Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Business Logic and Interactive Web Applications

By the mid-2000s, the structure of an MVC web-app had gelled: business logic belonged in the model (which was usually divided into a service layer and persistent objects), a thin controller would invoke model methods and select data to be shown to the user, and a view held markup and the minimal amount of code needed to generate repeating or optional content. There might be some client-side validation written in JavaScript, but it was confined to verifying that fields were filled in with something that looked like the right value. All “real” validation took place on the server, to ensure that only “good” data got persisted.

Then along came client-side JavaScript frameworks like JQuery. Not only could you make AJAX calls, but they let you easily access field values and modify the rendered markup. A few lines of JavaScript, and you have an intelligent form: if option “foo” is selected, hide fields argle and bargle, and make fields biff and bizzle read-only.

The problem with intelligent front-ends is that they almost always duplicate the logic found in the back end. Which means that, inevitably, the two will get out of sync and the users will get upset: bargle was cleared but they expected it to hold the concatenated values of biff and bizzle.

There's no good solution to this problem, although it's been faced over and over. The standard solution with a “thick client” application was layered MVC: each component had its own model, which would advertise its changes to the rest of the app via events. These events would be picked up by an application-level controller, which would initiate changes in an application-level model, which would in turn send out events that could be processed by the components. If you were fastidious, you could completely separate the business logic of both models from the GUI code that rendered those models.

I don't think that approach would work with a web-app. The main reason is that the front-end and back-end code are maintained separately, using different languages. There's simply no way to look one place and see all the logic that applies to bizzle.

Another problem is validation. The layered approach assumes that each component sends data that's already been validated; there's no need for re-validation at the lower levels. That may be acceptable for internal applications, but certainly not for something that's Internet-facing.

One alternative is that every operation returns the annotated state of the application model: every field, its value, and a status code — which might be as simple as used/not-used. The front-end code can walk that list and determine how to change the rendered view. But this means contacting the server after every field change; again, maybe not a problem on an internal network, but not something for the Internet.

Another alternative is to write all your code in one language and translate for the front end. I think the popularity of GWT says enough about this approach.

I don't have an answer, but I'm seeing enough twisted code that I think it's an important topic to think about.

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