Sunday, August 17, 2008

using Spring Web Flow 2

I have got opportunity to work with Spring WebFlow 2 recently in a project, here I share my personal views on that with you.

Let me first tell you all nice things about recent spring stack (spring 2.5 and above). Two things which  improved a lot with recent release are: annotation support, specific namespaces.

Annotations lets you spend your time more on writing code than to wiring components through xml. Off-course spring fails fast if you have messed up a configuration, but still annotations are lot better to avoid that in first place. With improved @Repository, @Service and @Component it’s easy to configure beans with required specific responsibilities by default.

Namespace improvements, help to keep the xml configuration minimal and typo-error free. Schema definitions helps to validate you configuration as you type, and also with convention over configuration approach they have reduced the lines of XML we need to wire up objects. If you want to replace a component with your custom implementation, sometimes its easy by using auto-wire option; sometime you have to configure them by the old way (i.e. using beans namespace and manually declaring most of the configuration) which is more painful after you getting used to the new way.

With SpringTest framework it’s fairly easy to write integration test cases. With simple annotation spring will automatically loads the application context on the test start up. Also with @Timed you could even clock your test method, and make it fail if it exceeds specified time. And it also supports Transactional test with automatic rollback on default, so if you could write tests which doesn’t dirties up the database.

Let’s come back to the original topic Spring web flow. Spring webflow works as advertised for, i.e. they are for application which has a natural flow behind in business, and UI acts as a way to capture input for the flow and to display something back. Not for an application that has a different requirement than stated above.

Everything is a flow, each flow has a starting point and a end point, and could have any number of transitions in between. As a part of transition you could go to a sub-flow and come back to the original flow later, but these transitions could only happen at the pre-defined places on the flow. It will be tough to implement a free-flow (random browse) kind of applications with it.

It serializes all the information you add to the flow context and restores them as you resume a flow after UI interaction, so every object like entities, repositories, and whatever should implement Serializable. This restricts what you could share in the flow context.

Most of the decision for transition could be easily handled in the flow definition, this avoids creating Action classes which returns just the outcome.

in JSF UI:

<h:commandButton action=”save” />

in Flow definition:

<view-state …

<transition on=”save” >

    <expression =”validator.validate(model)” />


As you could see, you don’t need to have the Action class which returns outcome ’save’, you could direct specify a transition on the command button. Ok, now you could ask what if the save has to be returned only on certain condition (say after only validation passes on the entity). For that you could have a expression executed on the transition, the transition will execute only if the validator returns true, if the validator returns false it will come back to the same view. The expression will accept any EL method expression, need not be just a validator. So you could run any action before the transition. As you could see the method executions in the action class are moved to the flow definition. This will look elegant only if the number of calls made at transition is small, or your application is well thought and designed to share less number of information in state, and keeping the method calls down. (Basically this is a nice feature , but would go awry for huge apps, and for apps which there is no certain business flow behind it)

Spring web flow also supports inheritance of flows, so you could inherit common transition rules from a parent flow. Which is a nice feature to keep the definition DRY as far as possible.

What makes flow definition looks ugly? Whenever there are more no. of mere actions which is called in the transitions to set a variable, to retrieve a variable from flowScope and setting back to the viewScope or so. One thing I had to do multiple times in flow definitions are to transform a List to dataModel for the UI, so I could use listName.selectedRow to identify item selected by the user.

Adding this kind of non-business related method executions and transformations, etc ., to the flow definitions makes it bulky, and also alienates the flow from resembling the business definitions. This defeats the very own cause of having a flow definition.

WebFlow provides convenient default variables like resourceBundle, currentUser, messageContext available in the flow context, which you could refer directly in the flow definition or pass it as arguments to bean action methods, or call actions on them.

When a root flow ends, all the information will be discarded. This is nice for cleaning unwanted data in the  memory but that also means that you cannot share anything with the user after the flow is ended. Suppose I would like to say that the user have successfully placed an order at the end of the flow, I could not do that! You could ask that why not keep the confirmation as part of the flow, well it depends on what time you are committing the changes to the db, or how you are sharing a persistent context, or even like its just a end message, there should not be interaction after that from the view to end the flow.

It’s like redirecting to the home page after successfully placing the order and showing a banner “Thank you for shopping with us!”, which is not just possible.

One last point is that with UrlMapper definition in the configuration you could make a simple url as a starting point of the flow, but otherwise generally can’t use a RESTFUL GET url to reach a page on the flow.

What’s your experience with Spring Web Flow?

by Srinivasan Raguraman,

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