Monday, May 11, 2009

Groovy/Grails versus Perl continued

I've had some critical feedback about my previous post, where I compared a lot of programming languages with the Groovy/Grails combination and claimed G/G was the clear winner.

It struck a particular nerve with Perl people, who claimed I had omitted some important developments in their language in the past years. (I hope the PHP people won't find out what I wrote about their language or I'll have to go find my asbestos suit).

Before I go into the details of that discussion, first a brief remark about C#.Net. One of the commenters pointed out that I hadn't really demonstrated G/G's superiority there, merely used some tricks of logical reasoning. While I wouldn't want to discount logic, I have to admit that carey was right. .Net is a very broad platform, and there are some situations where Grails and Groovy cannot replace it. One example is that .Net can be used to make Windows DLLs. Of course no sensible G/G developer would want to make Windows DLLs anyway, but still.

Then Perl. Some people claimed I really needed to take a look at Moose and Mouse, two OO extensions for Perl 5 that can complement/replace the default Perl 5 OO abilities. I said previously that Perl 'lacks elegant OO' and I still stand by that remark. Three different OO subsystems? In one language? It's certainly an accomplishment, but in my view not a positive one. Think of all the subtle errors and maintenance issues that can be created when those subsystems are mixed in a single program.

Others claimed I should have said something about Catalyst. Catalyst is a web framework for Perl that is vaguely Ruby on Rails-like. At first glance it looks good - with a solid set of features on offer. An immense set of features. In facts the developers have managed to support practically every single Perl technology known to man. All kinds of persistence libraries. A broad selection of view/templating modules. No wonder that users complain of its complicated syntax. Like with the three OO frameworks, it shows that developers couldn't agree, couldn't make up their mind on what they really wanted. So instead they added everything in and hoped for the best. In Perl it's even an official language philosophy (There's more than one way to do it, aka Tim Toady). Java also suffers from this 'feature creep', with frameworks such as Spring and AppFuse, that try to support so many different ways of doing things that they lose sight of what developers want: simplicity and productivity.

So - how do I say this tactfully to Perl fans? You're sitting on a cooling body guys. A quickly cooling body. And instead of simply running away you're trying to cover up the evidence, waving Perl's arms and saying: 'see, it still moves!'.

To make real progress sometimes you have to select only the best parts of what you have, and jettison the rest. Groovy and Grails have done that for Java and its jungle of web frameworks. I hope Perl 6 will do the same for Perl, soon.

Update: please see here for Chromatic's well-written response. It's obvious that we don't agree 100% but I hope the combination of viewpoints makes for an interesting read.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Groovy is the new Perl / Java / ...

The past weeks I've been doing some programming with Groovy and Grails, a relatively new programming language/web application framework, and I'm starting to like it a lot. It's not perfect, but I think it can beats it competitors, with one hand behind its back.

In the past I've done a lot of Java. It's a very good language, but it has some downsides:
  • It's not suitable for scripting. Its syntax is simply too verbose, it's strictly Object-Oriented, it has to be compiled, etc.
  • It doesn't have a single best web application framework. There are so many of those in the Java space that is practically impossible to keep up with them, all have pros and cons. If you pick one now you can be sure that it's hopelessly outdated in 3 years. It's getting to be a big mess.
  • It doesn't have a single best Rapid Application Development environment. This is related to the previous point - in my view programming is all about productivity and maintainability. Maintainability of Java programs is mostly good, but productivity is mostly not so hot. The JSF framework is very promising in this area, but because of all the fragmentation and FUD it's gaining traction slowly.
On the other hand Java has one big plus: It's powerful. With all it's standard libraries, myriads of Open Source frameworks and support from all the big vendors (except Microsoft) it's everywhere.

So now we have Groovy/Grails. Let me show you how it beats all its competitors and predecessors:
  • Java. This one's easy. Instead of fighting Java it simply stands on its shoulders. Groovy can do everything Java can do because it's Java-based. You can use all those libraries, if you want all the frameworks too (even though Grails is the way to go). And Groovy is good for scripting. Matched with Grails you get a scripting language with an excellent ORM and dynamically generated web interface thrown in for free.
  • C#.Net. Groovy and Grails are Open Source. Besides C#.Net is mostly a Java wannabe, so if our new favorite can beat Java it can surely beat .Net.
  • Ruby on Rails. Conceptually and feature-wise Ruby/RoR and Groovy/Grails are closely matched. However the fact that Groovy is Java-based is such a strong advantage that it makes Ruby/RoR irrelevant. Grails also offers better run-time performance.
  • Delphi. Even though Delphi has fallen out of fashion it is probably still one of the best RAD environments ever. It is only recently that JSF and Swing-based tools come close in terms of productivity. Grails takes this RAD ability one step further in RoR fashion: an Object-Relational Mapper that is 100% to the point, dynamically generated web interfaces and the ability to fall back to custom coding wherever you want, with full Groovy and Java power available.
  • PHP. PHP is all about hacking together a web interface quickly, without thinking about maintainability, re-using code etc. If requirements change a lot PHP code will quickly become spaghetti. Security is weak. Let's face it: 1995 called and wants its language back.
  • Perl. I've used Perl a lot in the past - it used to be the king of scripting languages. Unfortunately in 2000 the Perl developers lost touch with the real world and started to develop the perfect scripting language, Perl 6. They're still at it, apparently. Meanwhile Perl 5 has become hopelessly outdated. It lacks elegant OO and a good web framework, to name only a few downsides. Its syntax is so compact (there is some truth in the joke that every randomly typed string of characters is a valid Perl program) that maintainability suffers. Groovy has none of these downsides, and - as far as I can see - doesn't miss any of Perl's major features.
Nothing's perfect. So what are some of the things that could push this winner to even greater heights?
  • Documentation. Groovy/Grails have a lot of power, but some of it is very hard to find. There isn't a single place where it's all described in full. Often you have to make do with some basic examples and a lot of Googling.
  • IDE support. It's clear that one of the main concepts behind Grails has been to make an IDE unnecessary to a large extent. Don't Repeat Yourself and all that. You can get by with just a text editor. Also, Eclipse and Netbeans have basic support. Still, it would be nice to have better debugging and real-time syntax checking/refactoring. Here Java still has a clear advantage.
  • Spring-based. I was a bit disappointed when I found out that Grails is Spring-based, because it adds an extra layer of complexity that is (in my view) often not really needed. In practice Spring stays out of the way when you work with Grails so this isn't really a major issue. It does add to the very very long stack traces that you get when something goes wrong though..
  • Grails views are not component-based. Some effective tag library magic is used to give a first impression that is JSF-like, but the full power of JSF with its drop-in visual component libraries, data binding and IDE drag&drop visual design are missing. It's likely that JSF support will be added to a future version of Grails. I'm not yet sure if that will be an improvement (worst-case it will take away a lot of Grail's simplicity and push it back into the shark-invested waters that make up Java's web application framework landscape).
Anyway. If you do a lot of web programming and /or scripting, then you really owe it to yourself to take Groovy and Grails for a spin.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Two oo's for success

The past few months I've been working on a web site that may eventually replace Wikipedia as the most popular encyclopedia on the net. Or it may not, in which case I will still have learned a lot. Initially I settled on the domain At the time I thought it was a good name, descriptive and clear, certainly with the .info extension. It was brand new so it took about 6 weeks before Google took it serious and really started to index the pages on the site (this is called the Google sandbox effect). However, by the time the site was out of the sandbox the name had started to fade a bit in my view. In particular the .info extension which I liked a lot but which turned out to have a bad reputation with a lot of people.

I also found out about Squidoo, a wiki-like site set up by Seth Godin, the marketing guru. I've read a number of his books and admire his outlook on things, so it's good that I didn't know about Squidoo before starting out. If I had I might not have started on my project.

Back to domain names - Seth Godin explains the name Squidoo by noting that many successful sites have two o's in the name (Google, Yahoo!, his own Yoyodyne). So he figured that any site with two oo's will be successful.

This was a few weeks ago, and at the same time, when I was browsing through the GoDaddy domain auctions that I've written about previously, I noticed a domain name that really struck a chord. I ordered it, and recently switched over FastFunFacts to the new domain name. It again places me in the Google sandbox, I hope that will not last as long as the previous time. I also hope that Yahoo! won't take offense, because our names have more than a passing resemblance. Of course my site is in quite a different field from Yahoo!, I hasten to add.

Anyway, I welcome you to the new Xayoo.