment: rather than download 20MB for each application (of which 99.5% of the code is duplicated), why not turn JMatter into a browser:

  • users download a generic JMatter application browser once (the client container) (the application can be made to self-update if necessary)
  • enter a url to a jar file and 100KB are downloaded across the wire, and dynamically classloaded into the virtual machine. Your application is dynamically launched: the splash screen comes up, you log in, and start interacting with the application


This mechanism has the following benefits (web apps have the same benefits):

  • nothing to install
  • the application logic can be updated at any time (posted as a jar file to a web server)
  • the application footprint is tiny, even compared to web standards. let's look at some numbers: in a web app, each page in an application can easily take up 100KB. here the entire application is 100KB


And we haven't even begun working on providing offline functionality for which there's a path to implementation, thanks to all-java rdbms's such as h2. The main issue with this approach of course is confronting yet another industry taboo: that applications shouldn't talk directly to their back-end databases.

Q. What can you tell about the framework's future?

A. As you can probably tell from this interview, I'm very passionate about JMatter and the ideas it embodies. As a developer I'm tired of the way we currently build applications. I believe JMatter holds great promise.

The feedback we've gotten from our community of users is simply second to none. Take a look at some of the comments we've received from users and developers at: http://jmatter.org/pages/quotes, this feedback is encouraging, and energizing. I feel that many other developers echo my sentiments about software development. In terms of product development, it's never dull. There always seem to exist more terrific, game-changing ideas than we have the resources to develop.

Judging from the JMatter users mailing list, our community has slowly grown over time to a couple of hundred subscribers. We're starting to get more active participation from the community. I'm very proud that our last release had three code contributions from the community. My focus in 2008 will be to increase awareness of JMatter. At the same time, I'm committed to steadily improving the product through regular and frequent releases.

Thanks for the interview Eitan!

A. it was my pleasure. thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss jmatter with the developer community.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Andres Almiray.