Friday, 24 December 2010

JSF: It's Not as Bad as You Might Think

A few people have contacted me privately to ask why JSF isn't on the outline for our forthcoming JavaEE course. They're right: it should be in and I was just wondering why I'd omitted it in the first place. I think my subconscious must have been holding on to a few old prejudices.

I first came across JSF a few years ago when a project I was working with had decided to use JSF (JavaServer Faces) for their web front end.

JSF was relatively new, very few projects had used it at the time so they were a pretty pioneering project.

The only problem was, the programmers on the project, who had no say in the decision, were finding it quite hard to use. So they asked if would mind come in to help get them started.

Now, I explained that I didn't like JSF and thought it a bad choice. But they had worked with me on some other training and reasoned that I'd be able to explain JSF without being a fan, and as long as I could get them started with the subject, they wouldn't mind me being negative about it, since they had no choice in the matter anyway.

So, nervously, I did a quick "getting started in JSF" course for them.

I had a miserable time, but I did my best at getting the project up and running (and they were a lovely group, despite hating JSF they treated me well). I warned them that despite the training, they were going to have a painful time and had better get a very good debugger. (One blogger brilliantly said "we needed a ouija board, not a debugger!")

Two years later, I bumped into one of them and he said "hey Rich, you're the one who made us use JSF!". I had to buy him several beers to persuade him not to kill me. A good illustration of how the messenger is often the one that gets shot.

Anyway, that's a long story and best left in the past, but it did make me rather biased against JSF for years. So much so, that when designing the course outline for our forthcoming JavaEE course, I left it out.

But, the thing is: JSF is now much, much better. It's officially called "JSF2", and whilst I would still maintain it's not the best framework in the world, it is now usable, friendly, well implemented and perhaps most importantly, is supported with some excellent third party component frameworks like PrimeFaces.

I've now used it on a major project (this time, my own choice) and I really enjoyed using it. In future, I'd probably choose Wicket, but it's good enough to Get Stuff Done.

So JSF2 is an integral part of JavaEE, and I certainly need to include it in the JavaEE course, even if it isn't right for everyone. Thanks for the feedback, and look out for the new course early in the New Year.

This course is going to be a real acronym soup: JavaEE, J2EE, EJB, JPA, MDB, JMS, JSF, JAXB, Jax-WS, Jax-RS and probably a few I've forgotten!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

So What's Wrong with Checked Exceptions?

In part one of this blog post on Checked Exceptions, I defended them. They have a very valuable place in Java's toolbox, and those who argue for their removal are missing the point of them.

The trouble is, they're overused. In the early days of Java, everyone assumed that Checked Exceptions were the "right" things to use in all circumstances.

But when you throw a checked exception, you are forcing the caller to handle the problem. But often, problems can't be possibly be handled by program code. The number one example of this is when writing JDBC (data access) code:

   String sql = "INSERT BOOK (bookID, ISBN, title, author, price) VALUES (?,?,?,?,?)";

   PreparedStatement stmt = con.prepareStatement(sql);

   // bind the parameters - omitted
catch (SQLException e)

(This is just a fragment for illustration - don't use this in any real code. I've omitted the closing of the connections - don't even get me started on that nightmare).

Now, seriously, what code can you possibly put in this catch block? Firstly, there are hundreds of things that could go wrong here:

1) Network connection to database down (a squirrel has eaten a cable somewhere)
2) No access to database allowed (bad credentials)
3) SQL statement grammar incorrect - [in fact - it IS! I deliberately made a typo in the SQL]
4) Datatypes of data wrong
5) Our DBA has gone mad/got drunk and dropped the table for a joke
6) Constraint violation

I could go on. But the point is:

None of these problems can be handled in the catch block. How can your code possibly fix the SQL error in my hardcoded string?

So what CAN we do? Well, if we continue to use checked exceptions only, then we have to throw the exception to the caller. But think about it - how can our caller (whatever that is) deal with any of the six problems above? Almost certainly, they can't so they will re-throw it too. And their caller will have to rethrow it, and so on until it reaches probably the top level of our call stack.

The worst aspect of this is that many Java programmers don't get this - they think because they've got an exception, they MUST deal with it there and then (they forget it can be rethrown). Which is why you'll often see this disgusting code in production:

   // SQL and JDBC as above
catch (SQLException e)

Which translates as "hide the problem in a log file somewhere and then let's carry on as if all was well".

Probably the best you can do is to manually convert it into an unchcked exception. Since JDK1.4, you can wrap exceptions so that you don't lose the detail of the original cause:

   // SQL and JDBC as above
catch (SQLException e)
   throw new RuntimeException(e);
   // or you you create your own runtime exception like DataAccessException

SQLException should have been made an *Unchecked* Exception in the first place. This would have meant that we could let the problem rise up the stack until it reaches an appropriate level where we should handle it.

If you're in the lucky position of writing web applications, then you need never catch the unchecked exception - because web applications run in a container like Tomcat, effectively the Tomcat code is the "top level" of your app - you simply configure Tomcat to catch all unhandled exceptions, and to report them to the user and the system admin.

This is why the Spring Framework supplies a wrapper layer around JDBC, which automatically catches the checked exceptions for you, and it throws them to your code as unchecked exceptions. We talk about this in detail on the Spring Framework Online Course

When to use Checked or Unchecked?

Checked and Unchecked Exceptions are two very different tools. In fact, I suspect that the confusion about them arises because they've been given very similar names (even worse, the words Checked and Unchecked don't even appear in the API). The designers of Java should have given them clear distinction in the API.[1]

  • Checked exceptions are for situations where you know your method has reached a condition which means the end goal of the method can't be achieved, but somewhere in the call chain we except the problem can be dealt with.
  • Unchecked exceptions are for situations where something has gone wrong, but due to the nature of the problem, it's likely that the problem can't be handled (or would be best caught with a global error handler). Perhaps a configuration problem (eg a vital config file is missing) or an environmental problem (eg a database table has disappeared), or maybe even a problem within the code (eg a hardcoded SQL statement is wrong).
The point is, they are different tools and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Java is unique in having Checked Exceptions, and it would be a shame to see them removed from a future version of Java (as some people want).

[1] The inheritance hierarchy is broken also. RuntimeException extends Exception, which technically means that RuntimeException is a special kind of Exception. When it really, really isn't (perhaps you could argue that Exception is a special kind of RuntimeException). This means that whenever you catch raw "Exception", you are also catching RuntimeExceptions, even those such as NullPointerException, which is definitely something you don't want to do.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

In Defence of Checked Exceptions

I'm often asked about exceptions in Java, and whether Unchecked Exceptions are "better" than Checked Exceptions.

This is probably because in our Spring Framework online course, I spend a while talking about Spring's Data Access Exception strategy, where checked exceptions are converted to unchecked ones.

See also blogs like Bruce Eckel's , which is fairly damning about Checked Exceptions.

As some of you may not be familiar with the difference between Checked and Unchecked exceptions, let's look at the difference between them.

Checked Exceptions

A checked exception is one that extends the java.lang.Exception class, and the rule is:

"Any call to a method that might throw a checked exception MUST handle the exception".

By "handle", I mean it must either

a) Handle the problem in a try...catch block
b) Throw the exception to the next level up

This means, that unless you're cheating by swallowing the exception somewhere (this means an empty catch block), or you're throwing exceptions from main(), then checked exceptions are guaranteed to be handled by your code, somewhere in the call chain.

Unchecked Exceptions
These are exceptions that don't need a try...catch block anywhere, although you can optionally try...catch them if you want to.

To define an unchecked exception, your exception definition will extend java.lang.RuntimeException.

The risk of using Unchecked Exceptions is that they might never get caught. If they don't, your program crashes. I'll talk about why unchecked exceptions are useful in the second part of this post.

Using Checked Exceptions

Surveying the Java blogging world (eg Bruce's post above), it's fair to say that Checked Exceptions have a terrible, terrible reputation and are hated by a large proportion of Java programmers. Whilst I don't blame them, this is unfair. Checked Exceptions have a lot of value but they are overused.

On my live Java course, I use a simple example of a checked exception...

public class NoOrdersAvailableException extends Exception
   // nothing important to add

Which is thrown from a method something like the following:

public class OrdersQueue
   public Order getNextOrderInQueue() throws NoOrdersAvailableException
      // do a database query to find the order
      // omitted

      if (nextOrder == null) throw new NoOrdersAvailableException();
      return nextOrder;

Why does the getNextOrderInQueue() method need to throw an exception? Because it has reached a condition where there are no orders available, and therefore it cannot fulfil the task it said it was going to do. I think of the signature of the method as being a contract:

public Order getNextOrderInQueue()

Meaning, "if you call this method, with no parameters, then the next order in the queue will be returned".

Notice that we cannot handle the problem in this method. There are no orders in the queue, and the only solution is for the user interface to report this back to the user. But this is not a user interface class, so the caller needs to handle the problem.

And there's the key: the caller NEEDS to handle this problem, and if the caller somehow misses the problem, we would have a serious problem (possibly silent failure).

Here's the caller:

public class UserInterface
   public void showNextOrder()
         Order requiredOrder = ordersQueue.getNextOrderInQueue();
         // now add the order to the user interface screen
      catch (NoOrdersAvaialableException e)
         // show an information message to the user

I admit the code is long winded, and typing in try..catch blocks is never fun. But it is at least readable, I can work out exactly what is happening from this code with little prior knowledge (this is why naming exceptions well is a crucial skill).

Without checked exceptions, we would have to handle nulls, or create blank Order objects, or have some kind of pre-check such as "isOrderReady", which would be prone to race conditions (you get back true from isOrderReady, but by the time you've called getNextOrderInQueue(), some other process has stolen your order!).

So checked exceptions have a very valuable place in helping you to write readable, clean and safer code. But in my next blog post, I'll describe where Checked Exceptions should NOT be used.