Friday, January 21, 2011

Unified Search Experience Made Easy With CXF

Providing the quality search experience is an important task for any serious web application project.

Most of the HTML forms let users do simple queries resulting in the equality or partial match checks on the server side. For example, "Find the book with the id starting from 123" or "Find all the books with the author's first name starting from Fred".

Imagine the following task. Provide a web interface which will let users search for all the books which have an id greater than 123. Or find the list if customers which paid less than 200 dollars.

What I've observed quite a few times is that when multiple services are built by individual teams within the same large organization or as part of single large project then every team will create its own query language.

One team will come with a custom query language built within this very team. And the other team working on some other service will build a slightly different variation of the custom query language.

The end result is that the users may need to learn two query languages, one in order to query the 1st service and the other one - in order to query the 2nd one.

Sometimes different teams will agree on using the same query language.

Using explicit SQL expressions is one option. Most likely a frontend UI tool will collect the user input and convert it into SQL and then pass it to the remote service. IMHO the use of SQL as a query language on the WEB should be discouraged for the obvious reasons: the fact the the end service uses an SQL database for storing the data is the very last thing the consumer should know about, just too much information is being leaked for this to work.

The use of XQuery or query languages created by Google Data and Microsoft teams is an entirely different approach. It does let developers provide a unified search experience to the users. For example, all the Google Data services have to support the same query language - something that users can appreciate.

As I mentioned in this post, CXF JAX-RS supports converting FIQL expressions into SearchCondition expressions which capture the FIQL queries and let users match them against the application data.

FIQL is indeed a simple language - please read this post from Arul for a nice introduction to FIQL. IMHO it does offer a viable alternative to more complex and advanced query languages and we'd like to continue enhancing the CXF search extensions for users be able to get the best out of FIQL.

The CXF SearchCondition interface offers a utility method for converting the FIQL queries to SQL expressions. This method (toSQL()) has been deprecated recently. While the users who find this method working for them may continue using it for a while, it is now recommended to use the SearchCondition visitors, thanks to Brian Topping for providing a patch.

It were possible to convert SearchCondition into more optimized SQL or non-SQL expressions even before the introduction of visitors but now the relevant code has become much cleaner. The SQLPrinterVisitor is shipped with CXF and it can be used to convert the queries to SQL, using the proper SQL aliases if needed. For example, imagine a query such as "a==b". The 'a' may easily be assumed to be the name of the column in some table - but we may not necessarily want the end users to 'hard code' the names of the columns in the queries; thus the SQL visitor lets the service developers to register an alias map, for the resulting query to contain say "A_Column" instead of 'a'.

I can imagine XQuery-aware and other visitors being added in time. In fact the way we are trying to build the search extensions is to make sure other query languages such as XQuery/etc are supported transparently. If users will start asking about supporting the new query language then we'll just provide the relevant SearchContext parser and SearchCondition visitor.

One immediate enhancement we are thinking of is to add a SearchQueryBuilder which users would use to build FIQL/etc queries using simple Java operations and pass the builder result to WebClients or proxies.

So imagine all the different web services within the same organization supporting the same simple URI friendly query language which is easy to understand and use. One thing you can be sure of is that the end users will appreciate it, especially when they start building their own client applications which need to query a number of those web services.

By the way, it should work nicely for CXF JAX-WS services too provided they've been JAX-RS-enabled.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

JAX-WS and JAX-RS United in CXF

I've just reread the REST and SOAP United blog entry I did back in July 2008, more than 2 years ago.

This theme is as active as ever in CXF; as I've mentioned on this blog quite a few times we've been trying to provide the environment for SOAP developers to experiment with JAX-RS with as few changes as possible and indeed, quite a few CXF SOAP developers do use JAX-RS today while continuing running their SOAP services. Some developers are choosing to annotate the same service interface or implementation class with both JAX-WS and JAX-RS annotations, while some of those, preferring to do the WSDL-first approach, have tried to apply an external CXF JAX-RS user model, something that is demonstrated now in one of the Talend SF demos, and thus avoiding having to modify the (generated) code altogether.

There have been some new improvements recently in the integration between JAX-WS and JAX-RS runtimes.

First, many of the custom CXF annotations are now supported by the JAX-RS frontend. So one can easily do a combined JAX-WS and JAX-RS service which for example supports a FastInfoset feature by using CXF FastInfoset, Feature or In/OutInterceptors annotations, possibly also relying on say a DataBinding annotation enabling the CXF SDO DataBinding.

It was possible to wrap CXF DataBindings as JAX-RS MessageBodyReaders and MessageBodyWriters for a while, with XmlBeans being the latest DataBinding supported, thus effectively reusing the same provider instance between JAX-WS and JAX-RS endpoints.

But just a couple of weeks ago a CXF user asked about having JAX-RS MessageBodyWriters being used by SOAP JAX-WS endpoints. Does it sound a bit hairy to you :-), irrespectively of whether you are a JAX-WS or JAX-RS developer ?
It might sound so initially but I think it is just the next natural step in the way both frontends can get integrated.

A user who asked a question had developed an optimized XML Stax provider and did not want to rely on JAXB while working with JAX-WS services. So I just went ahead and added a utility JAX-RS DataBinding which can be plugged in into JAX-WS endpoints and which will delegate to custom JAX-RS writers and readers. I used a JAXBElementProvider shipped with the JAX-RS frontend to test this feature. Thus, even though most SOAP developers will unlikely use the feature due to a number of limitations, some of them might go ahead and see if some of the existing JAX-RS XML-aware providers can do something useful for their SOAP applications.

I've just thought about doing SOAP-Atom with Atom payloads being transmitted inside SOAP envelopes and handled by CXF JAX-RS Atom providers. But no, I won't advocate doing the double enveloping (soap:Envelope plus atom:feed) at all even though this feature makes it possible now :-).

Have fun :-)