Wednesday, August 16, 2006

OSGi Enterprise Workshop

It is rare that a technology developed for embedded devices ends up at the core of enterprise applications. The constraints and optimization axes of these two worlds are, ehhh, worlds apart. Still, it looks like the OSGi Alliance is succeeding in this remarkable feat as demonstrated by the increasing interest of enterprise software vendors in OSGi technology. Initially, some vendors voiced concerns about potential patents held by the founding members, but the by now famous patent pledge made those worries go away.

Enterprise software is not a well defined area. We know it is usually big, requires lots of people to work on it, and it is invariably expensive. Web servers are of course a big aspect of Enterprise software as well as tight integration with databases. Java made big inroads in this world because it provided a uniform environment for applications. Its type safety reduced the number of errors during the integration phases and this made it smoother to integrate different applications.

J2EE was SUN’s attempt to capture the communality of Enterprise applications in a framework. The idea behind a framework is that it reduces the application specific code and the resulting application more robust. It is a wonderful appealing idea and object oriented theory gave birth to too many frameworks in the nineties. I even build one for Ericsson in 94! Frameworks are incredibly appealing but they are so hard to get right. They key problem is the natural focus on the advantages of the framework and total disregard for the increased complexity and learning curve that a framework will cause. For example, if we add a function for authentication, we needlessly increase the complexity for people that do not need authentication at all. Just the increase in the API and manual is negative. The battle field of software is therefore littered with failed frameworks (alas, including mine). Only frameworks that can restrict themselves to core functionality and fanatical focus on decoupling stand a chance to succeed.

I do not think SUN and compatriots heeded those lessons from the nineties when they started with J2EE. From the start, J2EE became a monster in deployment complexity and intrusiveness. 5 years ago I bought a book about J2EE and spent a week developing applications, just to understand what the hype was. Well, I utterly disliked the intrusiveness of the code and the many, seemingly unnecessary, restrictions. This dislike happened ever before I found out about the XML situps that one needs to perform before you get your “Hello World” running. Look at the funny comparison between web application development environments from JPL to demonstrate my dislike. I understand that the EJB 3 JSR is providing more focus on simplicity, but I will hold my judgment until I have played with it.

The success of Spring is caused by the intrusiveness of J2EE into applications and its inclusion of many technologies that are not always necessary, or in other words, the classic Framework syndrome. Developers love frameworks but they are not very faithful; this is where the POJOs are coming from. POJOs are successful because the coupling between the units of design are minimized, but more important, they are coupled in the right direction. Let the framework call you, not you calling the framework. The result is that the developers can focus on their domain area, not on learning Yet Another Framework.

The OSGi Framework is successful because it was designed to decouple, which provides many benefits during development and deployment. The OSGi Framework could not care less about what your components do and how they do it. It only provides the primitives to deploy your components and to let them collaborate in a dynamic way. Collaboration is done through service interfaces, which makes the components easy to test without complicated harnesses. Components can be build on top of POJOs, very little code has to be coupled to the OSGi Framework. Standardizing this component layer will create universal middleware. Middleware developed in different industries that can be deployed on any platform. In the end, application development will be mixing and matching universal middleware.

The OSGi development model is so attractive to the Enterprise world because it is sometimes amazing how often I see the wheels being reinvented. Often just because the existing wheels were connected to axes that the developer had no use for. Though the OSGi Framework is quite mature for the embedded, vehicle, home automation, and mobile markets, we need to work on the issues that are crucial for the enterprise markets. What functionality is missing in R4 that is important for enterprise applications?

Next month I will lead an OSGi workshop in the bay area where we will discuss these issues with a number of experts. This is an open workshop but seats are limited. If your company is into making Enterprise applications, please attend (register ASAP with rranck@inventures.com, we have limited number of seats). The signs are that OSGi technologies will play a major role in server side applications over the coming years. If you can not attend the workshop, do not hesitate to add comments to this blog or just email me.

Peter Kriens

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