Grails upgrade – lessons learned

Grails is a great framework for rapidly developing web applications on top the proven java/servlet platform. Especially smaller, short-lived projects can be a real breeze with all the scaffolding, GORM and convention-over-configuration built into grails.

We happen to use it for a quite complex web application project for almost 3 years now. Half a year ago we upgrade from grails 1.0.x to 1.3.4. That makes 3 major versions in one upgrade step and produced obviously a lot of work and many small bugs. I do not want to put the blame on the grails guys here, because most of the stuff was mentioned in the release notes and it was a big step we decided to take when the decision came to continue the project for several years to come.

Our upgrade policy changed due to that experience and we try to stay a lot more current to be able to adapt our software to framework changes more incrementally. Some weeks ago we upgraded from 1.3.4 to 1.3.7 and this experience was not pleasant. Even though we skimmed through the changelogs and release notes and thought the update should be uncritical for us grails behaviour changed in two aspects which broke things for us:

  1. An API-change where GroovyPagesException was changed to GrailsTagException
  2. Behavioural change where no application context and injections are available in functional tests anymore

Item 1 was easy to fix but you need really good testing to spot it before it slips into production. Such subtle API changes should not happen in micro-version updates as that can easily break parts of the system whithout you knowing because of groovy/grails’ dynamic nature. No compiler saves you here.

Item 2 produced some amount of work for us because we build a quite extensive acceptance test suite using services and domain objects to setup the initial environment for each test. Luckily, there is the grails remote control plugin which you can use for things like that.

Lessons learned

  • You should have extensive automated test suites when developing a grails application over a longer period because things can break in unexpected ways without code changes on your side.
  • Try to plan upgrades some time ahead of releases and dedicate time to scanning the release notes and actually performing the upgrade. It may take you significantly longer than the smooth upgrade procedure itself suggests.

The grails team seems to be increasingly aware of backwards compatibility but they still have some way to go. We hope and expect to see fewer unexpected breakages to occur in the future.

3 thoughts on “Grails upgrade – lessons learned”

  1. “No compiler saves you here.”

    With IntelliJ IDEA you have a joint compiler that does static compile checking (via make).

    Thanks for share your experience!

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