29 November 2010

Java EE and Spring: Why I couldn't care less

 Java EE or Spring - for an independent software architect, the question is just as relevant as Catholic or Protestant to an atheist. The question has recently been discussed in a number of articles mostly taking one side or the other:

In this post, I'll try to point out why I'm not fully happy with either of the two.

If there's one thing that matters to me, it's modularity. To put my cards on the table, I'm a strong OSGi supporter, but I'm not even religious about that - in fact, Living without OSGi (which is what I've been doing for nine months now) would be a nice headline for one of my next posts.

Seen from outside, Spring and Java EE share a number of shortcomings:

Preaching to the Converted

When did you last visit the official homepages of Java EE or Spring? Take a moment to click on the links and imagine you've never heard about either. After visiting the homepages, you are none the wiser, all you get is the usual marketing blurb and a couple of newsbites completely meaningless to the uninitiated.

Lack of focus

Java EE and Spring both are animals of the rare species Sus ovipara lactifera velluta unknown in English speaking countries which we call eierlegende Wollmilchsau in German. In plain English, they both try to be everything to everyone and end up doing nothing in particular.

In contrast, OSGi has a clear mission statement The Dynamic Module System for Java and provides a link to its key benefits right on its homepage.


Ever heard about lean development? Let's have a look at the official Javadocs:
  • Java EE 6: 1597 classes
  • Spring 3.0.5: 2312 classes


Backward compatibility is a good thing for veteran users of a framework. Users don't want to change all of their application code just for upgrading to a new framework version.

On the other hand, backward compatibility can be extremely confusing to new users: There's two or three solutions for the same kind of problem, the legacy one is not marked as legacy or deprecated clearly enough, tutorials and example code still use the old style, and you can only resort to your favourite search engine or to trial and error to make things work consistently.

Love Thy User

Don't just list what you can do for your users, ask them what they want you to do for them. Looking at the Java EE and Spring reference documentation, I can see that both frameworks solve lots of problems I've never had in my life.

On the other hand, looking for a solution for some specific standard kind of problem, it is often surprisingly hard to find a comprehensive code example.

User documentation should be structured by user stories, not by technology.

Enough Rope

Both Spring and Java EE give you enough rope to hang yourself. It's easy to write messy and ugly code on top of both frameworks, and I've seen enough of that.

You can write loosely coupled and elegant applications on top of either, but it takes a good architect to set up guidelines and restrict the number of choices.

Development Process Integration

As an application developer, you don't just write code to run on a given framework. You want to run integration tests on your applications, you want to deploy and debug them directly in your favourite IDE, and you want your batch build and continuous integration to be able to deploy your applications.

When choosing a framework, always consider the entire process chain - some lack of tooling for your favourite framework may be reason enough to pick the second best instead.


My ideal framework/container/app server - pick any name you like - would allow me to write truly modular applications, enforcing modularity at design time, at compile time, and at run time. The framework itself would be modular, allowing me to pick out those and only those modules actually required by my application.

It would actively support OSGi as the most mature module system for Java, and maybe a few others on top.

I expect some further degree of convergence between Java EE, Spring and OSGi within the next two years or so. There has been a lot slideware and a number of proof-of-concept or early adopter projects, but my feeling is that none of this has reached production quality yet.

To sum up, frameworks in general are alive and kicking, but the age of monolithic all-in-one frameworks is definitely over.

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