Upgrading your app to Grails 2.0.0? Better wait for 2.0.1

Grails 2.0.0 is a major step forward for this popular and productive, JVM-based web framework. It has many great new features that make you want to migrate existing projects to this new version.

So I branched our project and started the migration process. Everything went smoothly and I had only to fix some minor compilation problems to get our application running again. Soon the first runtime errors occured and approximately 30 out of over 70 acceptance tests failed. Some analysis showed three major issue categories causing the failures:

  1. Saving domain objects with belongsTo() associations may fail with a NULL not allowed for column "AUTHOR_ID"; SQL statement: insert into book (id, version, author_id, name) values (null, ?, ?, ?) [90006-147] message due to grails issue GRAILS-8337. Setting the other direction of the association manually can act as a workaround:
    book.author.book = book
  2. When using the MarkupBuilder with the img tag in your TabLibs, your images may disappear. This is due to a new img closure defined in ApplicationTagLib. The correct fix is using
    delegate.img

    in your MarkupBuilder closures. See GRAILS-8660 for more information.

  3. Handling of null and the Groovy NullObject seems to be broken in some places. So we got org.codehaus.groovy.runtime.typehandling.GroovyCastException: Cannot cast object 'null' with class 'org.codehaus.groovy.runtime.NullObject' to class 'Note' using groovy collections’ find() and casting the result with as:
     Note myNote = notes?.find {it.title == aTitle} as Note

    Removing type information and the cast may act as a workaround. Unfortunately, we are not able to reproduce this issue in plain groovy and did not have time to extract a small grails example exhibiting the problem.

These bugs and some other changes may make you reconsider the migration of some bigger project at this point in time. Some of them are resolved already so 2.0.1 may be the release to wait for if you are planning a migration. We will keep an open eye on the next releases and try to switch to 2.0.x when our biggest show stoppers are resolved.

Even though I would advise against migrating bigger existing applications to Grails 2.0.0 I would start new projects on this – otherwise great – new platform release.

Grails 2.0.0 Update: Test Problems

Recently we tried to upgrade to Grails 2.0.0, but problems with mocks stopped our tests to pass.

Grails 2 has some nice improvements over the previous 1.3.x versions and we thought we give it a try. Upgrading our application and its 18 plugins went smooth (we already used the database migration plugin). The application started and ran without problems. The better console output and stacktraces are a welcomed improvement. So all in all a pleasant surprise!
So just running the tests for verification and we can commit to our upgrade branch. Boom!

junit.framework.AssertionFailedError:
No more calls to 'method' expected at this point. End of demands.

Looking at the failing unit test showed that we did not use any mock object for this method call. Running the test alone let it pass. Hhhmm seems like we hit GRAILS-8530. The problem even exists between unit and integration tests. So when you mock something in your unit test it is also mocked in the integration tests which are run after the unit tests.
Even mocking via Expando metaclass and the map notation did not work reliably. So upgrading for us is not viable at the moment.

Grails Gems: Command Objects

A series about the (little) gems found in Grails which can help many projects out there.

Besides domain objects command objects are another way to get validation and data binding of parameters. But why (or when) should you use them?
First when you do not want to persist the data. Like validating parameters for a search query.
Second when you just want a subset of the parameters which has no corresponding domain object. For example for keeping malicious data away from your domain objects.
Third when you get a delta of the new data. When you just want to add to a list and do not want to check if you get a single or a multiple value for your a parameter.

Usage

Usually you put the class of the command in the same file as the controller you use them in. The command object is declared as a parameter of the action closure. You can even use multiple one:

class MyController {
  def action = { MyCommand myCommand, YourCommand yourCommand ->
    ...
  }
}

Grails automatically binds the request parameters to the commands you supply and validates them. Then you can just call command.hasErrors() to see if the validation succeeded.

Grails: The good, the bad, the ugly

(Opinion!) After 3 years of Grails development it is time to take a step back and look how well we went.

After 3 years of Grails development it is time to take a step back and look how well we went.
(Info: we made several Grails apps ranging from small (<15 domain classes) to medium sized (50-70 domain classes) using front ends like Flex/Flash and AJAX)

The good parts

Always start with praise. So I tell you what in my opinion was and is good about developing in Groovy and Grails.

Groovy is Java with sugar

The Groovy syntax and the type system are so close to Java, so that when you come from a Java background you feel right at home.

Standard web stack

If you are accustomed to standard technologies like Spring and Hibernate you see Grails as a vacation.

Sensible defaults aka Convention over configuration

Many of the configuration options are filled with sensible defaults.

Fast start

You get from 0 to 100 in almost no time.

The bad things

Things which are not easily avoided.

Bugs, bugs, bugs

Grails has many, many bugs, unfortunately even in such fundamental things such as data binding and validation. A comment from a previous blog post: “To me, developing with Grails always felt like walking on eggs.”

Regression

Some bugs sneak back in again or are even reopened. Note that this is not the same as bugs, bugs, bugs because fixed bugs should be secured by a test.

Leaky abstractions

You have to know the underlying technologies especially Hibernate and Spring to get a foot on the ground. The GORM layer inherits all the complexity from Hibernate.

Slow integration tests

The ramp up time is 45 s on a decent build/development machine and then the first test hasn’t even started.

Uses the Java way of solving problems

Got a problem? There’s a framework for that!

Abandoned or prototype like plugins

Take a look at the list of plugins like Autobase, Flex.

Problems with incremental compiling

Don’t know where the real cause is buried: but using IntelliJ for developing Grails projects results in comments like:
Not working? Have you cleaned, invalidated your caches, rebuilt your project, deleted the .grails directory?

The ugly things

Things which are easily avoided or just a minor issue.

Groovys use of == and equals

Inherited from Java and made even worse: compare two numbers or a String and a GString

Groovys definition for the boolean truth

0, [], “”, null, false are all false

Groovys use of the NullObject and the plus operator

Puzzler: what is null + null ?

Uses unsupported/discontinued technologies

Hibernates SchemaExport comes to mind.

Mix of technology and intention

hasMany, hasOne, belongsTo have not only an intention revealing function but also determine how cascading works and the schema is generated.

Summary, opinionated

Grails has deficits and is bug ridden. But this will be better in the future (hopefully).
When you compare Grails with standard web stacks in the Java world you can gain a lot from it.
So if you want to know if you should use Grails in your next project ask yourself:

  • do you have or want to use Spring and Hibernate?
  • can you live without static typing? (remember: with freedom comes responsibility)
  • are you ready to work around or even fix an issue or bug?
  • is Java your home?

If you can answer all those questions with Yes, then Grails is for you. But beware: no silver bullets!

The Grails performance switch: flush.mode=commit

Some default configuration options of Grails are not optimal for all projects.

— Disclaimer —
This optimization requires more manual work and is error prone but isn’t this with most (big) performance improvements?
For it to really work you have to structure your code accordingly and flush explicitly.

Recently in our performance measurements of a medium sized Grails project we noticed a strange behavior: every time we executed the same query the time it took increased. It started with 40ms and every time it took 1 ms more. The query was simple like Child.findAllByParent(parent)
The first thought: indexes! We looked at the database (a postgresql db) and we had indexes on the parent column.
Next: maybe the session cache got too large. But session.flush() and session.clear() did not solve that problem.
Another post suggested using a HQL query. Changing to

Child.executeQuery("select new Child(c.name, c.parent) from Child c where parent=:parent", [parent: parent])

had no effect.
Finally after countless more attempts we tried:

session.setFlushMode(FlushMode.COMMIT)

And not even the query executed in constant time it was also 10x faster?!
Hmmm…why?
The default flush mode in Grails is set to AUTO
Which means that before every query made the session is flushed. Every query regardless of the classes effected. The problem is known for hibernate but after 4! years it is still unresolved.
So my question here is: why did Grails chose AUTO as default?

Groovy isn’t a superset of Java

Groovy is Java with sugar, right?

Coming from Java to Groovy and seeing that Groovy looks like Java with sugar, you are tempted to write code like this:

  private String take(List list) {
    return 'a list'
  }

  private String take(String s) {
    return 'a string'
  }

But when you call this method take with null you get strange results:

  public void testDispatch() {
    String s = null
    assertEquals('a string', take(s)) // fails!
  }

It fails because Groovy does not use the declared types. Since it is a dynamic typed language it uses the runtime type which is NullObject and calls the first found method!
So when using your old Java style to write code in Groovy beware that you are writing in a dynamic environment!
Lesson learned: learn the language, don’t assume it behaves in the same way like a language you know even when the syntax looks (almost) the same.

Is Groovy++ already doomed?

<disclaimer>I really like Groovy and other cool languages like Scala, Fantom, Gosu or Clojure targetting the JVM.</disclaimer>

I know the title is a bit provocative but I want to express a concern regarding Groovy++. In my perception most people think of Groovy++ as an extension for Groovy which trades dynamic dispatching for static typing and dispatching yielding performance. So you can just look for hot spots in your code and resolve them with some annotations. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?.

That seems to be the promise of Groovy++ but it isn’t. Alex Tkachman, the founder of the Groovy++ project states this clearly in this comment to an issue with Groovy++: “100% compatibility with regular Groovy is nice when possible and we do our best to keep it but it is not a must.”.

Imho the mentioned issue together with this statement reduces the target audience to a few people who think of Groovy++ as a better Java, not a faster and type-safe Groovy where needed. I do not think there are too many people thinking that way. I think wide adoption of such a Groovy++ will not happen given the alternatives mentioned in the disclaimer above and Groovy itself. I hope they will strive for 100% compatibility with Groovy…

GORM Gotchas: Validation and hasMany

Using validation on the end of hasMany associations yields unexpected results.

The excellent GORM Gotchas Series inspired me to write about a gotcha I found recently.
You have a domain class Container which contains elements:

class Container {
  static hasMany = [elements:Element]

  List<Element> elements
}

and the element has a constraint:

class Element {
  static belongsTo = [container:Container]

  static constraints = {
    email(email: true)
  }

  String email
}

When you try to save a container with more than one element that fails validation, only the first error appears:

Container c = new Container()
c.addToElements(new Element(email: "a"))
c.addToElements(new Element(email: "b"))
c.save()
assertEquals(2, c.errors.allErrors.size()) // fails, only one error is recorded!

The solution described in the docs coined with In some situations (unusual situations)) is to use a custom validator in the container class:

class Container {

  static constraints = {
      elements(validator: { List val, Container obj ->
          val.each {Element element ->
            if(! element.validate()) {
              element.errors.allErrors.each { error->
                obj.errors.rejectValue(
                      'elements',
                      error.getCode(),
                      error.getArguments(),
                      error.getDefaultMessage()
                )
              }
            }
          }
          return true
      })
  }

  static hasMany = [elements:Element]

  List<Element> elements
}

== isn’t equals, or is it?

Beware of the subtle differences of == and equals in Java and Groovy.

== and equals behave different in Java (and Groovy). You all know the subtle difference when it comes to comparing strings. equals is recommended in Java, == works in Groovy, too. So you could think that using equals is always the better option… think again!
Take a look at the following Groovy code:

  String test = "Test"
  assertTrue("Test" == test) // true!
  assertTrue("Test" == "${test}") // true!
  assertTrue("Test".equals("${test}")) // false?!

The same happens with numbers:

  assertTrue(1L == 1) // true!
  assertTrue(1L.equals(1)) // false?!

A look at the API description of equals shows the underlying cause (taken from the Integer class):

Compares this object to the specified object. The result is true if and only if the argument is not null and is an Integer object that contains the same int value as this object.

equals follows the contract or best practice (see Effective Java) that the compared objects must be of the same class. So comparing different types via equals always results in false. You can convert both arguments to the same type beforehand to ensure that you get the expected behavior: the comparison of values. So next time when you compare two values think of the types or convert both values to the same type.