Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Catwalk

I guess there is something in the air at the moment that makes people worried OSGi is not successful quickly enough because there are not 7 million Java programmers using the OSGi API on a day to day basis. Kirk Knoernschild gave us the choice between Feast or Famine and SD Times told us OSGi is too complex for the enterprise developer. Well, feasts tend to end in hangovers and I do agree the OSGi API is not very useful for most Java web developers. Is OSGi actually a technology that is used by a (web) application programmers? Will web developers have to start using Service References and Bundle objects? I don't think so.

If you develop, for example, a social networking app then you should not be concerned about low level infra structure details and OSGi should completely stay out of your face, this is the concept of high cohesion. OSGi should never be visible on the (web) application level. However, if you write a middleware component and need to interact with the applications then you need domain objects that represent these applications. Bundles and Service References are then the perfect domain objects that allows you to interact with that app on a system level. For example, the Spring DM extender bundle leverages the OSGi API to allow a developer to write POJOs oin his bundle. Many middle-ware APIs can be simplified because the OSGi API provides detailed information about the callers, making the APIs significantly more cohesive.

OSGi itself does not simplify application development, it only enables third parties to provide frameworks that then can simplify the life of the application developers, or empower them. They function provided by OSGi is the collaborative model that makes different frameworks no islands on their own but actually allows them to work together. OSGi defines the collaboration mechanisms, not the nice to have convenience functions for web development. What OSGi allows is breaking a huge application problem in smaller collaborating parts. The cumulative complexity of a collection of small parts is less than those parts combined. However, to enable this collaborative model we must enforce a number of modularity rules. Rules that are limiting on the component level to create more flexibility on the deployment level.

Unfortunately, those rules break a lot of existing code. We often talk about modularity but in reality we tend to create highly coupled components. When these "components" are run on OSGi they crash against the module boundaries because OSGi enforces these boundaries. Many people forget that a class encoded in a string in an XML file is creating as much coupling as that class used in your code. The only advantage is that these strings do not show up in your automated dependency graph ... OSGi is just the unfortunate messenger of evil hidden coupling.

Application servers adopted OSGi because their problem domain is highly complicated and large. So large that strong modularity was their only option to keep things manageable and OSGi was perfect for this because it already contained some of their domain objects. Most Java application developers develop web apps. Web apps are a highly restricted domain that has been extensively simplified by tools and libraries. Improving on this has a very high threshold. This is the same problem as with the combustion engine and helicopter; there are better technologies in principle but the incumbents of a huge head start in optimization. Therefore we've adopted the WAR format. WAR files will make it easier to start running web applications on OSGi without having to introduce new tools for the developers: their WARs will run on OSGi unchanged. Over time they then decompose their WARs into smaller bundles.

There is one innovation in OSGi that I think is highly undervalued: the µServices. µServices are a paradigm shift as important as the move from structured programming to object oriented programming. µServices are the pinnacle of modularity. If they're so good, why does it take so much time before everybody uses them? Well, SD Times provided some insight, they said that a new technology X is irrelevant because developers have been building fantastic systems for a long time without X. It is hard to better illustrate the reasons why paradigm shifts are so hard and can take multiple decades.

As with OO, there is a chicken-egg problem. To take advantage of µServices you need components that provide and consume these µServices. Our problem so far has been that the major adopters (Eclipse/App Servers/Spring) picked OSGi for its class loaders on steroids and treated the µServices as an extra. But things are changing. Last EclipseCon it was clear that µServices are moving to the front. People that could not care less about services now publicly declared their support for them. Eclipse provides now good tooling for µServices, which will make services more attractive for many Eclipse developers. I am sure this will create the needed network effect.

Kirk notes how our industry is more fashion driven than the fashion industry and both authors complain that OSGi is not visible on the catwalk. And that is correct because OSGi is the catwalk, present in every fashion show picture and sustaining virtually any application that runs on a Java EE Application server based on OSGi, which are actually most of them.

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