Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lift 1.0

The Lift web framework hit its 1.0 release today. Major congratulations goes to the Lift team. I have been lucky enough to get to know Lift founder David Pollak and Lift committer Jorge Ortiz. They are both very bright engineers and the high quality of Lift reflects this. I was very happy to give a quote about Lift for the 1.0 launch. In my quote I talked about how innovative Lift is. I would like to expand on this.

First, let me say that I realize that Lift has borrowed some ideas from other frameworks. Heck, David gives credit where its due and on the front page of Lift lists Seaside, Ruby on Rails, Django, and Wicket as sources of inspiration. Given that here are the things that I find innovative about Lift.

View-first design. Everybody loves MVC, but it is no panacea. I have seen a lot of apps that used Struts or Spring MVC that wound up putting a lot of code in the actions or controllers. If it wasn't there, then it often leaked out into the view code. Even if the view code did not contain enormous scriptlets, there would be tons of control flow tags (if, switch, for-loops, etc.) The view-first approach is to go to the view first, and pull in logic bits (snippets) as needed. If a snippet needs some data, it gets it. If it creates a form, then it handles the submission... sometimes with Ajax. Snippets use Scala's XML support for creating view code (XHTML.) Some people think this mixes view code into "back-end" code, but that is bit of a robotic response. What is really great is that it is all statically typed. You can't reference a variable that doesn't exist or a non-existent method/property (like you would in JSP, etc.) You would get a compile error. Plus your XHTML has to be well-formed -- or it won't compile. As tooling improves around Scala, you will be able to do static analysis and refactoring to snippet code.

Record/Mapper (ORM). Lift's ORM may not be quite as sophisticated as JPA, but its syntax is beautiful. Now some of this is thanks to Scala, but Lift really makes good use of Scala's type system. By using parameterized traits, you get class that look very declarative, i.e. like they are just defining metadata about the mapping between class and database table, but there is actually a lot of concrete code being reused. It is as elegant as the metaprogramming that you see in Rails or Grails (and thus more elegant than JPA) but its more concrete nature not only make it less mysterious, but makes it easier to debug. I would guess that it also helps with performance. Of course it would be hard to measure this, since Scala outperforms Ruby and Groovy.

Comet. One of the things that Rails has had going for it is that it seemed design for Ajax from the get-go. This is definitely true of Lift, too. I would say that Lift is even more designed for Ajax, but that is a little subjective. What is more objective is that Lift is designed for Comet. Once again it leverages Scala brilliantly, by using Scala's Actors.

That's just a few things, but hopefully you see the trend here. Not only does Lift improve on existing ideas, but in some cases it really breaks new ground.

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