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Enrich Your Applications with JSP Components

  • July 26, 2005
  • By Michael Klaene
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JavaServer Pages, commonly referred to as JSP, has been a core technology in the J2EE world for years. Prior to the introduction of JSP, Java developers built dynamic Web pages by writing Java Servlets that spooled out HTML code. With the arrival of JSP, the focus of Web page development returned to HTML markup, which could be enhanced with small scriptlets of Java to take care of the dynamic portions of the page. A subsequent release of the JSP specification introduced support for custom JSP tags. Tag libraries provide a way to extend the functionality of JSP. JSP tag libraries encapsulate display logic in Java libraries that markup specialists can invoke as needed by inserting the tags into their JSP files. Custom tags further reduce the amount of Java needed in JSP and provide a mechanism to add complex visual components with ease.

In recent years, other presentation technologies have begun to challenge JSP as the presentation language of choice. Most notable is the JavaServer Faces, or JSF, specification. JSF is a standards-based technology that promises a component-driven approach to development. Still, JSP technology is a more mature offering and has a wider developer following than its rivals. For example, the market for JSF visual components is still rather limited, although there are many open-source and commercial JSP tag libraries available for use today. In this article, I will showcase a few open-source projects that provide JSP tag libraries to enable you to add rich, functional Web components with cross-browser support.

This article will not provide a tutorial on JSP or JSP tag libraries. There are many resources available for learning these technologies if you're not already familiar with them. Also, an in-depth tutorial of the projects below has been avoided. All three are well-documented and provide on-site demos to help you learn how to use their libraries to meet common application requirements. Hopefully, this article will pique your interest enough that you will dig deeper on your own.

Tabular Data with DisplayTag

The HTML table is one of the most common constructs in a Web application. Besides their usefulness when laying out components on a page, tables can display rows of data from a collection. Compared to the capabilities a desktop application might offer when viewing tabular data, the HTML table delivers very little in terms of functionality. Enter a project called DisplayTag. Using DisplayTag, you can easily add table components with a wide array of useful features. These features include, but are not limited to, column sorting, pagination for large record sets, and a logical grouping of data.

All of the projects covered in this article require similar steps when adding them to your applications: Add a Java library (a .jar file) that contains the custom tag logic (and any third-party libraries they might be dependent upon), then add the tag library descriptor file (a .tld file) to the classpath. Once you've added these files from the DisplayTag distribution, it's likely that there's not much more you need to do. Displaytag requires a Java List object as input. As opposed to the scriplet code usually required to iterate through the data, DisplayTag conceals all of this logic. Instead, there are a number of tag attributes that can be used to customize a table's display. In addition to functionality previously mentioned, DisplayTag can provide links to export table data to another format. By default, DisplayTag is set up to export data to a comma-separated (csv), spreadsheet, or (Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. With an additional third-party (and open-source) Java library from iText library, you can export the data into PDF format.

To demonstrate the use of the JSP tags discussed in this article, I have created a small, single-page application that displays employee data in a variety of ways. To generate some sample data, I create a Java List object with Employee objects in a Servlet init method. In a real-world application, this data would probably come from the database.

Here is the JSP tag markup used to add a DisplayTag table, followed by a snapshot of its output:

<display:table name="applicationScope.employeeList"
               defaultsort="1" export="true"
<display:column property="empId" title="ID"
<display:column property="department"
                title="Department" group="1"
<display:column property="lastName"
                title="Last Name"
                headerClass="sortable" />
<display:column property="firstName"
                title="First Name"
                headerClass="sortable" />
<display:column property="email"
                title="Email" sortable="true"
                headerClass="sortable" autolink="true" />
<display:column property="hireDate"
                title="Date Hired"
                headerClass="sortable" />
<display:setProperty name="export.pdf"

Click here for a larger image.

Sample DisplayTag Table

You can probably figure out what task most of these tag attributes perform. In this table, every column can be use to sort the data, with the first column as the default 'sort by' column. It will only display four rows of data at a time, leaving you to page through the rest of the data. Notice the formatted 'Date Hired' column. DisplayTag allows you to create a Decorator object that converts your data at runtime into the preferred format. To alter other visual characteristics (color, font, and so forth), you can do so by defining them in a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) file.

Analytical Charts with Cewolf

Last year, I wrote an article that introduced a project called Cewolf. Cewolf provides JSP tags to display charts in web applications. Actually, what Cewolf provides is a layer of functionality on top of another open-source project called JFreeChart, which actually generates the chart graphics. To incorporate Cewolf charts into your application, there will probably be a little more work involved than was needed for a DisplayTag table. To create a chart, JFreeChart uses an object that implements an interface called Dataset. Cewolf requires you as the developer to create a Java object that implements an interface called DatasetProducer. Essentially, a Cewolf DatasetProducer supplies input to a JFreeChart Dataset that is used to create various types of charts. Once a chart is generated, the DatasetProducer returns the image to your JSP page for display.

After you have added the necessary tag libraries and descriptor file, and you've implemented one or more DatasetProducers, you're ready to add the Cewolf JSP tags. For purposes of demonstration, I created two DatasetProducer classes, one that handles employee data grouped by department and another that groups employees by department and year hired, called EmployeesByDept and EmployeesByDeptAndYear respectively. Then, I added the following Cewolf tag markup for the charts:

<table border="0" align="center" >
         <!--Example 1 : Simple 3D bar chart showing employees
                         by department-->
         <cewolf:chart id="pieChart"
                       title="# By Department"
               <cewolf:producer id="pieChartView" />
            <cewolf:colorpaint color="#FFFFFF"/>
            <cewolf:img chartid="pieChart"
         <!--Example 2 : 3D Bar Chart showing employees by
                         department and year hired.-->
         <cewolf:chart id="barChart"
                       title="# By Department/Year Hired"
                xaxislabel="Employees" yaxislabel="Year Hired">
            <cewolf:producer id="barChartView" />
         <cewolf:colorpaint color="#FFFFFF"/>
         <cewolf:img chartid="barChart"

Below are the two charts that appear as a result. The first displays the simpler of the two charts: a pie chart displaying employees grouped by department. The bar chart beside it adds a second category for year hired. Each chart is capable of showing a legend and descriptive chart labels.

Click here for a larger image.

Sample charts

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