Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Services are Important

Many people choose OSGi because it provides them with far superior class loading functions than plain Java. Some even say that OSGi is class loaders on steroids. However, viewing OSGi from this perspective is like building a car that looks like a horse carriage with engine. Taking full advantage of OSGi requires the use of services, however, the service model is much more enigmatic for most people than class loading. A good friend of mine, Niclas Nilsson, who visited me last week told me a story about how people view software languages in a very subjective way. If the languages they are familiar with do not have a specific feature, then they have a tendency to view this feature as unimportant and consider them (unnecessary) syntactic sugar. For example, few Basic programmers missed objects in the nineties.
I think services are a bit like this. There are millions very experienced Java programmers that build impressive libraries and applications using class loaders as extension mechanisms. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience. In contrast, OSGi services implement a concept where one cannot find a comparable mechanism in plain Java, nor in other languages/environments.

Why are services then so important if so many applications can be built without them? Well, services are the best known way to decouple software components from each other. And, I assume that you are aware of the many advantages that decoupling gives you in almost any aspect of software development.

One of the most important aspects of services is that they significantly minimize class loading problems because they work with instances of objects, not with class names. Instances that are created by the provider, not the consumer. The reduction of the complexity is quite surprising. Simple example is Hibernate; most of the class loading problems in Hibernate are caused by the fact that the configuration is done in XML files. Working with Class instances and instances of those classes make most problems go away.

What kind of problems do you have with the class names? Well, first you have to configure it. This means that if you want to change the implementation, you must not only edit some (hard to read) XML or properties file, you must also make sure that the right JAR files are on your class path. In a service based system, you only install the proper bundle. Look at the 'interesting' world of logging in Java. Most logging subsystems handle their extension needs with class names. This requires having property or XML files in the right place and requires you to have the right logger implementation on your JAR path. In an OSGi world, the only thing you have to do is install an implementation of the log service and everybody uses that log service. As Richard Hall always says: 'The set of installed bundles is your configuration.'

Not only do services minimize configuration, they also significantly reduce the number of shared packages. In Class.forName based system you need to be able to see all possible implementation classes. In a service based system, you only need to see the package in which the service is defined. And the best package is one that is not shared.

To be honest, after working for many years with OSGi I really had to get used to the idea that one could also share packages with implementation code; before R4 OSGi was only intended to share service packages. It seemed such a bad idea.

Sharing implementation classes is almost always bad because it makes bundles extremely dependent on each other. The reason we added all those powerful class loading mechanisms was not for them to be used in new designs, their primary purpose was to ease conversion of existing applications.

And last not least: versioning. Class.forName must fundamental flaw is that the only parameter is a string for the class name. In complex systems there will be multiple classes with the same name. This confusion is completely absent in a service based system because service objects are already correctly wired up.

However, I guess there is no escape to Niclas' story. If you have never built a real system with services it is hard to see the advantages and it is easy consider them as an extra without a lot of value. But, maybe this blog can give you the push to start using services in real designs and find out how surprisingly powerful this very simple concept is. Let me know!

Peter Kriens

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