- I Am Terribly Excited About Custom Renderers
- Building My App On Custom Renderers
A little while ago, I mentioned how I have become smitten with custom renderers - Java classes that take XPage components like application layouts and widgets and render them in custom HTML. Though I've had a lot of other things to work on in between then and today, my ardor for the subject has not dimmed. So today, I mostly completed the process for my task-tracking app.
At a high level, the app is a fairly typical web app built using the popular-for-good-reason Ace - Responsive Admin Template theme from WrapBootstrap. I'm a huge fan of using these pre-built themes - in addition to handling the visual design, they tend to come packaged with a set of specialized widgets and jQuery plugins that are made to work well as a cohesive whole. However, the down side is that you have to write your code specifically targeting the framework, even moreso than stock Bootstrap (and for this reason, I couldn't directly use Bootstrap4XPages). This makes it a perfect candidate for renderer-ification, as most of the components I'm using - the layout, widget boxes, view panels/data tables, form layouts - have direct analogs in either the stock XPage runtime or in the OneUI-based components in the Extension Library.
So what I have done is to take the basic structure of the Bootstrap4XPages project (and more than a smidge of its code) and used it to build custom renderers for the components I need, packaged into an OSGi plugin:
It's something of a mess of code, and parts of it have been a pain to deal with, but for the most part it's been a process of looking at the original renderer source in the ExtLib and Bootstrap4XPages and then either copying and tweaking, subclassing and overriding, or implementing from scratch. I've run into some bothersome limitations in the stock objects as well, particularly when it comes to areas where I need to apply CSS classes to elements not represented in the components, like the FontAwesome-based icon classes for the nav bar or specific classes for widget title bars and the body area. Since these components also lack convenient "attr" properties, I've resorted to ugly hacks: I've co-opted the "imageAlt" property of the tree nodes to trigger creation of a Bootstrap-style "i" tag with a class for the navigator, and for the widgets I just made the styleClass apply only to the header and added an ugly exception to look for "no-padding" classes and apply them to the body instead. It's not a pretty process sometimes.
But the results are pretty interesting. By using standard components, I have an app that can swap readily between very different themes (with some rough edges for areas where code is still Ace-specific):
All of this does, of course, raise an important question. Namely: why bother? The original way I implemented it - by writing the Bootstrap layout HTML by hand, tweaking individual classes here and there, and forgoing the OneUI-based components - worked just fine, and it took less work. And really, I'm not terribly likely to suddenly decide that I want to switch this app from Ace to OneUI or stock Bootstrap. There are a couple important benefits to this approach that apply both to me personally and to others who may consider doing the same thing:
- Practice. This seems odd to put first, but it's vitally important. Writing these renderers has improved my knowledge of the platform a great deal. It's given me a reason to delve further into the Extension Library source, to improve my OSGi-plugin-writing knowledge, and to familiarize myself with an easily-overlooked part of the JSF stack. Like many things with the plumbing of XPages, it's more of a PITA than it absolutely needs to be, but, if you do it, you'll come out a much better developer.
- Focus. Now that I have almost all of the code that's specific to Bootstrap or Ace out of my XPage app, the remaining code has a sharpened focus on the task at hand. Now I use standard widget, pager, and view controls just like in any run-of-the-mill app and hook them up the same way, without having to worry about how it's going to look. Time spent on the problem at hand is time spent well.
- Maintainability. During my transition from hardcoded HTML in the XSP source to custom renderers, I also jumped from Ace 1.0 to 1.2, which included an upgrade to Bootstrap 3. For this task, that meant I had to learn about a number of the differences between Bootstrap 2 and 3, as well as tweaking lots of little CSS classes and HTML structures across every page of the app. Next time, though, when Ace version 2 running with Bootstrap 4 comes out, I only need to change the theme, entirely outside of the app, and everything else will come along for the ride (mostly).
- Less Code in the NSF. This is a corollary to the last bullet point, but is important as its own concept. By moving the theme and supporting files (like the CSS and JS assets themselves) out to a plugin, there's less cruft to carry around in the NSF itself and, more importantly, less stuff to keep up-to-date when used in common across multiple apps. This is not unique to this technique (you can move the resource files out without doing renderers, and you can bundle common custom controls that way too), but it's a valuable side effect.
- Interoperability. This doesn't matter so much to me currently, since I'm the only one working on this app, but it will matter later, and it would matter immediately to any larger company. If each of your apps, regardless of the final appearance, is built using the standard XPage and ExtLib controls, that means you don't need to familiarize every developer working on it with the CSS framework of your choice, whether it be Bootstrap, your company's home-grown HTML, or something else entirely. You can have one person writing the themes and have the rest of the team go about building their apps by the book (or, rather, books).
- Flexibility. As demonstrated by my screenshots above, this technique brings tremendous flexibility. In this specific case, I knew what theme I wanted to use when I started writing the app, but in the future I won't need to. Whenever I'm struck by inspiration for a new app, I can start writing code immediately (dressing it up in Ace or OneUI) and then decide on and buy another theme later without the hassle of going back into my functional XPages to replace and tweak a bunch of CSS classes.
It's a pity that there's such overhead in the initial work of writing custom renderers, but it will get gradually easier over time, now that Bootstrap4XPages is available to reference. And still, hassle and all, I believe this to be the best way forward for organized XPage development, and represents one of the platform's distinct advantages over others (well, the others that aren't JSF). I strongly encourage everyone to look at least a little into the idea. And I also, as always, encourage you to contact me at will either to pick my brain or commission my company to help renderer-ify or otherwise improve your apps.