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The Search for the Holy Grail(s)

  • February 23, 2007
  • By Graeme Rocher
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Grails: The Story So Far

The formation of Grails came on the back of the fabulous progress made in the Groovy language in the summer of 2005. A small group of Groovy enthusiasts who had been astounded by the power of dynamic languages, but unable to take advantage of them due to an existing investment in Java, formed the then-named Groovy on Rails in honor of Ruby on Rails. The Groovy language itself was finally reaching a level of maturity where it was usable as a dynamic language in enterprise environments, making the timing of this formation perfect.

The goal of Grails was to go beyond what other languages and their associated frameworks could offer in the web application space. Grails aimed to do the following:

  • Integrate tightly with the Java platform
  • Be simple on the surface but retain flexibility to access the powerful underlying Java frameworks and features
  • Learn from the mistakes already made on the mature Java platform

By utilizing Groovy as the starting point for the framework, it gave Grails a huge head start. Groovy's goal was to create a language that is a seamless transition for Java developers into the dynamically typed scripting world, bringing advanced features impossible to implement with statically typed languages.

Groovy's goals as a general-purpose language for the Java platform are very much inline with those of Grails as a web framework: to make the transition into the dynamically typed world as painless a learning experience as possible.

The creators of Groovy recognized that for Java developers to be truly productive when using a dynamic language it should not require a huge mental shift to go from language to language. Thanks to this, Groovy uses a strikingly similar syntax and the same APIs available to you in the JDK.

Groovy compiles directly down to byte code, thus ensuring that it also shares the same object model as that used within the JVM. A Groovy object is a Java object and does not have any specialized interpreter or VM.

Java Integration

Groovy's ability to seamlessly integrate with Java, along with its Java-like syntax, is the No. 1 reason so much hype was generated around its conception. Here we had a language with similar capabilities to languages such as Ruby and Smalltalk running directly in the JVM. The potential is obvious, and the ability to intermingle Java code with dynamic Groovy code is huge.

In addition, Groovy allowed you to mix static types and dynamic types, providing the safety of static types with the power and flexibility to opt out of using static typing where deemed necessary.

This level of Java integration is what drives Groovy's continued popularity, and the world of web applications is no different. Across different programming platforms there are varying idioms to express essentially the same concept. In the Java world we have servlets, filters, tag libraries, and Java Server Pages (JSP). Moving to a new platform requires relearning all of these concepts and their equivalent APIs or idioms—easy for some, a challenge for others.

Not that learning new things is bad, but the problem is that there is a cost attached to knowledge gain in the real world, and this can be a major stumbling block in the adoption of any new technology that deviates from the standards or conventions defined within the Java platform and the enterprise.

In addition, there are standards within Java for deployment, management, security, naming, and more. The goal of Grails is to create a platform with the essence of frameworks like Ruby on Rails that embraces the mature environment that is the Java Enterprise Edition and associated APIs.

Simplicity and Power

Clearly embracing all of these wonderful features within the Java platform should not come at the cost of simplicity, and this is where the expressiveness of Groovy really shines through.

Groovy is one of the very few languages available on the Java platform that provides both tight Java integration and syntactic expressiveness. However, frequently, simplicity and convention will only get you so far. Grails aims to provide the flexibility to leverage the underlying "power features" of the Java platform.

To ensure this flexibility is available, careful choices were made regarding technologies that would power Grails. Reinvention of the wheel is not a phrase that sits well in the Java community, and hence the underlying infrastructure within Grails is powered by the most popular open source technologies in their respective categories:

  • Hibernate: The de facto standard for ORM in the Java world
  • Spring: The hugely popular open source Inversion of Control (IoC) container and wrapper framework for Java
  • Quartz: An enterprise-ready, job-scheduling framework allowing flexibility and durable execution of scheduled tasks
  • SiteMesh: A robust and stable layout-rendering framework

For some readers the concept of ORM and IoC may seem a little alien. As an explanation, ORM simply serves as a way to map objects from the object-oriented world onto tables in a relational database. ORM provides an additional abstraction above SQL, allowing developers to think about their domain model instead of getting wrapped up in reams of SQL.

IoC, also known as dependency injection, is a way of "wiring" together objects so that their dependencies are available at run time. As an example, an object that performs persistence may require access to a data source. IoC provides a way to take the responsibility of obtaining a reference to the data source off the developer.

Moving on, Grails exposes each of the aforementioned frameworks capabilities via a simplified interface, but still allows the usage of them using their documented configuration and development capabilities. Figure 1-1 illustrates how Grails relates to these frameworks and the Java enterprise stack.

At Grails' core lies the JVM, which both the Java and Groovy languages compile to via byte code. The leveraged frameworks, such as Spring, Hibernate, and Quartz (to name a few), are built on the strength of the Java language and the JVM. Groovy can work with these APIs outside of Grails, but Grails harnesses Groovy's advanced features combined with the Java Enterprise Edition environment to provide a simplified environment for building web applications.

The APIs for many of the frameworks depicted in Figure 1 are often criticized for being overly complex even though they're often spoken of as representing a lightweight approach to Java web application development. One of the primary aims of Grails is to provide an additional abstraction layer over these frameworks that takes advantage of the dynamic nature of Groovy.

However, the full underlying power of these frameworks is still readily available to harness should you so choose. Having all this power is one thing, but it would be rather silly if Grails didn't learn from some of the mistakes in previous generations of web frameworks.

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 1. How Grails stacks up

Lessons Learned

Java web development practices and methodologies have been refined and optimized over a number of years. Mistakes have been made in both the frameworks and the specifications themselves. These have been slowly rectified over time in their various revisions based on the experiences and feedback from the Java community.

The dynamic language platforms are not entirely devoid of these mistakes themselves—things like cleanly separating logic so that the view does not contain scriptlet code, and providing a clean, clear model-view-controller (MVC) architecture where business logic is separated from view logic. The MVC architecture is designed to minimize this risk, but clearly it is still possible to fall into this trap within the constraints of an MVC application.

Grails aims to provide the necessary infrastructure to cleanly separate this logic and includes concepts more familiar in the Java space such as tag libraries, a service tier, and domain-driven development.

Why You Should Be Interested in Grails

So you've read a bit of the background, but the question is, why should you be interested in using it? Every solution is born out of a problem. The repetitive nature of web development and the common issues within it, such as application state, converting from text to object representation, and dealing with its multithreaded nature, are just some of the things faced by today's web application developers.

These are only growing more complex as the usage of technologies such as Ajax increase the complexity of the application state and push the number of requests into the stratosphere. A dynamic framework can help in reducing the strain of the development cycle at a more simplistic level.

However, there is a lot to be said for the benefits of static typing, advanced IDE support, and refactoring that is available on the Java platform and its associated development environments. As your application grows in complexity you begin to realize just how important these features are. Grails allows a blended approach by mixing both statically typed Java code and the dynamic nature of a language such as Groovy.

To this end, Grails allows you to scale up your application as it grows—scaling not in terms of performance, but in terms of application complexity. Have a particular piece of logic that is better suited to a Java implementation? No problem. Groovy and Grails work seamlessly with Java to enable this and thus allow you to continue using IDEs such as Eclipse and IntelliJ IDEA for code navigation, analysis, and refactoring.

Grails could be the solution that you've been looking for in the Java space. Even if you're already developing in one of the other aforementioned frameworks, Grails is worth a look because of the power and flexibility it offers, the ability to use a blended approach by mixing static and dynamic typing, and tight integration with the Java platform.

In addition, being able to integrate with Java and the JVM is only part of the story. Why dump all your knowledge of frameworks such as Spring and Hibernate? Grails is built on top of these, and their existing APIs are fully available for you to call just as in Java code. These frameworks are also written in Java themselves, so you get the benefit of that in terms of the performance they offer over their rivals.

Heard enough? Can't wait to get started? Let's start our journey into the Grails universe by installing it first.

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