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Wiring Your Web Application with Open Source Java

by Mark Eagle

Building non-trivial web applications with Java is no trivial task. There are many things to consider when structuring an architecture to house an application. From a high-level, developers are faced with decisions about how they are going to construct user interfaces, where the business logic will reside, and how to persist application data. Each of these three layers has their own questions to be answered. What technologies should be implemented across each layer? How can the application be designed so that it is loosely coupled and flexible to change? Does the architecture allow layers to be replaced without affecting other layers? How will the application handle container level services such as transactions?

There are definitely a number of questions that need to be addressed when creating an architecture for your web application. Fortunately, there have been developers that have run into these reoccurring problems and built frameworks to address these issues. A good framework relieves developers from attempting to reinvent the wheel for complex problems; it is extensible for internal customization; and it has a strong user community to support it. Frameworks generally address one problem well. However, your application will have several layers that might require their own framework. Just solving your UI problem does not mean that you should couple your business logic and persistence logic into a UI component. For example, you should not have business logic with JDBC code inside of a controller. This is not the functionality that a controller was intended to provide. A UI controller should be a lightweight component that delegates calls to other application layers for services outside the UI scope. Good frameworks naturally form guidelines where code should be placed. More importantly, frameworks alleviate developers from building code such as persistence from scratch and allow them to concentrate on the application logic that is important to a client.

This article will discuss how to combine several well-known frameworks to achieve loose coupling, how to structure your architecture, and how to enforce a consistent design across all application layers. The challenge is combining frameworks so that each layer is exposed to each other in a loosely coupled manner, regardless of the underlying technologies. This article will discuss one strategy for combining frameworks using three popular open source frameworks. For the presentation layer we will use Struts; for our business layer we will use Spring; and for our persistence layer we will use Hibernate. You should be able to substitute any one of these frameworks in your application and get the same effect. Figure 1 shows what this looks like from a high level when the frameworks are combined.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Overview of framework architecture with Struts, Spring, and Hibernate.

Application Layering

Most non-trivial web applications can be divided into at least four layers of responsibility. These layers are the presentation, persistence, business, and domain model layers. Each layer has a distinct responsibility in the application and should not mix functionality with other layers. Each application layer should be isolated from other layers but allow an interface for communication between them. Let's start by inspecting each of these layers and discuss what these layers should provide and what they should not provide.

The Presentation Layer

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At one end of a typical web application is the presentation layer. Many Java developers understand what Struts provides. However, too often, coupled code such as business logic is placed into an org.apache.struts.Action. So, let's agree on what a framework like Struts should provide. Here is what Struts is responsible for:

  • Managing requests and responses for a user.
  • Providing a controller to delegate calls to business logic and other upstream processes.
  • Handling exceptions from other tiers that throw exceptions to a Struts Action.
  • Assembling a model that can be presented in a view.
  • Performing UI validation.

Here are some items that are often coded using Struts but should not be associated with the presentation layer:

  • Direct communication with the database, such as JDBC calls.
  • Business logic and validation related to your application.
  • Transaction management.

Introducing this type of code in the presentation layer leads to type coupling and cumbersome maintenance.

The Persistence Layer

At the other end of a typical web application is the persistence layer. This is usually where things get out of control fast. Developers underestimate the challenges in building their own persistence frameworks. A custom, in-house persistence layer not only requires a great amount of development time, but also often lacks functionality and becomes unmanageable. There are several open source object-to-relational mapping (ORM) frameworks that solve much of this problem. In particular, the Hibernate framework allows object-to-relational persistence and query service for Java. Hibernate has a medium learning curve for Java developers who are already familiar with SQL and the JDBC API. Hibernate persistent objects are based on plain-old Java objects and Java collections. Furthermore, using Hibernate does not interfere with your IDE. The following list contains the type of code that you would write inside a persistence framework:

  • Querying relational information into objects. Hibernate does this through an OO query language called HQL, or by using an expressive criteria API. HQL is very similar to SQL except you use objects instead of tables and fields instead of columns. There are some new specific HQL language elements to learn; however, they are easy to understand and well documented. HQL is a natural language to use for querying objects that require a small learning curve.

  • Saving, updating, and deleting information stored in a database.

  • Advanced object-to-relational mapping frameworks like Hibernate have support for most major SQL databases, and they support parent/child relationships, transactions, inheritance, and polymorphism.

Here are some items that should be avoided in the persistence layer:

  • Business logic should be in a higher layer of your application. Only data access operations should be permitted.

  • You should not have persistence logic coupled with your presentation logic. Avoid logic in presentation components such as JSPs or servlet-based classes that communicate with data access directly. By isolating persistence logic into its own layer, the application becomes flexible to change without affecting code in other layers. For example, Hibernate could be replaced with another persistence framework or API without modification to the code in any other layer.

The Business Layer

The middle component of a typical web application is the business or service layer. This service layer is often the most ignored layer from a coding perspective. It is not uncommon to find this type of code scattered around in the UI layer or in the persistence layer. This is not the correct place because it leads to tightly coupled applications and code that can be hard to maintain over time. Fortunately, several frameworks exist that address these issues. Two of the most popular frameworks in this space are Spring and PicoContainer. These are referred to as microcontainers that have a very small footprint and determine how you wire your objects together. Both of these frameworks work on a simple concept of dependency injection (also known as inversion of control). This article will focus on Spring's use of setter injection through bean properties for named configuration parameters. Spring also allows a sophisticated form of constructor injection as an alternative to setter injection as well. The objects are wired together by a simple XML file that contains references to objects such as the transaction management handler, object factories, service objects that contain business logic, and data access objects (DAO).

The way Spring uses these concepts will be made clearer with examples later in this article. The business layer should be responsible for the following:

  • Handling application business logic and business validation
  • Managing transactions
  • Allowing interfaces for interaction with other layers
  • Managing dependencies between business level objects
  • Adding flexibility between the presentation and the persistence layer so they do not directly communicate with each other
  • Exposing a context to the business layer from the presentation layer to obtain business services
  • Managing implementations from the business logic to the persistence layer

The Domain Model Layer

Finally, since we are addressing non-trivial, web-based applications we need a set of objects that can move between the different layers. The domain object layer consists of objects that represent real-world business objects such as an Order, OrderLineItem, Product, and so on. This layer allows developers to stop building and maintaining unnecessary data transfer objects, or DTOs, to match their domain objects. For example, Hibernate allows you to read database information into an object graph of domain objects, so that you can present it to your UI layer in a disconnected manner. Those objects can be updated and sent back across to the persistence layer and updated within the database. Furthermore, you do not have to transform objects into DTOs, which can get lost in translation as they are moved between different application layers. This model allows Java developers to work with objects naturally in an OO fashion without additional coding.

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