Saturday, January 08, 2011

On Perception of Java Verbosity

Today many software developers consider Java to be the modern-day equivalent of Cobol. This is evident from comments comparing amount of Java code needed to do tasks that can be written as one-liners using more dynamic and expressive scripting languages such as Python or Ruby. Funny how time flies -- it wasn't all THAT long ago that Java was seen as relatively concise language compared to C, due to its in-built support for things like garbage collection and standard library that contained implementations for host of things that in C were DIY (note that I did not say "due to simplicity of language itself")

1. Java verbose?

But while it is true that Java syntax can lead to code much more verbose than seems prudent (especially when traversing and modifying data structures), sometimes its reputation exceeds reality. I was reminded by this by a tweet I came across. The tweet asked "and how many lines would this be in Java", regarding a task of downloading JSON from a URL and parsing contents to extract data; something that can be done with a single line of Python (or Ruby or Perl). Implied assumption being be that it would take many more lines of Java code.

2. Ain't necessarily so

This assumption is not completely baseless: if a developer was to do this as part of a service, a typical java developer might well end up with code that exceeded ten lines; and this even without code itself being badly written. I will come back to question of "why" in a minute.

But assumption is also off base, for the simple reason that it can be a one-liner even in Java; for example:

Response resp = new ObjectMapper().readValue(new URL("").openStream(),Response.class);
// or if you prefer, bind similarly as "Map<String,Object>"

(and in fact, ".openConnection()" is actually unnecesary, as ObjectMapper can just take URL -- but if it didn't, one can open InputStream directly from URL, which sends request, takes response and so forth).

Code snippet just uses standard JDK URLConnection via URL, and a JSON library (Jackson in this case, but might as well be, GSon, flex-json, whatever); and results in request being made, contents read, parsed and bound to an object of caller's choosing, either a Plain Old Java Object, or simple Map.

Given that it IS that simple, why was there assumption that something more was needed?

3. But often is

Above use case happens to be doable in quite concise form; but there are other tasks where Java equivalent ends up being either a call to a very specific library tailored to condense usage, or is much fluffier than equivalents in modern scripting languages. But I don't think this is the main reason for the universal appearance of Java's bloatedness, i.e. it is not just case of choosing a wrong example.

I think it is because most Java developers would actually write piece of code that spanned more than a dozen lines of code. Why? Either because:

  1. They didn't know JDK or libraries, and use much more cumbersome methods (case for less experienced developers)
  2. They actually understand complexities of the task, within context where task needs to be done.

First one is easy to understand: if you don't know your tools, you can't expect a good outcome. But second point needs more explanation.

Let's consider the same task of sending a request to a service that returns a JSON response that we need to return as an object. What possible additional things should we cover, beyond what one-liner did? Here's sampling of possible issues:

  • There is no error handling in code snippet: if there are transient problems with connection, it will just fail for good, regardless of type of problem there is
  • How about problems with service itself? Requesting unknown customer? Do we get an HTTP error response; different JSON or what?
  • Do we really want to wait for unspecified amount of time, if request can not be made (TCP will try its damnest to connect, so it there is an outage it'll be minutes before anything fails)
  • URL to connect to is fixed (and hard-coded), including parameters to send; should they really be hard-coded
  • How is caching handled? What are connection details?
  • When there are failures, who is notified and how?
  • Are we happy with the default JDK URLConnection? It may not work all that well for some use cases (i.e. shouldn't be using Apache httpclient or something)

To cover such concerns for production systems, one probably would want much more complicated handling: possible retries for transient errors; definitely logging to indicate hard failures; way to handle error responses and indicates those to caller. Due to testing, end points being used are typically dynamically determined and passed; connection settings may need to be changed, and sometimes different parameters need to be sent. And for production systems we probably need more caching; whereas during testing we may want to disable any and all caching.

Since there are often many more aspects to cover, there is then tendendy to wrap all calls within helper objects or functionality; and if we did define something like "fetchJSONDataFromURL()", it surely would end up being more than dozen of lines of code. Yet calling functionality might still be no longer than a single Java statement.

So which one should we focus on? Helper method that is, say 50 lines long; or call to use it, which may be a one-liner? Former is what can be used to "prove" how bloated Java code is; yet it is written just once, whereas one-liners to use it are written ideally much more often.

By the way, above is not meant to say that it is ALWAYS necessary to handle all kinds of obscure error modes, or to create perfect system that is as efficient as possible. It is clearly not, and Java developers seem especially prone to over-complicating and -engineering solutions. But in other cases, happy-go-lucky approach (that I would claim is more common with "perl scripters") won't do. This is just a long way of saying that complexity of code should be based on actual requirements; and that those requirements vary widely.

4. Concise Java by Composition

I think my insight (if any) here is this: since Java, the language, offers relatively in way of writing compact code, economical source code must come from proper use of libraries, as well as design of those libraries. Furthermore, I think many Java developers have started wrongly believing that Java code must be verbose; and that this makes perception more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that to write compact Java code one absolutely MUST be familiar with libraries to use for things that JDK does not support well (or at all).

blog comments powered by Disqus

Sponsored By

Related Blogs

(by Author (topics))

Powered By

About me

  • I am known as Cowtowncoder
  • Contact me
Check my profile to learn more.