Monday, April 23, 2012

Why Vaadin is different - and how can it make your web application great

on the example of Aperte Workflow
Vaadin is an Open Source widget-oriented, Java Rich Internet Application web framework, which allows programmers to develop browser-based user interface entirely in Java - server-side.
That's it. This is what makes Vaadin different and this is what is game-changing in comparison to almost any other popular web framework.

100% JVM

Because everything is written in Java and runs server-side, you can do things, that were almost impossible or very painful for web frameworks before:
  • Have one, coherent application, with its logic seperated according to your needs - not to what the framework designers had in mind
  • Apply Java programming patterns (compile-time polymorphism, inheritance, etc.) to all of your code - and build your application from coherent modules using these patterns.
  • Write app in a scripting language of your choice - in Scala, Clojure, Common Lisp, Groovy - anything that runs on JVM as a scripting language
  • Debug user interface logic using standard tools - not just in a sandbox mode
  • Introduce plugins to your application using OSGi framework
  • Develop rapidly, by reloading your code in mere seconds - e.g. using JRebel agent or even OSGi framework
Vaadin still allows programmers to access the browser side - but in a controlled way, using Add-ons - Vaadin Add-on Directory provides ecosystem for those. And for most applications - you can easily build them using just the standard ones, provided by Vaadin out-of-the-box.

...and more

JVM itself would be enough, but Vaadin is not only great in the idea itself, but also in implementation. The applications have eye-friendly look out of the box, you can also apply custom CSS and themes easily.
The UI is well-optimized even in comparison to client-side only frameworks - and it works on all modern browsers out of the box (IE6/7 - with some downsides too!).
There is even mobile device support with Vaadin TouchKit, Vaadin also supports JSR168/286 portals (e.g. Liferay Portal) and even Google App Engine.

Vaadin & Aperte Workflow

Aperte Workflow is an Open Source BPMS - the application that eventually is built during the introduction on BPM-class system to an enterprise. Aperte Workflow is designed with strong emphasis on modularity, re-usabiliti and extensibility of solutions created.
User interface in Aperte Workflow is built on Vaadin. The approach for BPM task UI concept in Aperte Workflow is that for each human task, user interface is built from reusable blocks or components (in Aperte Workflow terminology: widgets). Such components can be process-aware (e.g. display process instance data) or just organize other components.

With Vaadin, creating these components is a blast, even for someone new to the concept. You just code your component in Java - implementing some interfaces or extending ready-to-use classes. Vaadin widgets are there - so, for example - you don't have to worry on how to implement your own or incorporate existing suggesting combo box or grid - they are already here, well designed, optimized to work together with other combo boxes.
After coding - you just deploy/update them to a plugin mechanism. Being written entirely in Java, we can manipulate them in our plugins very easily. We don't have to build a set of JavaScripts to provide RIA experience to the users - but neither we have to refresh web page after every user action.

So the code->deploy->test->code->deploy->... cycle is very short - and still we write our application in plain old Java. I wouldn't even attempt to try to implement such thing with pure GWT or JSF.
Plugin mechanism provides integration with an Aperte Workflow web-based modeler - which is based on Signavio core, but more complex elements specific for Aperte Workflow were written in Vaadin too.

Use of Vaadin in modeler allowed us also to engineer preview mechanics to some components (more to come) - for example, Advanced Process Data widget, which provides generic-form feature (it's just one plugin, not an obligation or part of the Aperte Workflow core - you can use, you can replace it, or you can use other implementation, or just go with your own plugins) generates preview in real-time. And the preview is the same code and configuration that will be run in the real user interface for a real BPM task.
What else Vaadin has allowed us to do with relative ease, is that Advanced Process Data Widget provides JSR223 scripting support - for validation and manipulation of the configured form.


In Aperte Workflow, we have chosen Vaadin as our UI framework, not only to save ourselves from spending too much time coding the user interface. We have chosen it mainly because with Vaadin, it is possible to create much more modular RIA web application than with any other framework we have seen.
Will Aperte Workflow be possible without Vaadin. Sure - but with much bigger effort and budget. And the result would be underwhelming without Vaadin - or we would have created our own, imperfect implementation of Vaadin.
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