I went dark over the last eight weeks, building a rich web application to integrate with our product. It's been years since I built a desktop GUI application, but I was pretty good at it once. It's not always a lot of fun. But some things a man just has to do himself.
The application does tons of vector drawing.... it draws hundreds of thousands, even millions, of line segments. Yet it needed to be responsive... scrolling, zooming, panning. It's data intensive, too. It downloads dozens of megabytes of data for each view. I needed to develop this program fast, so I needed a programming system and platform allowing me to iterate and adapt to new requirements recursively revealed. I preferred a declarative graphics language where possible, and for any procedural code, a powerful dynamic language. Ideally the program should run on all OS platforms; but the business could probably tolerate a Windows only solution, if that offered superior results. I made tradeoffs among these requirements.
I was not constrained by download footprint, a concern which eliminates Java from consideration in lots of other scenarios. Anyway, that problem is going away soon, they tell us.
So here's the spoiler: I chose Java Web Start + JRuby. And now a short dissertation on how I arrived at that choice:
I looked to browser and browser++ technologies like SVG, Flex, AIR, Silverlight, Java applets/Web Start/JavaFX. (Open Laszlo deserves a look too, but I didn't eval it). It would be great for this app to run within the browser -- that would be the most seamless experience. But using an out-of-browser technology like AIR or Web Start isn't a deal breaker if you do it right.
SVG was very promising. It would be a pure browser solution. I really valued the declarative model and the standards alignment. But it does not work in IE. I also did some performance experiments with Opera, Safari, and Firefox. Drawing polylines of a hundred thousand points or so, Opera and Safari performed well, but Firefox performed poorly. It's conceivable, if unlikely, that I could distribute the app as a FF-only solution -- even if I bottle it up as a a XULRunner app. But the FF performance was inadequate. And distributing only for Safari or Opera is not realistic.
I made a significant evaluation effort with Flex/AIR. Surprisingly I learned that the Flex 2-D graphics model is procedural, not declarative. You can, however, bottle up your procedures and use them declaratively from mxml, the Flex XML language. I felt I was going to spend a significant amount of time learning Flex -- time I needed to spend on my app -- and that I needed the assistance of tools like Flexbuilder. I also became concerned that I was developing a program away from the design center of Flex. Would I encounter design/ performance constraints?
Silverlight performed very well, and it's got an XML declarative model just like SVG, with the power of a bunch of WPF components to boot. I was confident that all the capabilities of the Windows platform would be available to my program. Microsoft distributes Silverlight for Windows and Mac, but not Linux, which they are leaving to Novell. I read that as: No Linux. But Windows and Mac are enough coverage, even if I would be sorry to leave aside my Ubuntu dev machine. My fate on the Mac would be in Redmond's hands, of course. Does Microsoft have my best interests at heart ?
Java applets or Web Start, using Java 2D, I also knew to be capable of these rendering tasks. I'm satisfied that I can make Java applications now that look pretty sweet. The down sides were the procedural approach and the static Java language. It's the 1999 state of the art. Layout code so impenetrable you need GUI builders.
JavaFX deserves a separate mention. The capabilities of the entire Java platform are there for you. Yet you program in a declarative/dynamic language optimized for building Java 2D apps. Perfect! Unfortunately, it's pre-alpha. Sun hasn't yet released it under a license allowing you to put your work into a customer's hands.
I wanted the wide reach of Java. I think that the 5% of customers on non-Windows platforms may be more important than their numbers.
I also wanted the enormous hardened Java platform. It's as capable as the Windows platform. You won't encounter many problems you can't address or workaround.
Couldn't I have all that, plus a dynamic language to stitch it all together?
Guess what. JRuby is stable and 1.x. It's dynamic, yet it compiles on the fly to JVM byte codes. It's got great Java integration, meaning you can invoke any Java API. Profligacy is a terse little Ruby lib for stitching up Swing components. JRuby's just a jar I download with my Web Start app, and launch with the main Ruby script from my Java entry point. The rest of the program is in Ruby, occasionally calling into Java libraries. No, there's no declarative GUI language here. It's one of the tradeoffs.
My work environment: Fire up NetBeans for its good Ruby editor. In a command window kick off jirb and execute a script to load and run my main code. Edit code and reload it into the running program in jirb. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I would argue that JRuby accelerated my application's performance, because I iterated and applied two major architectural optimizations that would have introduced impenetrable spaghetti in Java. The bottleneck for speed and responsiveness has never been JRuby. It turned out that even Java2D + acceleration could not keep up acceptably with the level of interactivity I wanted. The SVG or any other pure declarative approach would have failed (although I think JavaFX's scene graph might be able to optimize the drawing). I had to go in and surgically rearrange the innards of the program. The changes were effective but had low impact on stability, thanks to the flexibility and power of Ruby.
If Sun can focus more energy on these dynamic languages built on the JVM, that would be a pretty powerful story: The deep platform capabilities, the broad reach, the rich development environment.
Hugh Winkler holding forth on computing and the Web
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