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NetBeans: Introductions to the Open-Source Project, More Than an IDE


June 27, 2007

NetBeans is more than an IDE. It is also an open-source project, community, and a rich client application platform. There is certainly more to NetBeans than just a free IDE. In this new series of articles about NetBeans I hope to introduce you to not only the NetBeans IDE but also the project as a whole.



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Figure 1: NetBeans IDE

The NetBeans Integrated Development Environment

The NetBeans IDE is an open-source IDE supporting Java Mobile, Standard, and Enterprise editions. It also supports development of NetBeans Rich Client Platform, HTML, XML, JavaScript, and other scripting languages and technologies. The IDE itself is a NetBeans RCP application.

Other standards and APIs are supported "out of the box" including but not limited to JavaBeans, Struts, Java Server Faces, JUnit, and ANT projects. Others are supported by add-on plug-ins such as Apache Maven and Maven2 and UML. UML along with some other features including Ruby applications will be available after install starting with NetBeans version 6. In my next article I hope to specifically address new features you will find in NetBeans 6.0.

The IDE also includes features that are common to Java IDEs. These features include an integrated editor with source code refactoring support, visual designers for certain technologies including Swing user interfaces, web applications and web services support, and projects which can be built from the command line without the IDE. There are too many features to address in a single article, but I will attempt to address many of them in the coming months.

Aside from Ruby and JavaScript mentioned above, there are other technologies being added to the IDE. These include PHP and operating system scripts such as Bash and Windows Batch files. The new JavaFX scripting language is also being added. This will provide many visual capabilities not previously available to Java developers such as dynamic presentation style effects Flash developers have enjoyed. Many others will come as NetBeans now has a generic language framework, known as Schliemann, for easily adding different language support to the IDE.

Plug-ins (Modules)

Using the NetBeans RCP as its base, the IDE supports plug-ins. These are first class citizens with their own project support accessible in the IDE using File|New Project and category NetBeans Plug-in Modules. This makes it easy to add support for your own custom needs to the IDE. It is also how the NetBeans developers keep adding extra functionality while keeping the existing functionality, and it provides the capabilities to upgrade individual sections or functionality of the IDE.

I currently have two modules listed on the NetBeans Plug-in Portal that do this. One helps clean up large directories, such as copies of large open-source projects, without consuming too much disk and CPU resources, and the other makes working with text embedded in Java sources and external tools, including SQL, XML, and HTML, easier. Many others have done as I, and most of the modules are free. I suggest looking over the plug-in portal as you may find something useful.

The NetBeans Rich Client Platform

The NetBeans RCP, as other RCP packages, is a framework and set of utility APIs which help developers create feature rich applications more easily. It takes care of many features that are common to desktop applications such as context menus, extensions or plug-ins that are called modules in NetBeans lingo, integrated data views, user preferences, and persistence between application sessions.



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Figure 2: Simple NetBeans Rich Client Platform paint application

There are many utilities and packages that applications can build atop. For instance, many 3rd party applications need custom editors, so editors are not unique to IDEs, and the NetBeans RCP provides this. There is a visual library that can be used to develop a wide range of functionality including graphing and reporting and diagramming tools such as UML or Organization Chart designers. There are many others for you to examine.

The RCP also helps integrate your application into the operating system. The RCP project support in the IDE can generate application launchers for Windows, Mac OS X, and general Unix and Linux. The common components and Swing extensions also have UI delegates defined for different look and feels. Coupled with standard Swing look and feel support these are things you as the developer no longer have to worry about.

You can examine the IDE to get a feel of what is available in the Platform. You can install and test it on different operating systems. You can also view the current API documentation. Based on the NetBeans RCP, the IDE sources are a good resource for developing RCP applications. They provide many working examples.

As I mentioned in the IDE section, plug-in development is supported directly in the IDE. This extends to RCP applications. For IDE plug-ins and RCP development there are many wizards and utilities to make things easier. Not that it can't be done, but this is much easier than trying to do it all by hand in something like a text editor or some other development environment. Aside from your specific functionality and code, most things can be added to your application with a few clicks and completing a few text fields in NetBeans.



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Figure 3: RCP specific New File options

The NetBeans Community and Resources

The introduction to the NetBeans community begins on the NetBeans home page. This is usually with a download of the IDE. From the home page you can find links to most community information. There is a lot of it and it can be a little overwhelming to new comers.

Mailing Lists

One of the first things you should do is sign-up for the mailing lists or use Nabble to use the mailing lists like a forum. Some have complained about not having a forum or a news server. With Nabble you do not need anything extra. Simply use the mailing list like a forum and search the messages and view them by thread without having to actually download all the messages. The only difference between this and a news server and client is the message headers are not downloaded to your system. Either way, the mailing lists are a good resource for getting help with the different facets of NetBeans and offer good, free support.

Each mailing list has an archive available from the mailing lists page. It is good netiquette to attempt to search the archives for previous answers before posting a new question. The point being many members are community volunteers and just as busy as everyone else, so please respect their time as much as your own. This helps everyone.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC)

Next, there is an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel on irc.freenode.org called #netbeans. This has been around for a while, and is now starting to get more users, so if you had previously tried to use it you might want to try again. Some of the Dream Team members try to frequent the channel and help users as they can along with other helpful community members.

Freenode has a neat tool that allows IRC users to connect from behind firewalls. You can also directly access the IRC channel or link to it from your web site. This is a Java Applet that communicates with another server over HTTP and redirects your messages and others to and from the IRC server. This will come in very handy if you cannot use IRC because your company network blocks a port.

Remember, when using IRC, others are usually working too. So, when you ask a question, it may take up to an hour before a reply is made and other times it may take only seconds. If you come in, ask a question, and leave the channel too fast, you may never see the reply, so try to have patience for your own benefit.

Code Samples

You will find the different samples included with the IDE very helpful. They directly demonstrate aspects of the technologies supported by NetBeans. Look in the IDE under File|New Project and category Samples to see what is available. Then, if you cannot find what you are looking for, visit the Sample Catalog on-line. The samples on-line are usually part of a set of plug-ins known as a pack or part of an individual module. Once you find the ones you need, you can install them into the IDE through the update center.

The samples in the IDE create projects that you can use as complete code and resource examples. The good thing about this is they are pre-built so you can dig into them; get a feel for what is capable, and how to do it while being able to run them. This, coupled with specifications, documentation, and possibly a tutorial covering the used technologies, can get you up to speed on something faster than trying to put all the pieces together yourself.



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Figure 4: Project samples

There is also the Java Blueprints Solution Catalog accessible in the IDE through Help|Java Blueprints Solution Catalog. There are many examples of different EE technologies. Along with code samples, there are complete tutorials and documents written by experts to help get you going. This is a sub-set of what is available on the Java Blueprints Solution Catalog project web site.



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Figure 5: Java Blueprints Solution Catalog

Documentation

Beyond the mailing lists, IRC, and samples, there is a lot of on-line documentation. I suggest first accessing Help|Help Contents and Help|Tutorials from inside the IDE. Then, if you cannot find what you need, access the different on-line resources. This may save you some time. Many features of NetBeans are documented in the IDE help including the default keyboard shortcuts through Help|Keyboard Shortcuts.

The NetBeans Docs & Support page is easily located from the NetBeans home page as a tab. There are documents available for the standards and technologies supported by the NetBeans IDE functionality. These range Mobile, Standard, and Enterprise Java as well as SOA and BPEL technologies among others. They include tutorials/learning trails, references, demos, and sample applications. Here you will also find links to different areas of the NetBeans Wiki though the links are not specifically identified as linking to the Wiki.



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Figure 6: IDE Help

Wiki

The NetBeans Wiki contains much information. It is such a valuable resource it really deserves to have a visible link to it from the Docs & Support page. Something like "NETBEANS WIKI HERE" would work for me. Not only will you find information created by NetBeans developers, but also many community members have created documents based on their experience in areas where documentation is lacking or from a different perspective you may find more useful. You will also find information related to development of the IDE and the RCP.

Beyond Documentation and Help: Digging into NetBeans

If getting into the innards of the project is more your forte, you will find the Community page useful. From here you can access the Release Roadmap for a quick peek at what is on the horizon or the past. You will also find information on the different NetBeans teams, contributing, where to get the sources and how to build them, NetBeans development guidelines and processes, the different projects/modules home pages, and the NetBeans issue tracking system Issuezilla.

Issuezilla is a good resource even if you do not plan on working with the sources yourself. Anyone can create issues or requests. This is how the development team knows what issues you are having with the software or different areas of the project including the NetBeans web site and project infrastructure such as CVS. It is how bugs get fixed and problems are resolved; general usage issues should be resolved in the appropriate mailing lists or IRC however.

Aside from defects, you can file enhancement and feature requests in IZ. The NetBeans teams cannot guarantee that all enhancements and features will be implemented due to a lack of resources and time, but most requests are seriously examined when the developers and module owners have time to review them.

For this, you will need to create an account on NetBeans, and the IZ page has links and information with the details. Setting up an account is quick and easy, and like everything else in NetBeans, it is free.

The UI specifications page is a good place to look if you are interested in the user interface design of NetBeans. Here you will find links to different resources regarding the UI including members whom you may want to get to know at some point if contributing to the UI and improving it is something you feel you would enjoy.

Are you into quality? You can help improve the quality of the project at the QA page. There is a community acceptance program called NetCat. I participated in the NetBeans 5.0 NetCat program, and it was a good way to share and contribute with other community members on an upcoming release. I was able to get to know a few members I had not previously communicated. I even received a T-Shirt as I had submitted so many feature requests and bugs.

There are many ways to contribute. I have found it personally rewarding and have made many community friends. If you find contributing to other open-source communities fun and rewarding, I believe you'll like the NetBeans community the same.

Working With Others

You will find, as with most things, you have different experiences with different module owners and developers. People are different and working with some will certainly be easier than others. If you have problems don't simply become frustrated, throw up your hands, and walk off. Please communicate your issues with other community members and try to resolve them.

Sometimes, detailing and explaining your issue more fully helps. Other times, it helps to communicate or use someone else as a mediator. Diplomacy comes in pretty handy when getting to know different community members and working with them. This is also true for working with employees of Sun Microsystems, the company who open-sourced NetBeans and continues to be the primary sponsor of the project. It basically boils down to people are people.

I have experienced this with different open-source projects, so communication problems are nothing unique to NetBeans. There are X different people with X different personalities and experiences. Sometimes that which one perceives as hostility or harshness is perceived differently from another person and is not always the intent of the person you are communicating. Other times, shortness is just a trait of the person you may be dealing with regardless if it's a good social tool or not. In general, this is good to keep in mind when working with any open-source project, and NetBeans is not different in this aspect.

In the NetBeans Dream Team, we will at some point try to address some community issues with regard to contributors, users, and NetBeans developers and how the relationship can be more symbiotic. Currently, we do not know exactly what this will mean or entail, but we certainly want to look at it. I feel there is something lacking, but I have not myself been able to put my finger on it, and I'm not saying it is bad, but instead some things seem like they could be better.

Either way, improvements can never hurt and certainly if we can collaborate better it will benefit all involved with the project. If you have any experiences, good or bad and from a community point of view, please feel free to share them with me at my comments email address. Let me know the issues and what worked and didn't work for you.

The NetBeans Dream Team

The NetBeans Dream Team, which I am a member, is a group of NetBeans community members who have been deeply involved with the NetBeans project for a while. Members have no affiliation with Sun Microsystems, the NetBeans project owner, other than being involved and supporting the NetBeans open-source project. No Dream Team member can be a Sun employee. This is a requirement.

The Dream Team is planning different things. Some of them involve improving the NetBeans IDE or the Rich Client Platform; others involve improving the community, while others are directed towards promoting NetBeans as one of the members' favorite open-source projects. The team may also be working on documentation for different things a user may want to do inside a NetBeans project which documentation may not be available.

Members have special insider access to the project as they are long standing community members and contributors. They are recognized for this. I may be biased in this regard, but no more than a member of any other community, which they have devoted a number of years. I will not be writing to convince you one way or another about the NetBeans project other than to tell you about it. I will try to be as non-biased as possible for someone as involved and I'm sure my editor will help me address this if I get out of line.

One way the Dream Team can help the community, and be a good resource, is try to communicate concerns between the project owner and the community at large. They can talk to community members and users in detail and try to express those concerns to the NetBeans developers and insiders at Sun. This happens now as members help out on mailing lists and IRC chat and bring community members concerns to the group.

The Dream Team can also work the other way and help the developers request things from the community, which helps them, make the project better for members and users. You can think of the Dream Team as an ear or bridge for the community. Community members and users can feel welcome to share concerns and information with the Dream Team.

Conclusions

I hope I have given you enough information about the NetBeans project to get a feel about what it is and where to find out more information about it. In the coming months, I hope to explain different features and how to use them. If nothing else, I hope you find my information useful.

About the Author

Wade Chandler has been developing software for over ten years. He has worked with different languages including C, C++, Java, Perl, different Basic and Pascal flavors, Assembler, .NET languages, and scripting tools including different scripting pages as JSP, PHP, and Cold Fusion along with JavaScript, HTML, XML, and other technologies such as Flash and Director (Shockwave). He has also worked with different operating systems, server applications, networking, DBMS, and protocol and PDA development. He is currently working for Decision Dynamics, Inc. of South Carolina.

He has been a member of the NetBeans community since NetBeans was called Forte for Java and is a member of the NetBeans Dream Team. He has contributed to different open-source projects in different capacities including but not limited to Apache Tomcat, AXIS, and other Apache projects, the visual JasperReport designer iReport, and different Linux distros (currently OpenSuSE being his favorite). Wade is also a member of the SwingLabs.org community. He has been devoting most of his open-source time to NetBeans and some day wishes to again devote time to other projects.

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