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Special Report: Web 2.0

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Java's RIA Option for Robust Web Apps
Rich Java applications offer an alternative that can have advantages over Ajax.
by Marc Domenig

September 15, 2006

Ajax is great for many applications, but not for all applications. When applications get large, need to scale, or require superior security, Java-based Rich Internet Applications (RIA) might be preferable. There is a simple reason for the RIA alternative: Java offers by far the most advanced, most standardized, and most reliable cross-platform UI technology. Designed for full-fledged desktop applications, client-side Java outclasses Ajax in terms of functionality, stability, performance, and security.


There is only one issue with conventional Java clients; they don't fit into a Web architecture, despite applets and Java Web Start. A solution for this issue is Java RIA technology. This technology bridges the gap between Java's rich UI components and a server-side Web architecture, leveraging both the advantages of client-side Java and server-side application management. Industrial strength performance and scalability thus becomes feasible for enterprise applications as well as new-generation, Web 2.0 applications and sophisticated mash-ups.

Java RIA solutions implement the architecture shown on the left-hand side in Figure 1, where a compiled presentation engine runs on the client, either as an applet within a browser or as a desktop application. The presentation engine interprets abstract UI descriptions that are generated on the server, using the components of the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to handle the UI. Most Java RIA products available today use this approach.

The split between client and server is realized within the presentation layer and built into the RIA product. Presentation logic is designed and executed on the server, together with the logic for business functions and persistence. The obvious advantage of this approach is that the presentation engine works like a browser and needs to be installed only once for any number of applications. Another benefit is that the server-side architecture fosters reliability, scalability, performance, and security. Keeping all of this processing on the server makes it much easier to achieve these qualities—for example, security. This architecture also simplifies development: the RIA library resolves the issue of distributing code between client and server, thus eliminating a major programming challenge that is a frequent cause for project failure.

The architecture of Ajax solutions varies over a broad spectrum ranging from thin client to rich client, as shown on the right-hand side in Figure 1. Ajax developers are at liberty to move any code to the client, including business logic and persistency services. This freedom of choice compromises architectural simplicity and often leads to poorly conceived software that is unreliable, difficult to maintain, insecure, and lacking in performance.

A Proxy for UI Components
Java libraries for desktop UIs are mature and offer a comprehensive set of components that satisfy the requirements of any business application. There are two industrial standards: the Abstract Windowing Toolkit (AWT)/Swing and the Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT)/JFace. Either option is an excellent basis for an RIA product. Both have reached a high level of quality and a substantial installed base. RIA products can therefore be reduced to a server-side proxy layer for an established Java UI library.

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