3 things I learned about software in and out of school

Following the lead of Carnage4Life and Scott Hanselman, here are my own items:

Three things I learned while in school

  1. Some people can program, others can't. Those who can't will never be good at programming, even if they work really, really hard. I learned this when I saw somebody stare at a compiler error message for 30 minutes (until I helped them with it) for a simple missing parenthesis! Staring at the error message for more than a minute is not going to help you figure it out when all it says is "Parse error..."
  2. It's hard to know when to stop generalizing. I learned that in Software Engineering when we had heated discussions about whether we should bring generalizations to the next level, something I was very much against.
  3. Working in a group is more fun, but can be disturbing to by-standers.

Three things I learned while not in school

  1. Business people tend to ignore technology under the pretense that business concerns are more important, but it's not a good idea. Technology problems don't really go away by themselves, even if CPUs become vastly faster every year.
  2. Software is a highly volatile industry. When I left school, it was the .com boom, 99.99% employment, etc. etc. Since then, I've seen ups and downs, but always in a very protracted time period.
  3. As you grow older, your experience will tend to grow stale. The reason for this is that as you gain experience, you are more and more likely to become the team lead or senior programmer of your team. As such, you won't have anybody to "pull" you forward as you did when you team lead or senior guy was there and you tried to show off that you were a better coder/designer. The only fix is to always remain open to ideas, regardless of how junior the person who expresses the idea may be most of the time.


Lesser known IoC containers

The point of this article is to talk about my experience with IoC containers other than the 1000-pound gorilla in the IoC container space.

Through some interesting circumstances (mostly, my hard-headedness about not including 15 megabytes of stuff just to get an IoC container; note that I do know Spring is modular, but it wasn't at the time), I'm one of the few people who hasn't been using Spring. At work, we've mostly used PicoContainer as our middleware "glue" layer. I've also dabbled with Guice, and Plexus (a bit) when messing around with Maven Mojos. This is a summary of my experience with each.


Let's cover the IoC container I feel I know best first--PicoContainer. PicoContainer is a small (the JAR is 100 KB or so), type 3 (constructor injection) IoC library.

And that's pretty much the only thing it will ever be, if you don't customize the library. It does constructor injection. It supports hierarchical containers to resolve dependency conflicts. And that's it.

However, the real power of PicoContainer is its open architecture. You can implement your own component management strategy by implementing ComponentAdapter and ComponentAdapterFactory. There are a few example adapters. But overall, this lets you futz around with the component instantiation without having to resort to aspect-oriented programming or exotic annotations. Also, since you are in full control of which ComponentAdapter is used for which component, you can completely customize the instantiation on a per-component basis.

As an example of how useful this can be, it was very simple to implement a specialized adapter that can inject some dependencies through construction injection, and then looks for more dependencies to inject using setter injection. When my experiences with Guice left me somewhat lukewarm, I was able to quickly whip up an @Inject annotation for PicoContainer.

Finally, the hierarchical container facility is extremely useful for one-off dependency injections, such as injecting dependencies in objects retrieved from the persistent store by Hibernate.

So, in conclusion:


  1. Very small
  2. Reasonably fast, to the point that it can be used with throwaway containers
  3. Works even with old JDKs such as 1.4
  4. Component adapters are extremely flexible
  5. Containers are very lightweight, can create and throw away child containers at will


  1. The authors believe constructor injection is the only viable option. However, although constructor injection enforces integrity, it's also very awkward, especially when you get more than 5 dependencies. OK, you probably shouldn't have that many, but sometimes, especially in Struts actions or some other equally centralized point of logic, you will get that many, and it's still less awkward than having a façade just to cut down the dependencies.
  2. Although the adapters are very flexible, there are very few useful implementations that come with PicoContainer. One that supports Guice-like semantics would be welcome.
  3. The hierarchical system for resolving dependencies works well in some situations, but is extremely awkward in others. Granted, it's possible to write a component adapter that uses an alternative resolution mechanism, but in the IoC realm, PicoContainer is a bit like assembly language, or Forth; even relatively common cases have to be implemented by hand.
  4. There is relatively little integration from 3rd-party frameworks (such as Struts, Wicket, and so on). On the other hand, such integration is always very simple to write with PicoContainer, which is not necessarily the case with every IoC container.
  5. Error stack traces are OK, but sometimes very confusing; specifically, it's not always clear which dependency was missing when trying to instantiate a component.


If you want a small container and don't need many fancy features, or if you prefer to write such features yourself to gain maximum flexibility, PicoContainer fits the deal. In my mind, it's more of an IoC library than an IoC framework.


Guice is a relative newcomer in the IoC container arena. Its main claim of fame, despite what its adopters will tell you, is that it comes from Google. Also, unlike PicoContainer, it came out at a time where people started being annoyed at massive XML files, such as those that show up in many industrial Spring-based code bases.

It immediately grabbed the interest of many a-bloggers, showed up on dzone, yadda yadda. The question is, can you believe the hype?

Well, underneath the hype is actually a very nice IoC container that goes the extra mile to provide you with near-perfect error reporting, and that is not afraid to sacrifice purity to the altar of practicality. Guice supports, out of the box, all sorts of dependency injection scenarios, provided that you mark your dependencies with the @Inject annotation. From the theoretical point of view, this is more invasive than a run-of-the-mill IoC container, since classic IoC containers should, in theory, let you use plain objects without any special annotations. This, many argue, makes Guice much less flexible than Spring or PicoContainer.

In practice, I found that adding annotations makes sense in most cases. Externalizing all dependency-related informations sounds great in theory, but in practice, you'll end up with 80% of your services having only one sensible implementation. The services with more implementations have different-enough implementations in many cases that the POJO that receives it works well only with one of them (I estimate that about 10% of application services are like this). Guice's use of annotations to mark injectable resources and to let the target object control what resource gets injected to some degree is very practical.

The IoC container is pretty fast, and does some wicked ASM and cglib-fu to provide precise error reporting and the best possible speed regardless of the situation. Overall, it has an "advanced technology" feel to it. It shows a lot of polish in its package structure and in name selection.

However, Guice is a very "closed" system. Being advanced technology is nice, but it does make certain kinds of things a bit more difficult. Here is an example of such difficult things, and incidentally the reason we went with PicoContainer at work. Guice comes in a "uber jar" format; it bundles two versions of ASM (one for cglib, and a more recent version for itself; ASM is noted for major incompatibilities between minor versions, much to the annoyance of projects using it, and cglib appears to be evolving very slowly these days). Hibernate also uses a version of ASM, albeit an older one, as well as the same version of cglib as Guice. So, in an effort to trim the 550 KB or so JAR file to its bare minimum (remember, PicoContainer takes 110 KB...), I tried to get it to work with the older ASM version. The only part that didn't compile was some code used for error reporting, so I figured I could live without it. Well, I was wrong; the previous version of ASM crashes and burns during unit tests. I'm wary of dismissing obscure crashes to situations that will not happen in production code (even though the failing unit test looked like it was doing something exotic), so I left it at that, figuring I was better sticking with PicoContainer and bloating our applications as little as possible.

Some may dismiss this as a trivial reason to not use Guice, and in some ways it is. But it is something to be aware of. I know Hibernate, for one, has had all kinds of problems with use inside environments that come with a different version of ASM. So I'm a bit wary of such annoying dependencies, especially on ASM and cglib which are known troublemakers. Granted, the problem is a bug in ASM, but it does mean that Guice's use of ASM is exotic enough to trigger that bug.

Another problem with such a closed code base is that it's hard to extend it without releasing your own build of it. I'm not that keen with depending on an annotation that's inside the IoC container's package; I'd prefer depending on, say, the @Resource annotation that's standardized in a JSR (granted, it's not supposed to have exactly the same semantics, but my point is that I dislike putting hard dependencies at the POJO level). I understand the necessity of the annotation, and it's no worse, in my mind, than the transient or volatile keyword. Except in one way: it binds the code specifically to Guice, not just any IoC container. It would be nice if you could ask Guice to use another annotation type (this is noted as issue 70 in their issue database), but right now, you can't.


  1. Still reasonably small
  2. Very advanced, gives a peek of what libraries can look like if people would start to target Java 5 (see also Stripes)
  3. High-tech, uses all kinds of tricks to maximize performance and give the best error reporting possible
  4. More popular than PicoContainer at this point, is getting all sorts of frameworks integrated with it
  5. The only IoC container I know of that allows post-instantiation injection of dependencies for non-constructor injected services. This is actually a great idea in some cases (such as deserialization)
  6. Used in Struts 2. So it's going to end up being used by somebody visible, unlike PicoContainer :-)


  1. Sometimes too advanced; that kind of trickery can hurt if you get bit by a bug (admittedly, there doesn't appear to be many of them)
  2. Binding on a specific in-package annotation is annoying, I'm curious as to why there isn't a way to configure it?
  3. Not an open architecture the way PicoContainer is. It's very easy to futz around with PicoContainer internals. Guice is much more selective with respect to what it lets you do or not do.
  4. Java 5 only. Not that I care, but somebody might. Though, they did manage to make it work with Retrotranslator.


If you want a rich IoC container without the huge XML file tradition (yes, Spring folks, I know about JavaConfig, but it's still not what most people use), with sensible defaults and excellent error reporting, Guice fits the bill. However, if you want something with a hood that you can pop open at will, you may prefer another IoC container.


I haven't played with Plexus a lot, so I can't really give too many details. My only experience was inside the Maven 2 codebase.

As far as IoC containers go, it looks OK (although it does suffer from the XML configuration file syndrome, the XML files are lighter than Spring 1.2 configurations [though not Spring 2.0 configurations], and you can use JavaDoc tags to autogenerate the XML file). However, I felt a bit annoyed at it overall. Error reporting, at least within the Maven environment, is not that great, even for simple mistakes like forgetting the appropriate JavaDoc tag or misspelling something. Plus, I can't really figure out where this project fits. It doesn't look like a project that's used by anybody except the Maven guys; why didn't they use PicoContainer to start with instead?

There are a lot of plexus components, but they don't tend to be that reliable, or their use within the Plexus infrastructure is not consistent. A good example is the password input component. Some Maven components use it, some use a plain text input component instead. It's not quite clear, when developing Plexus aware components or Mojos, which you're supposed to use for what.

A pet annoyance of mine: the Plexus guys want you to obtain the logging service through dependency injection. Although that sounds great in theory, I think it's nuts. Logging (at least, programmer logging) is purely a developer service. I'd even prefer not having to create a special object to start logging--if it could figure it out from the current stack with reasonable performance, it would be much better. So, if, to get logging, I need to create a field, a setter, and configure something in an XML file... I'm not going to use logging, or at least, I'll use Jakarta Commons Logging or SLF4J and just forget about Plexus logging.

So, all in all, it looks like an interesting project, but I don't really know why anybody would use it over Spring, or Guice, or even PicoContainer. I guess every developer likes to write an IoC container, because although it's not too hard, there are enough challenges and futzing around with reflection or byte code engineering to make it an interesting task.

Closing thoughts

So, there you have it, a quick round trip of some lesser-known containers. I also know of a few others:

  • HiveMind/Tapestry-ioc, the container behind Tapestry. Well, this one looks powerful, but like Tapestry, it changes wildly between releases, and releases happen relatively frequently. From a pure technology point of view, it looks very powerful, as HLS does not mind looking for good ideas in other projects.
  • Yan, a relatively unknown container that appears to allow injecting almost everything in almost anything. The author is one of the few who documented how to use his container in rich domain model. The Spring guys have allowed this only very recently, and it requires the use of the AOP sledgehammer to get it to work.
  • And, of course, Spring, whose basic container is becoming more powerful with every release thanks to ideas from all those lesser-known projects, but which remains a huge project. Granted, you can use only parts of it, but it's not the standard usage.

I hope this (longish) post will be of some use to somebody.


Eclipse Europa Review

About this review

OK, so it looks like I can win a t-shirt doing an Eclipse Europa review, and it happens that I've been using it since M7 (the last release before RC0). So, even if I don't get a t-shirt, I'll post this, because I'm a nice guy and I want people to benefit from my living on the bleeding edge.

Before going on with the review, it would probably help readers to know what my Eclipse usage profile is. I use Eclipse mostly at work (http://www.alogient.com), where we build web applications and web sites. I'm currently doing a lot of work on a transactional Java application, using Maven 2 as the build system, Struts 1.2.9 (yes, I know, it's old... it's also stable and well-known), Hibernate 3.3.2 + patches, PicoContainer 1.2, Jakarta Commons Lang and Collections, and other miscellaneous libraries.

Given that, I won't use a lot of the new features touted by Europa (and specifically WTP 2.0), such as JPA and JSF support. JPA may get some use someday. JSF... nah. My only experience with JSF was extremely painful, so I don't really want to use it.

So, let's see the new features I'm likely to use in WTP:

  1. Support for JSP tag files. We've started to use JSP tag files quite a bit, and I'm looking forward to better support for them.
  2. Better HTML and JSP formatting when requesting a "format everything" (CTRL-SHIFT-F)
  3. Better publishing performance.
  4. Improved "maximize editor" behaviour.
  5. Improved generics warnings.
  6. Rename refactoring changes.
  7. Ability to refactor without saving.
  8. Class editor showing disassembled code.
  9. Improved presentation of libraries in project explorer.

(In case you're wondering, I've had to recall this from the new and noteworth pages, because I've been working with Europa for long enough that I don't recall many specific enhancements)

First impressions

My first impressions once I boot the new Eclipse is that they've made it a bit faster, again. I can't really quantify this, but overall, the IDE feels snappier, especially when dealing with the WTP features. This is a great time saver in the regular look at web page/fix bug/publish/restart server cycle. More speed is always a good thing, especially since I run Eclipse on Linux/GTK+, which is usually slower than under Windows.

The workspace switching improvements are welcome, letting you switch between recently used workspaces without having to open the "Switch Workspace" dialog.

I initially imported my settings from a settings export of 3.2.2. This worked mostly OK, except for the XML syntax highlighting which, somehow, always loses my colors. This is very annoying, given that I like to use a dark background for code (OK, XML isn't really code, but it still gets a dark background). Even after importing my settings, the XML editor ends up having all content and CDATA sections in black-on-black. This kind of thing is commonplace in Eclipse and is generally annoying.

I took our main project (with its project files generated by Maven) and published it to Tomcat 5.5. It worked like a charm, and publish was significantly faster, especially the initial publishing operation.

From a stability point of view, M7 was so-so, but RC0 was pretty solid. I've yet to see it behave badly. It looks more stable than 3.2, especially the WTP features.

Refactor changes

One of the "big deals" with this release is the "inline" rename refactor. Essentially, you select the "rename" refactor (CTRL-ALT-R) and instead of getting the old rename dialog, you get to retype the new name and press enter; the rename is then applied. I've seen this feature in IntelliJ IDEA as well.

My experience with this feature is summarized as follows: I turned it off. There were two annoying things with it:

  1. I often fire the refactor with the cursor in the middle of the identifier to rename. Eclipse doesn't pre-select the identifier, so typing the new name immediately doesn't overwrite the old name; instead, it inserts the new character at the position you were in. I assume some people like it that way, but I'm used to the old way of working, and to me, positioning the cursor prior to invoking the refactor interrupts my flow more than typing the new name. Note that I'm a fast typist, so this may make a difference.
  2. After running the refactor, all editors "flicker" briefly, and I'm always worried that the refactor wasn't applied properly or something. I agree that this is largely psychological. But it's another reason for which I turned off the new feature.

So, your mileage may vary, but I think it this feature could get a little bit of polish. Maybe having an option to auto-select the renamed symbol so retyping would overwrite the old name. At least, from a "key feel" point of view, it would be more similar to the dialog, without having to lose the advantages of the in-editor rename (you see more context, it's less obstrusive, etc. etc. etc.)

The other big change I noticed in the refactoring support was the ability to refactor without saving files. This appeared to work well, and it's seamless enough that I'm not nervous about enabling it. The only thing that's slightly annoying is that when you build automatically and you do certain refactors with global impacts, Eclipse may flag a bunch of errors until you save your refactored file(s). This is probably due to the way the compiler works. But it's really not a big deal at all.

HTML and JSP improvements

The new HTML and JSP formatters are very much welcome. They do a much, much better job than the old ones, and I can actually (gasp!) use them to format blocks of JSP or HTML without fear. The old ones really mucked up our JSPs. The ones I've tried the formatter with use JSTL; I haven't tried it with scriptlet-heavy files, but hopefully, I don't have to work with those for some time. :-)

The JSP tag file support appears to work well. However, thanks to the use of an Appfuse-like taglib include at the beginning of every JSP file, it doesn't work in my everyday job, because the taglib declarations are stowed away in another JSP fragment. It looks like Eclipse doesn't see them in this case. I've resorted to copy-pasting the declarations temporarily while I work with the file so I can benefit from autocompletion. In that case, it works well.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that well with custom tags sitting in custom JAR files that come from internal projects. I have that small library with JSP tags, which is included through a project dependency. I could never get autocomplete to work with those tags their TLD file is in the META-INF directory of the source tree). Oh, well.

The tag file support also works for editing the tag files themselves. This is not a big deal, but it does avoid a bunch of spurious warnings about unknown tags when working with those. If you use a lot of tag files, you'll be much happier with WTP 2.0 than with 1.5.

Additional polish

The new look when maximizing editors (with the package explorer, etc. minimized to the side) and the fact that minimizing the docked windows actually minimizes them (instead of turning them into a space-wasting horizontal bar) is a much overdue enhancement, and I'm very happy it's done. Also, the fact that maximizing the editor window does not close the secondary tab group is very welcome, since I tend to work with two tab groups, a habit I've kept from my old Emacs days.

The additonal diagnostics for generics are somewhat useful. They do catch a lot of strange corner cases in the generics specifications. Since we use generics rather heavily (and sometimes in exotic ways), I'm happy with this addition, but I think most developers won't notice.

The improved library presentation also fixes a small annoyance. I used to have to filter out all libraries from the project view to avoid having a huge set of crap in there. Especially for Maven-driven projects, which include every JAR in the world, this is an important feature.

Finally, the class disassembly is very nice, but unfortunately, with Maven's automatic source download feature, I don't use it anymore. Wish I'd had that a year ago...

The less good

This is supposed to be a balanced review, so I have to say something bad... bear with me.

The main annoyance with this release is that a lot of those new features have additional preferences, but those only overload the already busy preference panes. One more checkbox here, one more checkbox there, and you end up with a huge amount of checkboxes. The Eclipse preferences are comparatively messy compared to, say, Netbeans'. In all fairness, Netbeans' doesn't let you configure all that much unless you go to advanced mode, but maybe an advanced mode is what Eclipse needs. All I know is that it's starting to get really, really busy in there, despite the fact that some preference pages have very little on them (see General | Search, for instance). To me, it looks like the nature of the project (it's a plugin-driven platform) has unfortunate side effects when it comes to preference management.

The only other annoyance for me is that I was becoming spoiled rotten with the new features every minor release of Eclipse was bringing. This release does not bring much new stuff, especially from the basic IDE front. This is somewhat less true of WTP, but I'd still like to see more advanced IntelliJ features in WTP, like advanced refactoring support for CSS files. As such, Europa is a bit underwhelming. It seems like many of the features are "gadgets", and there isn't much new stuff. I'd like to see implementation of more refactorings, for instance.

Final throughts

Still, despite all this, it looks like a worthy release. The additional features in WTP are nice, and it's probable that the JSF developers out there will be even happier. And, despite my whining about the lack of "big" changes, the small things count quite a bit as well, such as the new maximized look and the increased performance.

Is it worth upgrading from Eclipse 3.2/WTP 1.5? Well, maybe. I guess it depends what features you're using. For me, it was worth it, if only for the increased performance. It will be worth it eventually anyhow. But for the average Java/JSP developer, I'm not sure there's a compelling reason to upgrade as soon as it's hot the press. For EJB or JSF developers, the picture is likely to be very different, but I admit that I don't use those technologies much anymore.

Still, Eclipse will remain my main IDE. As an aside, yes, I've tried Netbeans 6, but there's always something in the way it wants to work (usually with web projects) that don't match my way of working. Eclipse is very complex, but it's also very flexible, and I always manage to make it do what I want. That is why it remains my main IDE, and why I'll upgrade to Europa. Hey, what am I talking about! I'm already running it! :-)

Technical difficulties

It seems the old domain (bge.kernel-panic.net) does not work anymore, for reasons unknown (I don't host stuff there myself). I need to blog somewhere, so I moved the stuff to a generic blogspot address. Annoying, but sometimes, stuff like this happens. The new address (at least, temporarily) is http://bge-kernel-panic.blogspot.com. Sorry for the inconveniences. Have a nice day anyhow...