(points made to Hans Bergsten in email exchange)


In the beginning there was i) FlowTalk (intended to be a highly configurable "discussions with workflow" webapp, and ii) your book.

The library "JSFUtil" I created was based around (initially consisting only of) the "ClassViewHandler" and "TemplateHandler" from Chapter 15. The changes that I made, roughly in order, were as follows (as you go down the list these involve an increasing violation of JSF's natural semantics):

i) refusing to restore the component tree from restoreView in the case of a GET. This was part of my very initial perception that JSF's component tree was extremely wasteful in server resources, or else in client state. Since I was going to the trouble of regenerating the entire component tree in any case it seemed highly absurd for the framework to have been trying to cache it somewhere. In addition given this was a highly dynamic application it is quite likely that the model had asynchronously changed in the meantime. This was very much a "token" measure since at this time I had no way of servicing a POST without access to the component tree, but I think marked out symbolically the direction I thought JSF had to go in. A core point of RSF is now that the component tree is destroyed at the end of EVERY request cycle and stored nowhere.

If you were to ask for a succinct summary of the reasons I thought JSF ought be abandoned, it would be "Heavyweight components, in particular ones that must be persisted, must not be a necessary part of a web framework".

ii) instituting strict POST->GET redirect for all requests. This is as far as I can see a completely fundamental requirement for webapps which satisfying the browser idiom, which in my view should be all of them, given they all end up being viewed by browsers. A difficulty created here was managing to transfer FacesMessages from one cycle to the next (see below). No rendering is performed on POST cycles as is correct for portlet as well as general HTTP. I expect this problem is one of those solved in JSF 1.2.

iii) instituting the "ViewParameters" system. Probably the #2 deficit of JSF is that it has no idiomatic system for accessing URL state. This has in fact proved completely fatal in a large project that I am working with (Sakai) in that all the framework developers eventually lost faith in URL state and other than the viewID, came to rely on random stuff stored in the session. The result is that the project's portal has essentially architecturally collapsed in that REST idioms are impossible and the back button cannot be made to work. Obviously this is not a forced consequence of working with JSF, but JSF's lack of respect for the natural idiom of HTTP being that state, primarily, is URL state exacerbated the problem enormously. ViewParameters does the work of representing the URL state in a HTTP-neutral way by mapping parts of the URL into fields of a user-defined near-POJO. Actually since ViewParameters is pretty much the oldest part of RSF it is now actually the most deficient (although this is actually still not a completely easy problem to solve conceptually). It is due for an overhaul in RSF 0.8.

iv) The introduction of the "fast EL" system for bindings. These were a set of hidden fields rendered into forms that were guaranteed to be processed *first* before JSF's "apply request values" phase, that would properly contextualise the bean model. These bindings encoded primitive operations on the request bean model. This was the beginnings of RSF's "request-scope IoC" system in which request-scope entities could participate in first-class IoC by means of "assignments" (in Spring-speak, "wirings") performed as a kind of context startup. This became clear when reading your chapter on the "ReportHandler" app, primarily in chapter 10. I constantly asked myself the question... "how does the ReportHandler know which report it is to work on"? In your non-persistent example this was clear - there was just one Report in request scope, and this is the common pattern I have seen in JSP-type apps since the beginning of time. But say this Report had a persistent identity, how on earth would we come to find it? In JSF, the only answer would be to scrawl a note in the session scope - pretty unacceptable. Even that done, there would be the matter of communicating this to the persistence system in some kind of idiomatic way, which is leading even the Spring people to measures such as injecting DAOs into "entities" signalled by annotations &c. With the "fast EL" system, which gradually evolved into RSF's bindings system and RSAC, this is completely idiomatic - every entity has its unique EL path, and these are set up to be "wired" by bindings before the subsequent request starts up.

v) JSF components are so behaviourful that a constant requirement was to generate references from one component to another. In particular, without access to the "clientId" of a component it is impossible to prepare for any client-side work - this was also essential for the FacesMessage propagation work for ii). Unfortunately the code to compute this ID is buried in the monstrosity of the UIComponent hierarchy, so the only way to get at it was to institute the "EarlyFacesContext" - this delegated to the existing FacesContext in all cases except for getViewRoot() which was initialised with the correct root "early", the moment the component tree started to be constructed. This forced "top-down" construction of component trees has continued in RSF - given JSF seems to be designed from the view that the component tree *could* have been constructed in any order, it seems there was no provision for working out clientIds until the construction had finished.

I could go on about JSF's other architectural deficiencies (firstly the existence of FacesContext, and secondly the global access to it which is the most utter destroyer of testability, thirdly the crazy table rendering model, fourthly the fragile and untrustable PhaseListener system, fifthly the lack of any coherent policy wrt. exceptions &c), at some length, but I will move on :P


With these 5 major heads of changes (along with a host of other details to make things work) we get to the state of "JSFUtil" as it was in July of last year. This operated a kind of "shell" of JSF that was being used principally for rendering and the basic sequence of the request cycle, with most of the logic routed out due to the custom ViewHandler. At this point I was presented with an essentially intractible reskinning requirement - we were required to make the *same app* render fundamentally reorganised (i.e. in HTML order, not just in CSS) versions of the same user interface, preferably without recompilation or developer effort.

At this point the idea for the IKAT renderer, which I had been kicking around my head, initially inspired by your "HTMLTemplateHandler" came to the fore. IKAT is actually just a generalisation of HTMLTemplateHandler (as indeed you could in some way say Facelets is), only with the crucial capability of *alternation* between template-driven scanning and component-driven scanning. This last is the key capability which lets things like tables and trees be rendered in RSF so straightforwardly, since it allows RSF to induce replication in the structure of the template in a particular domain, but then to *return* to the static template structure once the replication/branching is complete. There are other important differences in philosophy which I could talk about if you're interested.

Given at this point I was using JSF largely for rendering, there seemed little point in maintaining the JSF component structure at all, given I fundamentally disagreed with its idiom where the incoming request values were applied *first* to the components during "applyRequestValues" and only THEN to "UpdateModelValues", and was intending to apply my own rendering. So this was the signal to kick over the rest of the structure, which could loosely be described as "renaming JSF to RSF and trying to get the code to compile again" :P In particular the key action was the creation of RSF's component hierarchy which became semi-ironically named after JSF's. The core contrast here is that RSF's "UIComponent" is 61 lines, which are mostly comments, with just one method - compared to JSF's UIComponent+UIComponentBase which is an intricate tangle summing to a grand 2900 lines. I have to say that this is the key answer to your question as to whether I though I might not have made "better inroads" building my framework on JSF - the key point is that RSF was primarily derived by starting with JSF and taking things *out* - had I built on JSF as so many are now unwisely doing, it simply couldn't have ever become the right framework, even had it perhaps initially enjoyed more popularity. As far as I can see, Facelets is roughly would have been had I built RSF on JSF, but it can only reform the rendering system (which I don't think is done as neatly as RSF). Given I had already replaced most of JSF *except* for the rendering system by the time I came to write IKAT, logically there was pretty much nothing that should remain.


That said, I think I should summarise the "diamonds" that I managed to rescue from JSF, since it did indeed contain many ideas that were both new and highly valuable. In these terms JSF actually "is" the best framework out there in terms of ideas, since I don't think any other framework has innovated in quite so many ways at once - the tragedy is that these great ideas were practically negated by being wired together in a close relationship with so many poor or "unreformed" ideas, and often poor execution.

JSF key value points:#

i) Introduction of the idea of an "abstract" component tree insulating framework users from the target idiom (HTML, WAP, XUL, whatever)
ii) Increased cementing of the idea begun in JSPs of a pure "bean" model, potentially defined framework-free by developers which is poked by abstract "EL" paths.
iii) The use of "bindings" attached to components which represented an association of UI values to model values.
iv) The idea of an "action" binding which invoked an abstract application-defined action with a String result, which was then interpreted by a layer of indirection.
v) Beginning to become "portal-ready" by separating Action URLs from Resource URLs &c.

JSF key errors:#

i) Continuing use of a "fat" component hierarchy. Not only fat in terms of size (2900 lines for a base class is simply beyond a joke in terms of poor design) but fat in behaviour. Actually 90% of JSF's badness lies in its components - they
  a) consume state and developer resources in being looked after
  b) provide strong framework coupling that is almost ineradicable
  c) constrain developer's idioms in enforcing particular models of UI interaction
  d) obstruct cooperation with ORM solutions
  e) lack of natural integration with IoC (JSF-Spring obviously helped with this at the developer end, but this is actually even more critical for the *framework* - providing a set of 5 interfaces that could be overridden in faces-config just doesn't cut it
ii) Lack of access by view producers of a (portable) representation of URL state
iii) Lack of natural cooperation with client-side logic and HTML idioms. JSF form rendering is obnoxious and the unpredictable nature of the assigned ids pretty much rules out any kind of productive interaction with client-side logic.
(see above for 5 more key JSF problems)

Naturally since it was me who drew up these lists, all the key "value points" are preserved in RSF, and all the "errors" are removed...

I've surely gone on for far longer than you have patience for, but hopefully I've conveyed enough of my reasoning into why I think JSF is beyond salvaging in terms of constructing a good framework by building on it.


An important point that I hope I put across on the ServerSide thread is that by designing RSF's "lightweight" components I have not in any way closed the door to somesequent "heavyweight" framework being built on them (perhaps a kind of JSF-on-RSF, or Wicket-on-RSF), although given the constraints offered by RSF's bindings and encoding system, this heavyweight framework would probably not develop quite in the same way as JSF or Wicket.

One idea I am however kicking around is that essentially *all* view logic (of the sort expressed in heavyweight components) is actually completely unnecessary! Already in RSF I am not feeling particular pain due to not having stable "view domain objects" whose job it is to manage bits of the view, and the only danger I can see coming down the line is this whole nasty business of "listeners" and "events" to which most of the bulk in H-C systems is devoted (cf JSF's and Wicket's "Component" base class). I have an idea that UI event propagation might in fact be done in a kind of "declarative" way much in the same way that Spring demarcates transations. A key part of this would be a kind of "Bean Invalidation Model" (BIM) which summarises the network of *model side-effects* that are expected to be represented in the view as a result of writes issued to EL paths. Some parts of the model could also just be declared "volatile". Event propagation as a result of user actions would then just be performed by framework code. Asynchronous propagation might be achieved just by timers, or perhaps by some form of AOP proxying.


To answer your question proper as regards XML stuff, at least in the area of Spring configuration, I think what will help here is the tool chain. I went on at length about Spring IDE in the TSS thread, but I should say again that Spring IDE was a key consideration in going with Spring for RSF as well as RSAC, in that now app-scope and request-scope containers can all be validated and refactored with a single tool.

Lots can be done through "convention" as you say - in my Hibernate app for example I try to exploit the fact that an entity will be mapped under a name that agrees with its classname (in Hibernate 2.x this happens by default anyway) which helps in constructing the bindings. I think the key problem in Java in this respect is that while may is possible for *beans* it is not possible for *methods* - given Java lacks the equivalent of C++'s "pointer to member function" or "pointer to member data" constructs, there is simply no way to programmatically generate a reference to a bean's property in a way the compiler could check.

This does point decisively back to the "tools" answer. I think in general this is fuller answer than the "convention" answer which does if taken to extremes force a sort of "wizard" mentality on developers (lots of discussion on this on the "will Ruby displace Java" thread on TSS). Like humans, I think Java has survived primarily through its increasingly excellent tools, rather than through being adapted to any particular purpose :P RoR may be marvellous at cranking out "CRUD" type apps but take it even slightly out of its domain and it quickly becomes a nonsensical, fragile and frustrating environment. On the other hand Java (and more strongly XML) are sometimes annoyingly verbose (especially if you are using a bad framework :) but by their general regularity and widespread nature are increasingly becoming amenable to some quite marvellous tools - Eclipse, IoC containers such as Spring, CGLIB, various kinds of AOP are just a smattering - and now we are seeing the "2nd-generation" of meta- or fusion tools such as Spring IDE which is gradually becoming quite slick.

Further points#

I do have to say that I would have dearly loved to have been able to preserve JSF as you advise - and struggled for nearly 9 months to do so if at all possible, given the very obvious practical and commercial benefits that this would have had.

But unfortunately I came to consider even the two core JSF inviolables that you mention, the JSF lifecycle and the component "API" to be in error - Firstly, the form of definition of the JSF lifecycle, based on the "Phase" system is brittle and out-of-keeping with modern thinking on "locally controlled" systems based on IoC. For example, it is quite easy for a "rogue" piece of JSF logic to hijack the entire request processing by simply poking globally visible methods of FacesContext. The validation phase is particularly tightly coupled, I recall, both being hard to disable, and also quite liable to cause other phases to be skipped on its own initiative. Local code with global effects is a standing hazard.

Another difficulty with the Phase system is that it makes it very hard to write "reliable" logic, especially viz. cleanup - in general no execution in Java can be relied upon other than a clearly visible try {} finally {} pair within the same stack frame, which is a situation impossible to arrange surrounding Phase logic - it is quite possible for Phase events and notifications to go astray in the event of unexpected failures and exceptions.

Yes - I agree with you completely as regards the role of a framework as creating a standard "format" for interchange of self-contained pieces of logic and presentation. However, I'm far from convinced this should be done with the currency being a Java Object operating the semantics of something similar to a JSF (or other traditional) "component". It's a common misunderstanding of RSF that it makes such a "format" impossible, but as I argue on the TSS thread, it would seem a superior solution for developers to swap "components" in the form of paired ViewProducers (and other finer-grained beans such as Validators &c) and markup fragments rather than heavy components - polymorphism through interface and aggregation rather than derivation is a more sound development practice, in terms of its dependency impact.

Anyone who I've spoken to who has worked with taglibs has been outraged at how hard they are to work with. In terms of "reinventing the wheel", many users tend to find that the wheels invented by vendors are rarely quite the wheels they want to use, and discover that trying to create their own is highly unrewarding. I think most framework authors tend to grievously underestimate the diversity of applications and requirements that their code will encounter, and imagine that the scope for "fully interchangeable parts" is far greater than, realistically, the industry is yet at a position of supporting. It would be far less effort for the community if as a whole they could define and exchange software artefacts on a variety of different scales, rather than the single monolithic scale that the vendor has determined - we still face the situation that there remains a lack of consensus in the industry as to what the equivalent of "wheels" actually are... or even, whether they should actually go round.

I think this sort of problem is symptomatic of what could be called JSF "meta-failings" - while JSF always had the aim close to heart to establish interoperability, its development practices actually militate against this. As a different illustration, while many JSF core interfaces are in principle "reimplementable", this is unlikely to be realised in practice by more than a single vendor/developer at the same time - since JSF interfaces are so large and stateful (FacesContext, ViewHandler &c), it is unlikely that two different "users" of JSF would be able to arrange for their choice of semantics to be able to coincide within the same JSF "installation".

In your mention of AJAX I have to note that it's precisely in this area I feel RSF more likely to benefit through "interoperability". Your point re reusability I think overlooks the point that Java "components" of any kind are now, and probably will remain a minority element of the webapp scene, which is increasingly full of bizarre heaps of dynamic HTML libraries and self-contained and self-conceptualised client-side artefacts of many kinds. It's precisely through being "behaviour-light" I feel the RSF "component" idiom is far more likely to lend itself to rapid integration with emerging technologies, in addition to its "plain-language" bindings system which renders server-side artefacts in a form readily interpretable and easy to manipulate on the client side.

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