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A Spring Jump Start

  • April 13, 2005
  • By Craig Walls and Ryan Breidenbach
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It all started with a bean.

In 1996 the Java programming language was still a young, exciting, up-and-coming platform. Many developers flocked to the language because they had seen how to create rich and dynamic web applications using applets. But they soon learned that there was more to this strange new language than animated juggling cartoon characters. Unlike any language before it, Java made it possible to write complex applications made up of discrete parts. They came for the applets, but they stayed for the components.

It was in December of that year that Sun Microsystems published the Java-Beans 1.00-A specification. JavaBeans defined a software component model for Java. This specification defined a set of coding policies that enabled simple Java objects to be reusable and easily composed into more complex applications. Although JavaBeans were intended as a general-purpose means of defining reusable application components, they have been primarily used as a model for building user interface widgets. They seemed too simple to be capable of any "real" work. Enterprise developers wanted more.

Sophisticated applications often require services such as transaction support, security, and distributed computing—services not directly provided by the Java-Beans specification. Therefore, in March 1998, Sun published the 1.0 version of the Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) specification. This specification extended the notion of Java components to the server side, providing the much-needed enterprise services, but failed to continue the simplicity of the original JavaBeans specification. In fact, except in name, EJB bears very little resemblance to the original JavaBeans specification.

Despite the fact that many successful applications have been built based on EJB, EJB never really achieved its intended purpose: to simplify enterprise application development. Every version of the EJB specification contains the following statement: "Enterprise JavaBeans will make it easy to write applications." It is true that EJB's declarative programming model simplifies many infrastructural aspects of development, such as transactions and security. But EJBs are complicated in a different way by mandating deployment descriptors and plumbing code (home and remote/local interfaces). Over time many developers became disenchanted with EJB. As a result, its popularity has started to wane in recent years, leaving many developers looking for an easier way.

Now Java component development is coming full circle. New programming techniques, including aspect-oriented programming (AOP) and inversion of control (IoC), are giving JavaBeans much of the power of EJB. These techniques furnish JavaBeans with a declarative programming model reminiscent of EJB, but without all of EJB's complexity. No longer must you resort to writing an unwieldy EJB component when a simple JavaBean will suffice.

And that's where Spring steps into the picture.

1.1 Why Spring?

If you are reading this book, you probably want to know why Spring would be good for you. After all, the Java landscape is full of frameworks. What makes Spring any different? To put it simply, Spring makes developing enterprise applications easier. We don't expect that to convince you at face value, so first let's take a look at life without Spring.

1.1.1 A day in the life of a J2EE developer

Alex is a Java developer who has just started on his first enterprise application. Like many Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) applications, it is a web application that serves many users and accesses an enterprise database. In this case, it is a customer management application that will be used by other employees at his company.

Eager to get to work, Alex fires up his favorite integrated development environment (IDE) and starts to crank out his first component, the CustomerManager component. In the EJB world, to develop this component Alex actually has to write several classes—the home interface, the local interface, and the bean itself. In addition, he has to create a deployment descriptor for this bean.

Seeing that creating each of these files for every bean seems like a lot of effort, Alex incorporates XDoclet into his project. XDoclet is a code generation tool that can generate all of the necessary EJB files from a single source file. Although this adds another step to Alex's development cycle, his coding life is now much simpler.

With XDoclet now handling a lot of the grunt work for him, Alex turns his attention to his real problem—what exactly should the CustomerManager component do? He jumps in with its first method, getPreferredCustomer(). There are several business rules that define exactly what a preferred customer is, and Alex dutifully codes them into his CustomerManager bean.

Wanting to confirm that his logic is correct, Alex now wants to write some tests to validate his code. But then it occurs to him: the code he is testing will be running within the EJB container. Therefore, his tests need to execute within the container as well. To easily accomplish this, he concocts a servlet that will be responsible for executing these tests. Since all J2EE containers support servlets, this will allow him to execute his tests in the same container as his EJB. Problem solved!

So Alex fires up his J2EE container and runs his tests. His tests fail. Alex sees his coding error, fixes it, and runs the tests again. His tests fail again. He sees another error and fixes it. He fires up the container and runs the tests again. As Alex is going through this cycle, he notices something. The fact that he has to start the J2EE container for each batch of testing really slows down his development cycle. The development cycle should go code, test, code, test. This pattern has now been replaced with code, wait, test, code, wait, test, code, wait, get increasingly frustrated...

While waiting for the container to start during another test run, Alex thinks, "Why am I using EJB in the first place?" The answer, of course, is because of the services it provides. But Alex isn't using entity beans, so he is not using persistence services. Alex is also not using the remoting or security services. In fact, the only EJB service Alex is going to use is transaction management. This leads Alex to another question: "Is there an easier way?"

1.1.2 Spring's pledge

The above story was a dramatization based on the current state of J2EE—specifically EJB. In its current state, EJB is complicated. It isn't complicated just to be complicated. It is complicated because EJBs were created to solve complicated things, such as distributed objects and remote transactions.

Unfortunately, a good number of enterprise projects do not have this level of complexity but still take on EJB's burden of multiple Java files and deployment descriptors and heavyweight containers. With EJB, application complexity is high, regardless of the complexity of the problem being solved—even simple applications are unduly complex. With Spring, the complexity of your application is proportional to the complexity of the problem being solved.

However, Spring recognizes that EJB does offer developers valuable services. So Spring strives to deliver these same services while simplifying the programming model. In doing so, it adopts a simple philosophy: J2EE should be easy to use. In keeping with this philosophy, Spring was designed with the following beliefs:

  • Good design is more important than the underlying technology.
  • JavaBeans loosely coupled through interfaces is a good model.
  • Code should be easy to test.

Okay. So how does Spring help you apply this philosophy to your applications?.

Good design is more important than the underlying technology

As a developer, you should always be seeking the best design for your application, regardless of the implementation you choose. Sometimes the complexity of EJB is warranted because of the requirements of the application. Often, this is not the case. Many applications require few, if any, of the services provided by EJB yet are still implemented using this technology for technology's sake. If an application does not require distribution or declarative transaction support, it is unlikely that EJB is the best technology candidate. Yet many Java developers feel compelled to use EJB for every Java enterprise application.

The idea behind Spring is that you can keep your code as simple as it needs to be. If what you want are some plain-vanilla Java objects to perform some services supported by transparent transactions, you've got it. And you don't need an EJB container, and you don't have to implement special interfaces. You just have to write your code.

JavaBeans loosely coupled through interfaces is a good model

If you are relying on EJBs to provide your application services, your components do not just depend on the EJB business interface. They are also responsible for retrieving these EJB objects from a directory, which entails a Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI) lookup and communicating with the bean's EJBHome interface. This is not creating a decoupled application. This is tightly coupling your application to a specific implementation, namely EJB.

With Spring, your beans depend on collaborators through interfaces. Since there are no implementation-specific dependencies, Spring applications are very decoupled, testable, and easier to maintain. And because the Spring container is responsible for resolving the dependencies, the active service lookup that is involved in EJB is now out of the picture and the cost of programming to interfaces is minimized. All you need to do is create classes that communicate with each other through interfaces, and Spring takes care of the rest.

Code should be easy to test

Testing J2EE applications can be difficult. If you are testing EJBs within a container, you have to start up a container to execute even the most trivial of test cases. Since starting and stopping a container is expensive, developers may be tempted to skip testing all of their components. Avoiding tests because of the rigidness of a framework is not a good excuse.

Because you develop Spring applications with JavaBeans, testing is cheap. There is no J2EE container to be started since you will be testing a POJO. And. since Spring makes coding to interfaces easy, your objects will be loosely coupled, making testing even easier. A thorough battery of tests should be present in all of your applications; Spring will help you accomplish this.

1.2 What is Spring?

Spring is an open-source framework, created by Rod Johnson and described in his book Expert One-on-One: J2EE Design and Development.1 It was created to address the complexity of enterprise application development. Spring makes it possible to use plain-vanilla JavaBeans to achieve things that were previously only possible with EJBs. However, Spring's usefulness isn't limited to server-side development. Any Java application can benefit from Spring in terms of simplicity, testability, and loose coupling.

Note: To avoid ambiguity, we'll use the term "EJB" when referring to Enterprise JavaBeans. When referring to the original JavaBean, we'll call it "JavaBean," or "bean" for short. Some other terms we may throw around are "POJO" (which stands for "plain old Java object") or "POJI" (which means "plain old Java interface").

Put simply, Spring is a lightweight inversion of control and aspect-oriented container framework. Okay, that's not so simple a description. But it does summarize what Spring does. To make more sense of Spring, let's break this description down:

  • Lightweight—Spring is lightweight in terms of both size and overhead. The entire Spring framework can be distributed in a single JAR file that weighs in at just over 1 MB. And the processing overhead required by Spring is negligible. What's more, Spring is nonintrusive: objects in a Spring-enabled application typically have no dependencies on Spring-specific classes.
  • Inversion of control—Spring promotes loose coupling through a technique known as inversion of control (IoC). When IoC is applied, objects are passively given their dependencies instead of creating or looking for dependent objects for themselves. You can think of IoC as JNDI in reverse—instead of an object looking up dependencies from a container, the container gives the dependencies to the object at instantiation without waiting to be asked.
  • Aspect-oriented—Spring comes with rich support for aspect-oriented programming that enables cohesive development by separating application business logic from system services (such as auditing and transaction management). Application objects do what they're supposed to do—perform business logic—and nothing more. They are not responsible for (or even aware of) other system concerns, such as logging or transactional support.
  • Container—Spring is a container in the sense that it contains and manages the life cycle and configuration of application objects. You can configure how your each of your beans should be created—either create one single instance of your bean or produce a new instance every time one is needed based on a configurable prototype—and how they should be associated with each other. Spring should not, however, be confused with traditionally heavyweight EJB containers, which are often large and cumbersome to work with.
  • Framework—Spring makes it possible to configure and compose complex applications from simpler components. In Spring, application objects are composed declaratively, typically in an XML file. Spring also provides much infrastructure functionality (transaction management, persistence framework integration, etc.), leaving the development of application logic to you.

All of these attributes of Spring enable you to write code that is cleaner, more manageable, and easier to test. They also set the stage for a variety of subframeworks within the greater Spring framework.

1.2.1 Spring modules

The Spring framework is made up of seven well-defined modules (figure 1.1). When taken as a whole, these modules give you everything you need to develop enterprise-ready applications. But you do not have to base your application fully on the Spring framework. You are free to pick and choose the modules that suit your application and ignore the rest.

As you can see, all of Spring's modules are built on top of the core container. The container defines how beans are created, configured, and managed—more of the nuts-and-bolts of Spring. You will implicitly use these classes when you configure your application. But as a developer, you will most likely be interested in the other modules that leverage the services provided by the container. These modules will provide the frameworks with which you will build your application's services, such as AOP and persistence.

Figure 1.1 The Spring framework is composed of several well-defined modules.

The core container

Spring's core container provides the fundamental functionality of the Spring framework. In this module you'll find Spring's BeanFactory, the heart of any Spring-based application. A BeanFactory is an implementation of the factory pattern that applies IoC to separate your application's configuration and dependency specifications from the actual application code.

We discuss the core module (the center of any Spring application) throughout our book, Spring in Action from Manning Publications, starting in chapter 2, when we cover bean wiring using IoC.

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