Surprising as it may seem if you only read this blog, I don’t do much Perl or Ruby or Rails. I try to in my spare time, but it’s not what I’m doing at $WORK. That’s mostly concerned with pushing around XML using Java. Right now, I’m trying to learn Cocoon.

Cocoon is a framework (in much the same way that Rails is), but it’s oriented to pushing around XML[1]. The basics of cocoon are pretty simple. There’s a “pipeline” for processing XML:

  • A generator produces XML. Usually, this is just reading a file. At $WORK, it’s pulled from an XML database.
  • Zero or more transformers munge the XML in various ways. Normally, this is XSLT.
  • Finally, it gets output through a serializer. Mostly this will be HTML.

There’s a little bit more to it, but that’s the basics. And for serving up XML directly, in a read-only fashion it actually works really well.

The problems start when you want to get a little bit more interactive. It seems that Cocoon has evolved a number of different approaches over the years, but the current favourite appears to be FlowScript.

FlowScript is server-side JavaScript2. When an URL is matched, a little bit of JavaScript gets run in order to determine what to do. It can interact with Java objects and when it’s figured out what to do, run the appropriate pipeline, passing in parameters. It’s effectively an MVC architecture, with the controller being JavaScript.

But what’s really neat about FlowScript is captured in a single call:

  function calculator()
    var a, b, operator;

    a = cocoon.request.get("a");

    b = cocoon.request.get("b");

    cocoon.sendPage("result.html", {result: a + b});

cocoon.sendPageAndWait() uses a continuation to effectively pause the execution of the JavaScript, return to the browser and when the user submits the form again, the FlowScript will carry on executing after the call to cocoon.sendPageAndWait(). Neat stuff.

Continuations are currently the hot thing because of seaside, a web framework for smalltalk. But cocoon’s had them for a couple of years.

Building on FlowScript is a framework for form handling called CForms. The idea is that you define a model for your form, which then gets rendered into HTML. I’m playing with this for a very complex form at the moment, and I’m not totally sold on the concept. Plus the generated result is some pretty yucky markup.

In fact, there are quite a few things about cocoon that make me feel uncomfortable about it.

  • It’s huge. The download is 50Mb, and you get a lot in that. The problem is two fold: firstly, you don’t need most of it most of the time. Secondly, figuring out what you do actually need is bloody hard work. e.g. I still haven’t figured out what the hell the “apples” block is.
  • It gets complicated very quickly when you step outside the core competencies. If you follow the CForms link, you’ll see what I mean.
  • Debugging is hard. Partially, this is down to the nature of XML (and in particular XML Namespaces), but in general, you’re not working with Java, so it’s difficult to get the level of debugging one would be used to. The error messages that do appear are somewhat vague.
  • Cocoon 2.2. The current version, 2.1, is a bit old now. I’ve been trying to find out more about cocoon 2.2 by poking around in the dev list. It appears that cocoon has been converted to a maven project and switched to use Spring internally. It’s Maven that I have a big issue with. It basically means that there isn’t a download any more. Instead, you just tell maven “make me a new cocoon 2.2 project” and it goes and downloads it. From somewhere you may or may not trust. That may or may not be compiled correctly. Oh, and they’ve completely reorganised how you integrate with a standard servlet container. And the docs aren’t updated yet. All this, combined with the fact that when maven blew up when I tried it means I’m not happy with the future direction of the project. Maybe with better docs, I’d be happier. We’ll see—the proper release should be “soon”.

Overall, I’m left with a mixed feeling about Cocoon. For it’s core purpose, I like it. Beyond that, I’m less certain. The trouble is that pretty much any web site you create these days falls into that “beyond” bit quite quickly—even the large, static ones like we create at $WORK. I kind of wish that it had some competition, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot out there that comes close to dealing with XML as well as Cocoon.

I’m going on a training course in a couple of weeks. We’ll have to see if that reassures me any that Cocoon is the correct choice.

1 XML oftens gets a lot of stick, but for its intended purpose (documents, as opposed to data), it’s a pretty reasonable solution.

2 Which appears to be coming back into fashion, what with things like Project Phobos and Zimki. Although it does go back a long way to the Netscape web server—see Server Side JavaScript.

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