AJAX, OSGi Hot Topics At EclipseCon

AJAX and OSGi were two central topics of conversations at this week's EclipseCon, drawing high attendance at sessions devoted to the technologies and sparking much chatter among attendees.

OSGi is emerging from the shadows as more companies adopt its Java service platform as a foundation for their own software. Its overseer, the OSGi Alliance, was formed in 1999 by Sun, IBM and others. But, while OSGi technology is used by a broad array of enterprise software vendors, awareness of it remains low. OSGi's arcane, technical focus has hindered adoption, as well.

"When you look at the Web site, it's really a mess. It doesn't tell you what it does. You could get a white paper. I didn't want a white paper, I wanted to know what it did," said Jason Sankey, a founding software developer with Zutubi, based in Sydney, Australia.

Prompted by a recommendation from a customer, Zutubi is adopting OSGi as the basis of the new plug-in framework for its continuous integration server, Pulse. Despite the learning curve, Sankey is pleased with OSGi; he came to EclipseCon, held this week in Santa Clara, Calif., in part to learn more about the technology.

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"OSGi has really gained steam in the past few years, especially with Eclipse Equinox," he said.

The OSGi framework underpins the Eclipse platform's runtime, Equinox. Because the two frameworks are so intertwined, OSGi co-hosted its developer conference with EclipseCon this year for the first time. The move pleased attendees; Eclipse Foundation executive director Mike Milinkovich reported seeing packed sessions at most of the OSGi track events.

"We're very interested in this Enterprise Expert Group at OSGi. We hope some of the technology from that comes through to Eclipse projects," Milinkovich said in an interview.

AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language) was another hot topic at the conference. The Eclipse Foundation spotlighted its AJAX projects, and a session on "What Does Eclipse Need To Do To Become the IDE for Ajax?" was among the conference's most popular.

AJAX, a bundle of technologies and techniques used for building Web application interfaces with the smooth look-and-feel and responsiveness of desktop applications, is a technology soaring in popularity. It's also a challenge for developers; AJAX projects are famed for their complexity. During the EclipseCon session, Nexaweb CTO Coach Wei told his horror story of spending three days debugging an AJAX application he'd written: After combing through every line of JavaScript, he found that the problem originated in a CSS file. The interdependencies involved in building AJAX applications can make their development a nightmare.

Next: AJAX toolsets to the rescue, but how many are too many?

A number of vendors have released AJAX toolsets to ease development, but the profusion of toolsets is becoming an issue in and of itself. The Eclipse Foundation's AJAX Toolkit Framework (ATF) aims to provide foundational unification. Panelist Robert Goodman classified it as an "incubation phase" project.

"We're still trying to figure out exactly what we want to produce," Goodman said.

One particular AJAX toolkit, the Google Web Toolkit (GWT), won praise from panelist Eric Clayberg, senior vice president of product development for developer tools ISV Instantiations. Google, an AJAX pioneer, open-sourced its toolkit in December. Instantiations quickly adopted it.

"We looked around and were quite dismayed by the number of different AJAX frameworks. When Google came out with theirs, we were quite impressed by it," Clayberg said. "We're thinking this is something the industry can consolidate around. At least in our case, seeing a big brand name like Google gives [GWT] some legs in the market."

While the AJAX discussion drew a big audience, some developers remain unconvinced that AJAX is the future of Web development. One audience member, RadRails developer Kyle Shank, took advantage of a question-and-answer session to criticize AJAX mania.

Shank recently spent several months working on a "large project for a large company you'd know" re-implementing a rich-client interface on the Web using Dojo's AJAX toolkit. He categorized the effort as a total, painful disaster. The development was klugy and hard to scale, he said.

AJAX is a powerful tool in the hands of expert programmers, but too many are trying to use it to solve problems better tackled with other technologies, he said. JavaScript, a technology that fell into disgrace among Web developers in the '90s before enjoying an AJAX-fueled renaissance, remains a substandard language, Shank argued.

Nonetheless, the EclipseCon session's participants foresee a healthy future for AJAX -- one they'd like to see Eclipse play a pivital role in facilitating.

"Once AJAX gets a rich set of tooling, I think people will really start to get the benefits of it," Instantiations' Clayberg said.