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Building the Perfect Portable Eclipse Workbench

  • By Scott Nelson
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Every once in a while, I run into a Java developer who has never used Eclipse, and find that every time this happens I am surprised again. I have been using Eclipse since the time when many Java developers hadn't even heard of it. So, for those who are reading this article and haven't used Eclipse, a brief history of how I started using it may change your mind. It is also the start of my journey in pursuit of the perfect portable Workbench.

Why Develop with Eclipse

One of the challenges I faced as a consultant in 2002 was that every project used a different tool for development. For long projects, this was a handy résumé-building situation, but for short projects it meant extending the ramp-up time learning to use yet another Java IDE. I kept a CD with common tools on it for projects (the contents of which now take up a small corner of my latest tool kit on an 8GB USB key) and began a search for a single Java IDEs that would serve me well on any Java project. Due to economy issues at the time (déjà vu), I had enough bench hours to do some serious evaluation. To make a very long story shorter, after trying out a large number of candidate applications, I settled on Eclipse because it provided all of the basic necessities for Java development for most application servers. There were two close contenders. One was another free tool that was dropped because it had a much larger memory footprint. The other was a commercial tool. Although free was very compelling, this was important enough to pay a commercial license fee if the value was there. However, the merits of the commercial tool were not high enough to justify the difference between costs. (On a note of interest, the current version of that commercial product is Eclipse-based).

This evaluation was done with early Eclipse release candidates for version 2.0. Shortly after the final release became available, I created a Workbench for a project team that was ramping up for an initial client engagement. Training a group who had never used Eclipse before took two hours. The client became our largest client and Eclipse is still the standard development tool for the company.

Plug-Ins Make Eclipse Perfect for Any Project

Eclipse is one of the best open source stories around. The project was started by commercial companies that both saw the future of open source and became key players in that future. The application maintains excellent quality and enjoys rapid improvements based on user input. It also facilities many for-profit business models; this motivates contributors to continuously improve quality while rapidly expanding the user community.

One of major drivers behind the adoption of Eclipse as a tool for developers and a baseline for commercial endeavors is its pluggable architecture. Plug-ins are feature extensions that can be developed with Eclipse, for Eclipse, by using a plug-in specifically for this task. There is also a pre-configured Workbench for plug-in development.

Because Eclipse is so widely accepted within the Java community, and the most popular distribution is pre-configured with Java development tools, many are not aware that Eclipse is a foundation that can be used to develop in any language. Versions supporting PHP and C++ can be found on the Eclipse site at http://www.eclipse.org/pdt/ and http://www.eclipse.org/cdt/, respectively. 

Plug-ins can range from small utilities created by a single developer to make one minor task simpler, to a stand-alone application sold by major IT vendors for big money, and every level in between. One of the most popular commercial ventures is MyEclipse, an Eclipse Workbench pre-configured with an array of popular and useful plug-ins available at a reasonable price.

As someone with a serious DIY (do-it-yourself) habit, I prefer to build my own Workbench. Being very budget-conscious, my preference is to use free plug-ins where available.

Plug-in Installation

There are two main methods of installing Eclipse plug-ins. The method favored by the Eclipse Foundation is the built-in tool found under Help\Software Updates.

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 1: Accessing Updates Inside Eclipse

This method allows for a very standardized installation process. It is probably no coincidence that this method became more popular as more commercial vendors joined the project. After selecting Find and Install, you can update existing plug-ins that support this method as well as add new ones, as shown in the following screens:

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 2: Step 1—Search For New Features

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This article was originally published on November 20, 2008

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