Book review – Tapestry In Action

My first contact with Tapestry was more than 18 months ago. Back then, I was interested to find a web framework for integration with our custom Avalon-based (using the now-obsoleted) Phoenix server*. The web interface was ment to be backoffice stuff, for simple administration tasks as well as statistics reports. Given that the data access and bussines logic were already developed, we were looking for something simple to plug into a no-frills servlet container such as Jetty. we managed very easily to integrate Jetty as a Phoenix service and pass data through the engine context. But when we finally integrated Tapestry [into Jetty [inside Phoenix]] and make it display some aggregated statistics, the project funding was cut and the startup went south. But, that’s another story and rather uninteresting one.

Meanwhile, things have changed a bit. Tapestry had become a firsthand Apache Jakarta project, the Tapestry users list is more and more crowded, and again I see it used in my day work (by Teodor Danciu, one of my coworkers and incidentally author of Jasper Reports) and doing some moonlighting by myself for an older web project idea. And there is exceptional Eclipse support via Spindle plugin. While the ‘buzzword impact’ on Tapestry on a Java developer CV doesn’t yet measure up with Struts, this framework has obviously gained a lot of attention lately.

So, what’s so special about it ? If I’d have to choose only one small phrase I’d quote Howard Lewis Ship, Tapestry lead developer, from the preface of his book ‘Tapestry in Action’:

The central goal of Tapestry is to make the easiest choice the correct choice.

In my opinion this is the weight conceptual center of the framework. Everything, from the template system which has only the bare minimum scripting power, passing through the componentized model, up to the precise detailed error-reporting (quite unique feature in the opensource frameworks world) gently pushes you (the developer) to Do The Right Thing. To: put logic where it belongs (classes not templates), organize repetitive code in components, ignore the HTTP plumbing and use a real, consistent, MVC model in your apps (forms are readable and writable components of your pages). You don’t need to be Harry Tuttle to make a good Tapestry webapp, just a decent Java developer is enough. That’s more than I can tell about Struts …

Coming from a classic JSP-based webapp world, Tapestry is really a culture shock. The most appropriate way to visualise the difference is to imagine a pure C programmer abruptly passing to C++, into the objects world**. For a while, he will try to emulate the ‘old’ way of work, but soon enough he’ll give up and start coding his own classes. However, this C programmer will have to make some serious efforts, not necessarily because OOP is hard to leard, but in order to break his/her old habits.

“Tapestry in Action” is your exit route from the ugly world of HTTP stateless pages and spaghetti HTML intertwingled with Java code and various macros. It’ one of the best JSP detoxification pills available on the market right now.

The first part of the book (‘Using basic Tapestry components’) is nothing to brag about. It’s basically an updated and nicely organized version of the various tutorials already available via the Tapestry site, excepting probably some sections in chapter 5 (‘Form input validation’). By the way, the chapter 5 is freely downloadable on the Manning site and is a perfect read if you want a glimpse of the fundamental differences between Tapestry and a classic web framework (form validation being an essential part of any dynamic site). However, if you want to go over the ‘Hangman’*** phase you really need to dig into the next two book sections.

The second section ‘Creating Tapestry components’ is less covered by the documentation and tutorials. I’m specifically pointing here to the subsections ‘Tapestry under the hood’ (juicy details about pages and components lifecycle) and ‘Advanced techniques’ (there’s even an ‘Integrating with JSP’ chapter !). While it is true that any point from this chapter will generally be revealed by a search on Tapestry user list or (if you’re patient) by a kind soul answering your question on this same list, it’s nethertheless a good thing to have all the answers nicely organized on the corner of your desk.

The third and last chapter (‘Building complete Tapestry application’) is a complete novelty for Tapestry fans. It’s basically a thorough description of how to build a web application (a ‘virtual library’) from scratch using Tapestry. While the Jboss-EJB combination chosen by the author is not exactly my cup of tea (I’m rather into the Jetty+Picocontainer+Hibernate stuff) I can understand the strong appeal that it is suppposed to have among the J2EE jocks. Anyway, given the componentized nature of Tapestry, I should be able to migrate it relatively easily if I feel the need for it. The example app is contained in a hefty 1Meg downloadable archive of sources, build and deployment scripts included.

To conclude, ‘Tapestry in Action’ is a great book about how to change the way you are developing web applications. The steep learning courve is a little price to pay for a two or three-fold improvement in overall productivity. And this book should get you started really quick.

*Which AFAIK is still used at our former customer.

**There were some posts on Tapestry user list on about a certain conceptual ressemblance with Apple’s WebObjects. I can’t really pronounce upon this because I do not know WebObjects, but the name in itself is an interesting clue.

***’Hangman’ is the Tapestry ‘Petshop’ (although there is also a ‘real’ Tapestry Petshop referenced in the Wiki).