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J2EE vs .NET: Where Is Application Development Going?

Duncan Mills Outlines The Rise and Rise of the Meta-Framework

Where is application development going? What's the next cool thing? You may have answers to these questions, your answers may be the same or different to mine or anyone else's. The point is we just don't really know, and that's a problem. Saying to the manager of enterprise development shops "Oh yes just standardize on J2EE and everything will be fine" is not going to cut it. These folks are savvy enough to know that J2EE is a minefield of choice in standards and APIs. They need and deserve more direction than that.

So you can make a suggestion as to a good set of technologies to use in a particular scenario - let's say Toplink, Lucene, Struts and JSP, as a random example - but of course there's a catch. You've just flagged a whole bunch of different technologies and APIs, each with a learning curve, each with different download locations or vendors and possibly conflicts in the APIs they consume.

This is, I think, why .NET presses a lot of the right buttons. It's a Meta-Framework - a one stop shop. Say to a development manager you just have this one thing to do everything you need, and of course it's going to be attractive, irrespective of what the reality might be under the covers.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of fantastic point solutions and frameworks out there in the J2EE world, but as standalone islands of functionality they have a much harder sell in the corporate market. If we look for frameworks that have been successful and widely adopted and examine them to see what gives them the edge what will we find? Take Struts for instance (love it or hate it). I'd be hard pressed to call Struts a meta-framework by my current thinking, but for it's time, it was. It wasn't just a collection of taglibs, that's what everyone was doing, it was taglibs plus a front controller, and it evolved to encompass validation as well. Struts became a worthwhile skill because with that one notch in you belt you can tackle a good chunk of an applications development.

What Defines a Meta-Framework today?

Here are what I would regard as the key attributes of a meta-framework:

Broad Scope - the framework needs to cover everything from UI creation and page flow controller functionality to integration with multiple service providers including EJB, Web services, POJO and so on. It's not just a vertical slice through. Pluggability - the flexibility within the meta framework to incorporate choice into the stack. There is no reason at all that a meta-framework cannot encapsulate existing best of breed service providers, this is particularly true in an area like O/R mapping where I might want to use EJB, I might want to use a POJO based Toplink solution, or something totally new might come along. Just give me the choice (but feel free to offer best practice solutions).

Coexistence - Given that it's unlikely that a meta-framework will be able to implement everything itself it's going to be in turn a consumer of service frameworks - this is implicit in the pluggability argument. This in turn implies that the coupling between services within the framework has to be loose otherwise the pluggability dream cannot be fulfilled. Also, however, it imposes a degree of responsibility in the provider of the meta-framework.

Someone has to test all this stuff together, are there classloading problems for instance, do all these components share the same version of key APIs and so on. If you construct you own bespoke architecture this is something you'd have to worry about. If you consume a meta-framework one of the things you should be getting is this certification. Of course that might mean that components within a meta-framework are not absolute cutting edge within a specific genre, but do developers want cutting edge or do they want assured working?


Abstraction
- where you have choice you need abstraction. If I want to swap out my O/R mapping layer I don't want to have to adopt a whole new set of APIs at the binding or transactional glue points. The meta framework needs to add value here, standards such as the common databinding proposed by JSR 227, are ideally placed to provide this type of plumbing.

I not dumb enough to suppose that swapping out is actually common within an individual application, but the point is the same skillset can be reused between projects or where a project has a heterogeneous set of providers. Abstraction generally is where meta-frameworks can add the most value because it leads into the next point - longevity.

Longevity - APIs change, this is a fact of life, Frameworks provide a level of abstraction on top of the base platform APIs and a degree of insulation from that change as a result. But frameworks change too with time, particularly active community driven ones. Meta-frameworks can add another layer of abstraction and programmer insulation on top of this shifting morass. You code to the Meta-framework and the plumbing in is handled for you, as the sands shift, the meta-framework adapts to that on your behalf. Can this work in reality? Well yes, certainly in the world of propriety frameworks we have environments like Oracle Forms which have persisted and evolved for almost 20 years, bringing code forward from VT terminals, through Windows GUIs to the Web, essentially unchanged, although perhaps enhanced as more capabilities appeared.

This then is the major carrot that meta-frameworks can offer to enterprise development shops - stability, but without stagnation. A meta-framework has to evolve and offer it's consumers the latest and greatest whilst at the same time maintaining a rock solid foundation for existing applications.


Tooling
- Meta-frameworks will often be based around both coded abstraction layers and a large amount of in-metadata configuration. As such having tools support is an important part of the picture. Tooling can add yet another layer of abstraction through alternative visualizations such as diagramming or GUI screen designers. This helps with the whole future proofing issue..


But Why Now?

Why should you believe that meta-frameworks have any traction? We've not really seen any SOA-like marketing buzz around such frameworks, no great vendor splashes. Well, I think now is the time because it's happening in a stealthy and underhand way in any case. If we ignore the vendors for a second and just look at the standards and trends: What's the big trend at the moment? - well POJOs and IOC, think EJB 3.0, think Spring, you name it - loose coupling in other words.

I also think that the JavaServer Faces (JSF) standard is also a key player here. JSF offers an abstracted UI definition and event handling model that can be run across multiple devices. That's a large chunk of meta-framework right there. If I learn JSF I can code for mainstream browsers, handhelds and even industrial telnet devices with a single skill set. That works for me!

Where Are The Meta-Frameworks?

We've see that Microsoft can do it with .NET, but they have the luxury of almost total control. Are fully fledged meta-frameworks possible in the open standards J2EE space?

Well yes I think it can be done, many frameworks aspire, but most of those that do so do not have the scope of a true meta-framework. Maybe they only support one UI technology, or only allow EJBs for persistence. That's not good enough, a framework must be adaptable and willing to evolve to drink the soup du jour, but of course do that in a balanced and supportable way. To date I'd say that to varying degrees, the Oracle ADF framework and the Spring framework are closest in exhibiting most of the essential meta-framework attributes. Keel is also out there in this space but is lacking traction and is unlikely to be that attractive to large enterprises.

Meta-frameworks then, have the potential to offer exactly what the large enterprise shops need: a certified technology stack with the flexibility to meet the majority of requirements, and the promise of a lifetime that matches the application being built with it.

I think it's inevitable that meta-frameworks are in the the domain of the commercial vendors (and I include in the grouping the vendors operating on a Service basis for open source as well as the paid-for-product vendors). Maintaining a meta-framework is a long term and expensive commitment, it's going to have to be paid for, either through license costs on the framework itself, or through support/service costs. It's also got to be backed by companies that stand a chance of being around for the required timescales.

The vendors though, are out there and ready to jump into this space. The meta-frameworks are coming...

More Stories By Duncan Mills

Duncan Mills is senior director of product management for Oracle's Application Development Tools - including the JDeveloper IDE, and the Oracle Application Development Framework. He has been in the IT industry for the past 19 years working with Oracle, Java, and a variety of more obscure programming languages and frameworks along the way. Duncan is the co-author of the Oracle Press book: Oracle JDeveloper 10g for Forms and PL/SQL Developers - a Guide to Web Development with Oracle ADF.

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