How to Build a Webapp in Java

tldr; building a webapp is complicated – particularly if you’re doing it right. JHipster offers a promising solution.

I was a little shocked recently when I realised that I didn’t know how to make a web-application.

It’s not like I’m inexperienced. I’ve been working on the web since 2000; but my job involves focussing on specific areas. Even when helping with strategy, I have very little input into the front-end. Being responsible for an application going live and doing it all myself are very different things.

Part of the problem is how intimidating front end development has become, with flurries of Javascript frameworks, UI libraries and strange pre-compilers. Angular has two versions that are so different as to be incompatible, but with similar names. Tutorials date quickly and beginners can’t tell if they are current. There is a huge amount of knowledge needed to build a web application.

Now, obviously, as the project website says, Spring boot “makes it easy to create stand-alone, production-grade Spring based applications that you can ‘just run’“.  My initial impulse to cobble something together from Spring and Thymeleaf would allow me to get something live. But this is an unsatisfying solution. Server-generated template pages don’t feel particularly powerful even with a good MVC framework. They have several problems:

  1. They tend to have code for the view tangled up with the application, with no clear boundary
  2. Coupling the templates to the server-side code misses the separation of architectures like REST. Adding, say, a mobile client would involve a lot of hassle to get the two different front ends working.
  3. More modern architectures are available for front-end. Using REST and angular allows rapid development of flexible front ends, less coupled to the backend architecture.

Another question that arose was user management and security. This is one of those things that every site needs, but tends to be tedious to code (as well as inviting errors). Any decent user management system needs account creation, password resetting, different roles etc. For most projects, these are going to be the same. My basic assumption would be that Spring security would be useful for that, but that is really a framework for creating a security framework, and there are no obvious mature implementations. Setting up email account confirmation is a drag.

I weighed up a few options for authentication, particularly since I wanted one that supported a stateless web-server. After speaking to a friend, JWT seemed to be the way to go, but this still seemed like a lot of work. And I’d not even started grappling with the whole front-end stack.

I started working in a new office recently and a colleague suggested JHipster as a solution to my problems. I’d heard about the technology via InfoQ but hadn’t paid it a lot of attention. Part of this was the name, which sounded insincere and jokey. And my cursory look suggested it was ‘just’ angular with spring boot. I’d missed something very interesting.

According to the JHipster mini-book, JHipster allows Java devs to “be hip again”. The knowing irony of the framework’s name is irritating, but this idea of being ‘hip’ is good. Web development has changed a great deal, and JHipster provides a simple way to get started with up-to-date technologies, combining bootstrap, angular (or react) and Spring boot. The project started back in October 2013, with the first release in December of that year.

JHipster is similar to Ruby on Rails, providing rapid development of a stack based upon entity definitions. The ‘Hipster’ part of the name is referring to the need to keep up with the modern tools. JHipster produces the plumbing and boilerplate for a whole stack including a variety of best of breed tools. It also adds in a basic user-management system for free. JHipster prepares multiple files for each entity:

  • Database tables
  • Liquibase changes
  • JPA entity definitions
  • Spring data repository
  • Spring rest controller
  • Angular route, controller and service
  • HTML page

The best way to get a flavour of how JHipster works it to look at Matt Raible’s 16-minute demo of building a blog application, get started with JHipster 5.

Full-stack development is hard work, even with JHipster – you need to be familiar with both Spring and angular. But this does put you a lot closer than ever before to putting live a full-stack application using best of breed technology.

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