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The myth of software reuse

Are we fooling ourselves? Or is it real?

The ones of you who know me, know that I believe in software reuse and I am trying to evangelize about it for quiet some time. Methods, Classes, Aspects, Components, Modules, Software Product Lines, you name it - everything is focused on reuse to some extend. With OSGi for the first time we are able to create true reusable software artifacts and theoretically mix and match them on an as needed basis. Great new opportunities are coming and with the recently held OSGi Tool Summit chances are good that we’ll soon see more and better integrated tooling support in our daily work with OSGi. So, we all should be happy bees right?

Well, what we are producing right now is a massive amount of bundles, no question about this. Virtually everyone is now shipping with at least some basic OSGi headers. Several projects are trying to provide bundle repositories for the not (yet) converted projects (like [spring-repo], [orbit-repo], [osgi-repo]) and some go even further and try to wrap incompatible APIs in a compatibility layer (see [DynamicJava] for instance). Great work and very much appreciated, but this is not the point. What we got so far are “just” explicit software artifacts. We only know what is behind bundle X in version Y, a subjectively taken SNAPSHOT somewhere in the infinity of time. It doesn’t answer the question on how this code can and will evolve or how future versions will fit into my universe.

The problem domain

Too abstract? Let’s examine an arbitrary example. Assuming you are trying to create a web application similar to flickr but on some sort of an embedded device to use at home. Taking the state of the art tools, you might choose to develop your app with Spring DM or any other frameworks you like, take your pick. For now, we stick to this one. As a starter we use the following assets: Spring DM 1.1.3, Spring 2.5.6 and Maven 2 as a built system. So far so good. Once you start developing you realize that you also need a file upload feature for your pictures. Of course someone already developed something to upload files and we are trying to reuse that stuff of course, so you look around. Soon, you’ll find commons-fileupload. The spring guys are putting a lot of work into building up a repository of reusable osgi bundles in their bundle repository and we can just use the OSGi-ified version of it from here: [spring comFileUpload], which is really great! But then you soon realize that you can’t use that version. Take a look at it’s (simplified) header:

Manifest-Version: 1.0
Bundle-ManifestVersion: 2
Bundle-Name: Apache Commons File Upload
Bundle-Version: 1.2.0
Bundle-Vendor: SpringSource
Export-Package: org.apache.commons.fileupload;version="1.2.0";
Import-Package: javax.servlet;version="[2.5.0, 3.0.0)",
 javax.servlet.http;version="[2.5.0, 3.0.0)",
 javax.portlet;version="[1.0.0, 2.0.0)";resolution:=optional,;version="[1.4.0, 2.0.0)",;version="[1.4.0, 2.0.0)"

As you can see, it requires to have the Servlet API in version 2.5, which is not available in our case on the embedded device. What now? Well, if you know the bundle, you also know, that in fact it doesn’t require 2.5! You can re-bundle it and give the bundle another version and here is the problem. The Spring guys did a great work bundling this artifact for us, but they created it based on THEIR environment and not on the minimal requirements of that specific bundle. Even worse, there is not even a real specification stating what version to take and how to version changes correctly. Forward compatibility is just a beautiful dream rather than an actual fact. If you look at well known companies adapting OSGi like LinkedIn, you’ll see what I mean. Where are we heading to when one is forced to define dependencies like this:


Doesn’t this feel totally odd and just plain wrong? Shouldn’t we be able to trust the authors or “something else” to take care of compatibility issues? Someone who knows the code, its changes and its backwards compatibility better than we do? I don’t want to change all of my 200 bundles just because we have a new OSGi framework version that now provides a new final static property for instance, I am not using anyway! I want to express that I don’t care what changed in the provided bundle as long as my code still works as expected and I want to be sure that the provider has the exact same concept about “compatible code changes”.  The Eclipse community already realized this and created an API for baselining components and a version schema to apply versions. Along with several detailed instructions on what to consider a change and how this change should be treated in terms of its version (eclipse-vers1, eclipse-vers2, eclipse-vers3), they have created the first usable guide on defining version numbers for bundles. However, this is just a small step towards reusable artifacts. We also need to agree on such rules and be able to enforce them. Unfortunately a lot of questions remain unanswered yet. For instance, what about semantical changes? How to treat them and more importantly, how to identify those? Code analysis won’t always help here.

So what do we learn from this? Basically that we can’t trust any bundle provided by a third party just yet. It doesn’t matter how good the providers intentions are on providing the perfect bundle. Right now, we are basically left alone. Every time we update to a new version it is like a game. You never know what you’ll be facing.

Ok, we are screwed. Who to blame?

Now you might ask yourself who’s fault is it? It is certainly not the Spring guys fault who provide us in this example with the software, but who to blame instead? The tools? Most people either use BND, Eclipse or the newly created bundlor from Spring. All of these are pretty dumb. They can’t possibly know, which version to take (although they are trying hard to guess). There is no baseline, no knowledge about the domain or infrastructure). Too many questions are unanswered and the tool authors are left alone, so I think the tools are the last ones to blame. OK, so what about the OSGi specification? It is so vaguely written, when it comes to versioning your bundles - you can’t possibly draw any universal conclusion what version to apply. Everyone can have their own interpretation of “compatible” changes, which is not compatible among each other. All true, but I don’t think that a simple specification will be enough nor is the OSGi suitable for that. The issue is too big to be solved by only one company or organization all by themselves. Sun might be the only one fitting, but after all the problems with JSR 277 and project JigSaw, I have no convidence in their ability and willingness anymore. To be fair, one have to admit that the Java Language Specification does provide a chapter about binary compatibility, but it is not much of a help, because not all cases are covered and there is of course no notion of a bundle (I would love to rant about not treating packages as 1st class citizen in Java, but that’s an entirely different post). Sun also has a sigtest tool to check for API breaks, but with the given functionality it is pretty much worthless for what we need.

What next?

Is it the job of an external organization to define rules everyone has to apply while developing reusable artifacts for a specific language? I don’t think so. I think this should be the job of all of us. Maybe as a joint project, maybe umbrella’d by the JCP, I don’t no, but definitely as a open and community driven effort. I don’t wonna lock myself to any vendor or proprietary standard I might get stuck with. I dream of a central repository (maybe based on RFP 122, maybe something completely different), where I have a one stop shop for all the 3rd party artifacts I need. At the same time being able to do in-house development with the same reliable system not having to expose anything to the outside world. Open, reliable and trustworthy software with a healthy community of open source artifacts - does it have to be a dream or can we make it real? I already have ideas how this can come true, but I would be very much interested if you’re feeling the same or even having concrete projects concerning something similar I haven’t reference here? Is there a potential for collaboration? What do you think?

My 2 cents,

References (in chronological order):

[OSGi Tool Summit]:
[Spring DM 1.1.3]:
[Spring 2.5.6]:
[Maven 2]:
[spring comFileUpload]:
[Servlet API]:
[version schema]:
[JSR 277]:
[Java Language Specification]:
[binary compatibility]:
[sigtest tool]:
[RFP 122]:—the-osgi-bundle-repository.html


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More Stories By Mirko Jahn

Mirko Jahn worked for several years as an independent software consultant and tutor before joining the Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA) group at IBM Research. At present, his major research areas cover component-based development strategies, component repositories, and migration approaches toward modular applications, along with service-oriented architecture. Mr. Jahn is heavily involved in making use of OSGi component-based developement
standards in UIMA.