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Understanding Vaadin

In order to understand Vaadin, we should first understand what is its goal regarding the development of web applications.

Vaadin’s philosophy

Classical HTML over HTTP application frameworks are coupled to the inherent request/response nature of the HTTP protocol. This simple process translates as follows:

  1. The client makes a request to access an URL.
  2. The code located on the server parses request parameters (optional).
  3. The server writes the response stream accordingly.
  4. The response is sent to the client.

All major frameworks (and most minor ones, by the way) do not question this model: Struts, Spring MVC, Ruby on Rails, and others, completely adhere to this approach and are built upon this request/response way of looking at things. It is no mystery that HTML/HTTP application developers tend to comprehend applications through a page-flow filter.

On the contrary, traditional client-server application developers think in components and data binding because it is the most natural way for them to design applications (for example, a select-box of countries or a name text field).

A few recent web frameworks, such as JSF, tried to cross the bridge between components and page-flow, with limited success. The developer handles components, but they are displayed on a page, not a window, and he/she still has to manage the flow from one page to another.

The Play Framework (http://www.playframework.org/) takes a radical stance on the page-flow subject, stating that the Servlet API is a useless abstraction on the request/response model and sticks even more to it. Vaadin’s philosophy is two-fold:

  • It lets developers design applications through components and data bindings
  • It isolates developers as much as possible from the request/response model in order to think in screens and not in windows

This philosophy lets developers design their applications the way it was before the web revolution. In fact, fat client developers can learn Vaadin in a few hours and start creating applications in no time.

The downside is that developers, who learned their craft with the thin client and have no prior experience of fat client development, will have a hard time understanding Vaadin as they are inclined to think in page-flow. However, they will be more productive in the long run.

Vaadin’s architecture

In order to achieve its goal, Vaadin uses an original architecture. The first fact of interest is that it is comprised of both a server and a client side.

  • The client side manages thin rendering and user interactions in the browser
  • The server side handles events coming from the client and sends changes made to the user interface to the client
  • Communication between both tiers is done over the HTTP protocol.

We will have a look at each of these tiers.


Client server communication

Messages in Vaadin use three layers: HTTP, JSON, and UIDL. The former two are completely un-related to the Vaadin framework and are supported by independent third parties; UIDL is internal.

HTTP protocol

Using the HTTP protocol with Vaadin has the following two main advantages:

  1. There is no need to install anything on the client, as browsers handle HTTP (and HTTPS for that matter) natively.
  2. Firewalls that let pass the HTTP traffic (a likely occurrence) will let Vaadin applications function normally.

JSON message format

Vaadin messages between the client and the server use JavaScript Objects Notation (JSON). JSON is an alternative to XML that has the following several differences:

  • First of all, the JSON syntax is lighter than the XML syntax. XML has both a start and an end tag, whereas JSON has a tag coupled with starting brace and ending brace. For example, the following two code snippets convey the same information, but the first requires 78 characters and the second only 63. For a more in depth comparison of JSON and XML, refer to the following URL:

    http://json.org/xml.html JohnDoe {"person" { {"firstName": "John"}, {"lastName": "Doe"} }

    The difference varies from message to message, but on an average, it is about 40%. It is a real asset only for big messages, and if you add server GZIP compression, size difference starts to disappear. The reduced size is no disadvantage though.

  • Finally, XML designers go to great length to differentiate between child tags and attributes, the former being more readable to humans and the latter to machines. JSON messages design is much simpler as JSON has no attributes.

UIDL “schema”

The last stack that is added to JSON and HTTP is the User Interface Definition Language (UIDL). UIDL describes complex user interfaces with JSON syntax.

The good news about these technologies is that Vaadin developers won’t be exposed to them.

The client part

The client tier is a very important tier in web applications as it is the one with which the end user directly interacts.

In this endeavor, Vaadin uses the excellent Google Web Toolkit (GWT) framework. In the GWT development, there are the following mandatory steps:

  1. The code is developed in Java.
  2. Then, the GWT compiler transforms the Java code in JavaScript.
  3. Finally, the generated JavaScript is bundled with the default HTML and CSS files, which can be modified as a web application.

Although novel and unique, this approach provides interesting key features that catch the interest of end users, developers, and system administrators alike:

  • Disconnected capability, in conjunction with HTML 5 client-side data stores
  • Displaying applications on small form factors, such as those of handheld devices
  • Development only with the Java language
  • Excellent scalability, as most of the code is executed on the client side, thus freeing the server side from additional computation

On the other hand, there is no such thing as a free lunch! There are definitely disadvantages in using GWT, such as the following:

  • The whole coding/compilation/deployment process adds a degree of complexity to the standard Java web application development.
  • Although a Google GWT plugin is available for Eclipse and NetBeans, IDEs do not provide standard GWT development support. Using GWT development mode directly or through one such plugin is really necessary, because without it, developing is much slower and debugging almost impossible.

    For more information about GWT dev mode, please refer to the following URL: http://code.google.com/intl/en/webtoolkit/doc/latest/DevGuideCompilingAndDebugging.html

  • There is a consensus in the community that GWT has a higher learning curve than most classic web application frameworks; although the same can be said for others, such as JSF.
  • If the custom JavaScript is necessary, then you have to bind it in Java with the help of a stack named JavaScript Native Interface (JSNI), which is both counter-intuitive and complex.
  • With pure GWT, developers have to write the server-side code themselves (if there is any).
  • Finally, if ever everything is done on the client side, it poses a great security risk. Even with obfuscated code, the business logic is still completely open for inspection from hackers.

Vaadin uses GWT features extensively and tries to downplay its disadvantages as much as possible. This is all possible because of the Vaadin server part.

The server part

Vaadin’s server-side code plays a crucial role in the framework.

The biggest difference in Vaadin compared to GWT is that developers do not code the client side, but instead code the server side that generates the former. In particular, in GWT applications, the browser loads static resources (the HTML and associated JavaScript), whereas in Vaadin, the browser accesses the servlet that serves those same resources from a JAR (or the WEB-INF folder).

The good thing is that it completely shields the developer from the client-code, so he/she cannot make unwanted changes. It may be also seen as a disadvantage, as it makes the developer unable to change the generated JavaScript before deployment.

It is possible to add custom JavaScript, although it is rarely necessary.

In Vaadin, you code only the server part!

There are two important tradeoffs that Vaadin makes in order achieve this:

  1. As opposed to GWT, the user interface related code runs on the server, meaning Vaadin applications are not as scalable as pure GWT ones. This should not be a problem in most applications, but if you need to, you should probably leave Vaadin for some less intensive part of the application; stick to GWT or change an entirely new technology.

    While Vaadin applications are not as scalable as applications architecture around a pure JavaScript frontend and a SOA backend, a study found that a single Amazon EC2 instance could handle more than 10,000 concurrent users per minute, which is much more than your average application. The complete results can be found at the following URL: http://vaadin.com/blog/-/blogs/vaadin-scalabilitystudy-quicktickets

  2. Second, each user interaction creates an event from the browser to the server. This can lead to changes in the user interface’s model in memory and in turn, propagate modifications to the JavaScript UI on the client. The consequence is that Vaadin applications simply cannot run while being disconnected from the server! If your requirements include the offline mode, then forget Vaadin.

Terminal and adapter

As in any low-coupled architecture, not all Vaadin framework server classes converse with the client side. In fact, this is the responsibility of one simple interface:


In turn, this interface is used by a part of the framework aptly named as the Terminal Adapter, for it is designed around the Gang of Four Adapter (http://www.vincehuston.org/dp/adapter.html) pattern.

This design allows for the client and server code to be completely independent of each other, so that one can be changed without changing the other. Another benefit of the Terminal Adapter is that you could have, for example, other implementations for things such as Swing applications. Yet, the only terminal implementation provided by the current Vaadin implementation is the web browser, namely com.vaadin.terminal.gwt.server.WebBrowser.

However, this does not mean that it will always be the case in the future. If you are interested, then browse the Vaadin add-ons directory regularly to check for other implementations, or as an alternative, create your own!

Client server synchronization

The biggest challenge when representing the same model on two heterogeneous tiers is synchronization between each tier. An update on one tier should be reflected on the other or at least fail gracefully if this synchronization is not possible (an unlikely occurrence considering the modern day infrastructure).

Vaadin’s answer to this problem is a synchronization key generated by the server and passed on to the client on each request. The next request should send it back to the server or else the latter will restart the current session’s application.

This may be the cause of the infamous and sometimes frustrating “Out of Sync” error, so keep that in mind.


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