Bridging the Client-Server Divide

webapp-architectureMost software these days is delivered in the form of web applications, and the move towards cloud computing will only emphasize this trend.

Web apps consist of client and server parts, where the client part has been getting bigger lately to deliver a richer user experience.

This split has implications for developers, because the technologies used on the client and server parts are often different.

The client is ruled by HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, while the server is most often developed using JVM or .NET based languages like Java and C#.

Disadvantages of Different Client and Server Technologies

Developers of web applications risk becoming either specialists confined to a single part of the stack or polyglot programmers.

Polyglot programming is the practice of knowing and using many programming languages. There are both advantages and disadvantages associated with polyglot programming. I believe the overriding disadvantage is the context switching involved, which degrades productivity and opens the doors to extra bugs.

Being a specialist has advantages and disadvantages as well. A big disadvantage I see is the “us versus them”, or “not my problem” culture that can arise. In general, Agile teams prefer generalists.

Bringing Server Technologies to the Client

Many attempts have been made at bridging the gap between client and server. Most of these attempts were about bringing server-side technologies to the client.

GWTJava on the client has failed to reached widespread adoption, and now that many people advice to disable Java applets altogether because of security reasons it seems increasingly unlikely that it ever will.

Bringing .NET to the client has likewise failed as Silverlight adoption continues to drop.

Another idea is to translate from server to client technologies. Many languages can now be compiled to JavaScript. The most mature effort is Google Web Toolkit (GWT), which translates from Java. The main problem with GWT is that it supports only a small subset of Java.

All in all I don’t feel there currently is a satisfactory way of using server technologies on the client.

Bringing Client Technologies to the Server

So what about the reverse? There is really only one client-side technology worth looking at today: JavaScript. The only other rival, Flash, is losing out quickly due to lack of support from Apple and the rise of HTML5.

Node.jsJavaScript on the server is starting to make inroads, thanks to the Node.js platform.

It is used by the Cloud9 IDE, for example, and supported by Platform-as-a-Service providers like CloudFoundry and Heroku.

What do you think?

If I had to put my money on any unification approach, it would be Node.js.

Do you agree? What needs to happen to make this a common way of developing web apps? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Performance tuning a GWT application

With Google Web Toolkit (GWT), you write your AJAX front-end in the Java programming language which GWT then cross-compiles into optimized JavaScript that automatically works across all major browsers.

…claims Google. And I must say, I’m pretty impressed by the ease of development GWT offers. I’ve used it at work on a project that I probably couldn’t have done without it, given my poor JavaScript skills. Especially the fact that you don’t have to worry about whether your code works in all browsers is great.

There are a couple of caveats, however:

  • The set of supported Java classes is limited, which sometimes causes confusion. For instance, there is a Character class, but the isWhitespace() method is not supported. And neither is List.subList().
  • Serialization works differently from the Java standard.
  • You can’t work with regular W3C DOM objects on the client. Instead, GWT provides it’s own DOM hierarchy.
  • Even though Google claims that GWT “allows developers to quickly build and maintain complex yet highly performant JavaScript front-end applications in the Java programming language”, performance can be a problem.

The purpose of this post is to elaborate on that last point.

Java isn’t JavaScript

Most developers evolve a sense of intuition about what type of code can be a performance problem, and what not. The problem with GWT development, however, is that even though you write Java code, the browser executes JavaScript code. So any intuitions about Java performance are misleading.

Therefore, your usual rules of thumb won’t work in GWT development. Here’s a couple that may.

Serialization is slow

Our application created a domain model on the server, serialized that to the client, and had the client render it. The problem was that the model could become quite large, consisting of thousands of objects. This is not something that GWT currently handles well. Serialization performance appears to be proportional to the number of objects, not just to their total size. Therefore, we translated the model to XML, and serialized that as a single string. This was way faster.

However, this meant that we needed to parse the XML on the client side to reconstruct our model. GWT provides an XMLParser class to handle just that. This class is very efficient in parsing XML, but it turned out that traversing the resulting DOM document was still too slow.

So I wrote a dedicated XML parser, one that can only parse the subset of XML documents that represent our domain model. This parser builds the domain model directly, without intermediate representation. This proved to be faster than the generic approach, but only after being very careful with handling strings.

Some string handling is slow, particularly in Internet Explorer

Java developers know that string handling can be a performance bottleneck. This is also true for GWT development, but not in quite the same way. For instance, using StringBuffer or StringBuilder is usually sufficient for improving String handling performance in Java code. But not so in JavaScript. StringBuffer.append() can be very slow on Internet Explorer, for instance.

GWT 1.6 will contain its own version of StringBuffer that will alleviate some of these problems. Since 1.6 isn’t released yet, we just copied this class into our project.

But even with the new StringBuffer class, you still need to be careful when dealing with strings. Some of the StringBuffer methods are implemented by calling toString() and doing something on the result. That can be a real performance killer. So anything you can do to stay away from substring(), charAt(), etc. will help you. This can mean that it’s sometimes better to work with plain Strings instead of StringBuffers!

Tables

For displaying data in a table-like format, you can use the Grid widget. This is not terribly fast, however, so you may want to consider the bulk table renderers.

The downside of these is that they translate any widgets you insert into the table to HTML, and you loose all the functionality to attached to them, like click handling. Instead, you can add a TableListener, that has a onCellClicked() method.

Varargs are slow

Variable argument lists are sometimes quite handy. However, we’ve found that they come at a severe performance penalty, because a JavaScript array needs to be created to wrap the arguments. So if at all possible, use fixed argument lists, even though this may be less convenient from a code writing/maintaining perspective.

Don’t trust rules of thumb, use a profiler

The problem with rules of thumb is that they are just that: principles with broad application that are not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. You shouldn’t put all your trust in them, but measure where the pain really is. This means using a profiler.

You could, of course, run your favorite Java profiler against hosted mode to get a sense of performance of your code. But that would be besides the point. Your Java code is compiled to JavaScript and it is the JavaScript code that gets executed by the browser. So you should use a JavaScript profiler.

We used Firebug to profile the compiled JavaScript code and this helped us enormously. As usual with profiling, we found performance bottlenecks that we didn’t anticipate. As a result, we were able to make our application load over 60 times faster! (on Internet Explorer 7)

Performance in different browsers

The only problem with Firebug is that it’s a FireFox plugin, and therefore not available for Internet Explorer. [Firebug Lite doesn’t contain a profiler.] Not that I personally would want to use IE, but our customers do, unfortunately.

The irony is that you need a JavaScript profiler in Internet Explorer the most: FireFox is unbelievably much faster than Internet Explorer when it comes to processing JavaScript, especially with string handling. For instance, for one data set, FireFox 3 loaded the page in 51 seconds, while Internet Explorer 7 took 12 minutes and 4 seconds!

Internet Explorer 8 will supposedly be better:

We have made huge improvements to widely-used JScript functionality including faster string, array, and lookup operations.

We’ll have to see how that works out when IE8 is released…

BTW, if you’re interested in browser performance, check out this comparison.

Unit testing a user interface

So I’m on this new cool Google Web Toolkit (GWT) project of ours now. Part of the UI consists of a series of HTML labels that is the view to our model. Since our model has a tree structure, we use the visitor pattern to create this UI.

This all works beautifully, except when it doesn’t, i.e. when there is a bug. With all the recursion and the sometimes convoluted HTML that is required to achieve the desired effect, hunting down bugs isn’t always easy.

So it was about time to write some unit tests. Normally, I write the tests first. But I was added to this project, and there weren’t any tests yet. So I decided to introduce them. Now, it is often easier to start with tests than add them later. If you don’t start out by writing tests, you usually end up with code that is not easily testable. That was also the case here.

Making the code testable

So my first job was to make sure the code became testable. I started out by separating the creation of the HTML labels from the visitor code, since I didn’t want my tests to depend on GWT. So I introduced a simple TextStream:

public interface TextStream {
  void add(String text);
}

The visitor code is injected with this text stream and calls the add() method with some HTML markup. Normally, this TextStream is a HtmlLabelStream:

public class HtmlLabelStream implements TextStream {

  private final FlowPanel parent;

  public HtmlLabelStream(final FlowPanel parent) {
    this.parent = parent;
  }

  public void add(final String text) {
    parent.add(new HTML(text));
  }

}

But my test case also implements the TextStream interface, and it injects itself into the visitor. That way, it can collect the output from the visitor and compare it with the expected output.

Simplifying testing

Now I got a whole lot of HTML code that I needed to compare to the desired output. It was hard to find the deviations in this, since the required HTML is rather verbose.

So I decided to invest some time in transforming the incoming HTML into something more readable. For instance, to indent some piece of text, the HTML code contains something like this:

<div style="padding-left: 20px">...</div>

For each indentation level, 10px were used. So I decided to strip the div, and replace it with the number of spaces that corresponds to the indentation level. I repeated the same trick for a couple of other styles. In the end, the output became much easier to read, and thus much easier to spot errors in. In fact, it now looks remarkably similar to what is rendered by the browser.

This certainly cost me time to build. But it also won me time when comparing the actual and expected outputs. And adding a new test is now a breeze. Which is just the sort of incentive I need for my fellow team mates to also start writing tests…