So Why Jakarta?

Apr 28, 2022, 4:10 PM

Tags: jakartaee java
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I've spent a lot of time over the last while tinkering with the XPages Jakarta EE Support project in particular and Jakarta technologies in general, and I figured it'd be worth discussing a bit why I like this stack and why I think it's worth putting work into.

There are a couple facets to this, I think. Why is it good on its own? Why is it good as a complement or replacement for XPages? And why is it good compared to the other roads offered for Domino developers?

Quick Aside: Spring and Others

Before I get much further, I should mention early on that this isn't so much about Jakarta as opposed to technologies like Spring. Spring is good! It's similar in concept, both because it started from a JEE-aligned mindset and now because Jakarta and MicroProfile have been adopting a lot of the best concepts. It's kind of a "D&D and Pathfinder" situation. While there are some philosophical differences, and Jakarta is (now) run by an open-source organization as opposed to an individual company, the distinction for our purposes isn't important.

This also goes for some other technologies that could potentially be slotted in for server-based app dev, like Vert.x. Vert.x, for its part, often serves different purposes, and so that discussion is also separate.

Technical Reasons

Going into all the specific things that I think are good about JEE technologies would be quite an ordeal, so I'll stick to summarizing some overarching themes that I appreciate.

Presumably as a sign of my own ever-increasing age, I appreciate the staid nature of many aspects of it. While some of that comes from the near-stagnation the stack suffered from towards the end of Oracle's sole stewardship of it, it's good that things like Servlet have remained consistent in important ways since the very beginning. Some aspects have come and some will soon go, but the main aspects have remained pleasantly consistent because they were designed to be simple and largely adaptable. Servlet has its limitations, but they're limitations that don't generally show up for normal use.

I also quite appreciate how annotation-based most of the specs are. This was a good way of moving away from the original "pile of XML" configuration process of the early versions of Java EE while still retaining introspection abilities. What I mean by that is the ability of programs (like a server or an IDE) to look at a Jakarta app and glean important information without having to actually execute the code. As a point of comparison, take this hypothetical version of a REST server, where you declare endpoints programmatically:

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public void initServer(ServerConfig config) {
    config.addHandler("/foo", new FooHandler());
    config.addHandler("/foo/bar", new BarHandler());
}

...and then compare that to the annotation-based way of doing it:

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@Path("/foo")
public class FooHandler {
	/* snip */

	@GET
	@Path("bar")
	public Object getBar() { /* ... */ }
}

Both could be functionally the same at runtime, but the latter allows tools to inspect the classes statically to provide summaries and capabilities in the UI in a way that would be technically possible but much more difficult otherwise. This is certainly not unique to Jakarta, but it's an important feature of it nonetheless.

Moreover, I think that the stack is morphing itself nicely into a cleaner, modern form. It's been a rocky process, but a lot of the individual specs are either adapting themselves onto CDI or using it as the baseline. As much as I sang the praises of Servlet in the earlier paragraph, you can write a thoroughly-capable app using CDI and JAX-RS without ever caring about much else beyond a data layer.

This adaptability is also paying off with newer-era work like Quarkus. Quarkus is an intriguing project that combines slices of Jakarta, MicroProfile, and others with the native-compilation capabilities of GraalVM to provide a toolchain that lets you write quite-efficient compiled apps, targeted primarily for Kubernetes deployments where the startup and response time of a single node is very important. This is really solving a lot of problems I don't have, but it's interesting to watch, and to see how these goals feed back into Jakarta with things like CDI Lite.

Jakarta As An XPages Extension Or Successor

XPages was (and is) a fork of a subset of Java EE, with the split happening somewhere just before 2006's Java EE 5. It's a small subset, but you can look down that list of technologies and see a few that remain to this day: Servlet 2.4/2.5, JSF 1.1/1.2 by way of the XPages fork, JavaMail, and a few other miscellaneous packages. DAS and the Extension Library brought in JAX-RS 1.1, so you can add a dash of 2009's Java EE 6 to the pot.

The XPages Jakarta EE Support project started as a mechanism for bringing in a newer JAX-RS version, followed by CDI to replace managed beans and EL 3 to replace XPages's primordial Expression Language support - essentially, as a slowly-growing platform update. In its current form, it brings in a wide slate of technologies, but the fact that it was starting as an extension of an existing ancient Java EE fork made it possible to do this gradually, piece by piece. Really, up until the move to the jakarta.* namespace, it was a process of just glomming compatible parts onto the existing Servlet baseline.

Even after that switch, the historical alignment with the older parts of the stack makes building on comparatively straightforward. That applies both to me as the person doing the adapting the spec implementations and (hopefully) to a developer actually using them. While XPages predated the annotation-heavy push in JEE as well as CDI entirely, a lot of the core concepts are in common, and I expect that it'd be an easier transition from XPages alone to Jakarta EE than, say, classic Domino web dev to XPages was. It certainly was for me, anyway.

Jakarta As A Cultural Match

This topic covers both my general appreciation for a thoroughly-open-source platform and why I specifically like it in relation to other roads open to Domino developers.

Java EE had for a long time been kind of open source: though Sun and then Oracle held the reins, the specs grew to be free to implement, and over time there flourished a slew of compatible servers, many of which are now or have always been fully open-source.

I like this for a lot of reasons. For one, it's just good as a programmer to have source access. Normally, you can just go by the spec, but having full access to the server's source lets you debug thorny problems when you hit an edge case. While closed-source software certainly has its place, there's just a layer of "all else being equal, source access is better".

Beyond being able to see and debug the source, it's valuable that the platform is open source and the implementations I use are as well, and the whole thing is guided by the extremely-established Eclipse Foundation. While a company handing something over to an open-source organization can sometimes just be a way to usher it to a plausibly-deniable death, the activity around Jakarta EE shows that isn't the case here. While Oracle and IBM still tend to naturally top the charts, it has a diverse pool of contributors, and its fate isn't tied to the interests of a single company. As with closed-source software, sometimes being shepherded by a single company has advantages, but it leaves you more exposed to the winds of their financial incentives.

This all contributes to a platform where I can be comfortable writing a bunch of code with the knowledge that, while it may not be good forever, the path will be at least clear. While there's something of an industry for modernizing old Java EE applications (one our old friend Niklas Heidloff is involved in), it's a task shared by a lot of companies and, indeed, a lot of the work is "replace old vendor-specific code with standards-based code". While nothing can truly prevent you from having a pile of obsolete code other than not writing it in the first place, following a path like this that's shared with a broad slice of the industry is a good way to mitigate the trouble.

And I think that paragraph is what a lot of it comes down to for me. As much as I can be, I want to be out of the business of writing code that doesn't have a built-in "plan B". If Domino magically stopped existing tomorrow, code written in this way wouldn't necessarily directly work elsewhere, but it'd be a much shorter journey than for the Notes-client and classic Domino web code I wrote in my early career. And, really, some of it would directly work elsewhere. The stuff that's just describing a REST entrypoint or a page layout? The stuff that describes the interaction between those and an abstracted data layer? That code doesn't care what your server is, and there's a whole ecosystem of servers ready to do the job. That, there, is what makes this worthwhile for me.

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