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GWT - An Experience Report

As noted before, I am not a big fan of JavaScript as a language for complex web application projects. Recently I got the chance to get some first-hand, comparative experience with GWT (Google Web Toollkit) as part of an application re-write/upgrade.

The original system was a web-app built web 1.5 style in Java, on top of the OpenSymphony WebWork framework, combined with an XML based template engine and guice for dependency injection on the server side. On the client side, there was a growing amount of JavaScript code for each page, using the Closure JavaScript compiler and library. The app is reasonably non-trivial, resulting in about 40k client-side Java code after the rewrite.

For a project of this nature and complexity, I am very positively surprised and impressed with GWT. For the base architecture of the new client, we had basically followed some of the best practices advice for large-scale GWT applications from GoogleIO talks in 2009, 2011 or in this document: use MVP to isolate UI code from business logic for testability, use Gin/Guice DI and the event-bus for dependency management, use UIBinder to push as much of HTML & CSS stuff into templates as possible and use the new Activities & Places framework for history management, navigation and the basic layout structure of the application. For the rest, we tried to stay as close to the most naive plain vanilla implementation (e.g. standard GWT-RPC services and view constructed bottoms up from widgets). So far this first-cut implementation has held up well enough without need for re-writes and optimization, which is quit impressive for a first use of a reasonably complex new technology.

What we wanted to get out of a migration to GWT was the ability to use same language, tools and software engineering techniques for both client and server as well as the ability to share as much of the actual code between client and server. The second part turns out to be the much harder one...

For somebody who generally likes working in the Java dev ecosystem, working with GWT is quite pleasant. Much of the tools and techniques carry over effortlessly and at least when using the emulated development mode, the high-level abstractions rarely break down. HTML & CSS are still largely browser-magic, but can at least be largely contained to the leave-nodes of the UI object tree - typically in the form of widgets. Because there is still a lot of missing functionality in native GWT libraries and there is a lot of potential custom JavaScript to be integrated with, the use of the JSNI JavaScript native interface within GWT is likely to be used more often than comparable low-level breakout mechanisms would be needed in more complete and dominant development environments. The probably biggest complaint when developing large-ish applications in GWT is the speed (or rather lack thereof) of the GWT compiler and the somewhat sluggish execution of the emulated development mode. In all fairness, when using development mode, recompilations is often not required to make changes effective, just a reload of the application host-page URL.

The ability to use the same language, tools and software engineering techniques on both client and server is already a huge benefit in a large project, but sharing actual code would be even better. To enable that, GWT attempts to provide support for a large part of the Java standard platform runtime and library, within the limits of a compiled, non JVM framework (e.g. no reflection) or limitations of the browser environment (e.g. no multithreading). Besides not using any of these features in code, it also starts to get tricky when using libraries which are not available in source form or which use themselves features which are not supported in the GWT environment. There are ways of providing custom GWT emulations for JRE classes and custom serializations, the way GWT uses internally for implementing some standard library functionality, but that approach is a bit too low-level for everyday use in application development projects.

The most common use-case for sharing typically centers around using the same set of classes in the client-side model, the RPC interface and the server-side data-model, including interfaces to databases and other backend services. Besides raw data definition, some behavior needed both on client & server should likely also be sharable.

In order for a class to be usable in GWT-RPC it must implement either the standard Java Serializable interface (with some caviats) or the GWT IsSerializable marker interface. One of the major annoyances for people who like immutable data classes, is that there is no serialization for final fields.

Without making use of partial emulation (leaving the contentious functionality unimplemented in the emulated version) some classes which are entangled with some unsupported server side framework (e.g. inherit from or provide serialization/deserialization to a persistence framework) may need to be heavily refactored, to split the  framework dependencies out.

Somewhat unrelated of the technology used, the move towards a single page "thick client" web-app suddenly makes keeping track of per-client session state trivial, without the database and caches necessary in a server-side LAMP web-app, since the browser is a single-threaded, single user environment and the lifecycle of the session state is naturally tied to the lifetime of the client application in the users browser.

The biggest weakness of GWT is that it does not easily scale up from 0. It is a complex and heavy technology which requires a lot of upfront planing and architecture. As many UI frameworks, a reasonably complete minimal "hello world" app would probably be a few hundred lines of setup and boiler-plate. If the job is to attach a few bits of client side customization to an otherwise classic HTML web-page, the GWT is clearly not the right choice.

Based on this experience, I find GWT quite an ideal choice for massive and complex "thick client" apps, specially when backed by a java server. Assuming a reasonably "unsexy" enterprise application development environment with focus on complex functionality and business logic and without need for extreme optimization, extreme customization of exploiting the latest browser tricks, basically anywhere, where people would not consider using C or assembler otherwise...