Saturday, April 5, 2008

Model View Squared Controller

At my place of work, Model View Controller is a common architectural pattern used as the foundation for the applications that we develop and maintain. MVC is a common pattern that can be seen in just about any software industry, from Agile development shops to those that follow the more traditional models of development.

As Computer Scientists, we often look for ways to solve a problem not once, but for N cases. Some really smart people at the Apache Foundation and SpringSource have designed and implemented solutions for Java that lay the foundation or "framework" for quickly and efficiently starting the development of an MVC application.


MVC Framework Flow in Struts and Spring



With both Struts and Spring, a request is sent from a browser to a servlet container, such as Tomcat or Jetty. The container hands off the request to a servlet declared in an XML configuration file. The servlet processes the request and hands it off to a controller. The controller, typically an Action subclass in Struts or a Controller subclass in Spring, makes calls to the model to retrieve data from the data source, manipulate that data, and pass it back to the controller. Afterwards, the result is forwarded to the view. In Struts, an ActionForward is returned by calling the mapping.findForward method and passing in a String that maps to a JSP page declared in the configuration file. In Spring, a ModelAndView object is instantiated with the JSP filename as an argument.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Struts and Spring



This particular pattern is well-known for decoupling the business logic from the user interface, the user interface from the controller, and the controller from the business logic. The advantage is that the view can be modified, maintained, or completely replaced, independent of the rest of the system.

Well, almost....

If you want to change the view, it's still a development issue. You still have to deploy a new Web Application Archive, or WAR file for short. You still have to test the application, as other developmental changes could affect the behavior of the system.

Unless you break the application up into completely separate modules that all exist outside the application....

Velocity, a templating language developed by the Apache Foundation, is very similar to Java Server Pages (JSP), except the Velocity files can be hosted outside the WAR file, on a completely different server, completely independent of the application.


The Velocity Advantage



Picture an enterprise-level reporting tool designed to be hosted by an application service provider. Imagine that there are thousands of clients who use this system and who regularly depend on the functionality. If you're a project manager for this reporting tool and you want to allow all of your clients to customize and skin the user interface without needing to involve your developers, then you need the Velocity Advantage!



The JSP Disadvantages



Even with MVC, you may have a few JSP pages that create a tightly coupled system where a change to the HTML structure for one client will affect thousands, perhaps with disastrous results. While the number of pages is small, it may take a lot of work to make them all work together for each logical case.

On the other hand, you could have N JSP pages for N clients. This means that deploying a new feature means that you will need to modify N JSP pages.

No matter what solution you use, the fact remains that updating the user interface becomes a development issue that involves a complete development, testing, and deployment cycle, as well as the possibility of either introducing new bugs into the system or creating a situation where you require intense, time-consuming CVS management. Being organized takes time.

But using Velocity, these JSP page equivalents could be stored on the client's servers, or an external server that you maintain that is specifically dedicated to hosting these view components. Suppose you then have a configuration file where you can store the location of the view for each client, kind of like struts-config but better; it exists outside the WAR file! And suppose the client has control over which view they use!

Sure, with Struts and Spring, the configuration exists in an XML file outside of the codebase, but you still have to pack a new WAR file and possibly restart your servlet container when making changes to these files. This, of course, equates to downtime!

Here is where those smart people at the Apache Foundation failed to completely solve this problem. (For the record, the developers of Struts are extremely bright problem solvers who have made significant contributions to the development community. These contributions have reduced the cost of development significantly in many J2EE environments, and without them, I would probably still be sorting through a mess of code trying to figure out how to write a controller! Additionally, I've not seen a container/framework yet that solves this problem in the manner that I propose.) What's the point of externalizing all of my configuration if changing it still requires me to disrupt my production systems? Any changes made to web.xml, server.xml, struts-config.xml, tiles-defs.xml, or any other configuration file requires a servlet container restart, in most cases.

And this is exactly the type of problem that would make the above scenario fail with a framework such as Struts, or Spring, or WebWork, or Struts 2.


Model View Squared Controller



The framework can of course still be used, just not with the struts-config.XML file. To allow clients to modify their HTML or CSS or change the view that they see, they have to be able to access your own customized, instantly reloadable configuration schema, not the framework schema. You can use an XML file on your server or even a database, as long as changes to the data are instantly recognizable.

This is the type of framework that I want to develop. I'll call it Model View Squared Controller. It's too long though. I need a better name. The concept is that your view would consist of a single JSP page, but all it would do is output data from a bean or even the HttpServletRequest object. The bean would be populated in the controller with the view template retrieved from outside the application. The view would be created as a Velocity object, processed in the controller, and then forwarded to the JSP page.


Model View Squared Control Flow diagram
Essentially, there are two "views"; one is part of the application and the other plugs into this view. The JSP page within the WAR file does nothing except render the data, while the other view -- the plugged-in view -- is actually retrieved from a remote data source and assembled in the controller. It's almost as if your view becomes a piece of data. It actually is data!

It's a tough concept to ponder. "My view is data, you say? I thought the model was the data?". Well, it is. But the view just happens to be something that we retrieve from an external data source, whether it be a remote server as a file, or as a template stored in a database.

Forms can be data. I don't mean the data that is entered in the forms, I mean the forms themselves! In your reporting tool, clients want to be able to use different forms with different field names and values. If your developers are smart, they can design a database schema that is abstract and extensible, one where field names aren't column names, but pieces of data themselves.


Fitness Tracker



This is also the answer to my Senior Design project! I designed a system for allowing health club owners to add exercises to the system so that their members could record data for each exercise.

Since each exercise is different, there are different data fields for each type of exercise. These things can't be hard-coded because they are data. Not data that the member would see, but data that the client, the club owner or manager would see! Once again, the form fields are data!

Same with the reporting tool! Each client will have their own idea of what data they want their employees or customers to be able to enter. Therefore, you absolutely must solve the problem once and only once! Otherwise, you'll be scrambling to reinvent the wheel for each new customer that knocks on the door.

I'm going to continue to write more on this subject, as I feel that the concept of a model generated view, view view, or whatever I decide to call it, is oftentimes overlooked.

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