How Do You Solve a Problem Like XPages?
Nov 2, 2018, 12:08 PM
(Fair warning: this is a meandering one and I'm basically a wet blanket the whole way through)
Last week, HCL held the third of their Twitter-based developer Q&As, with this one focusing on XPages and Designer. The majority of the questions (including, admittedly, all of mine) were along the lines of either "can we get some improvements in the Java/XPages stack?" or "is XPages still supported?". The answer to the latter from HCL, as it would have to be, is that XPages is still alive and "fully supported".
I don't doubt at all that XPages is supported in the sense that it has been for the last couple years: if you as a customer encounter a bug in the platform, support will take your call and will most likely either have a workaround or will get a fix in. This will no doubt happen naturally as time marches on, primarily when a new version of a browser breaks something in the version of Dojo that XPages uses (currently, I believe, a couple notches down the list as 1.9.7). So, that's good, and is better than the worst-case scenario.
It's not great, though. Version 10 had essentially no changes for XPages - that makes sense with its "stanch the bleeding" market goal, but it continues the history of very little progress. Outside of the forced-for-security-reasons bump to Java 8 in 9.0.1FP8 (which is admittedly nice), the last major addition to XPages was the Bluemix tooling via the Extension Library, which, as far as I can tell, only exists because of the way funding politics works inside IBM. Before that, I'd mark it as the promotion of Bootstrap renderers from Bootstrap4XPages to the main ExtLib just shy of four years ago. Before that, it was... I guess adding the ExtLib to the main product in 9.0, which sort of counts. Before that, it was pretty much the introduction of the extension points and ExtLib in the 8.5.2 era. And
sessionAsSigner, I suppose.
Not to belabor the point too much further, XPages developers are in an uncomfortable spot. For a decade or so now, XPages was the clear "this is what Domino developers should be doing" choice, especially in the face of many Domino shops wanting to at the very least get rid of the Notes client. However, though it was modern enough when it was introduced, the stack has missed the boat on a lot of evolution, both in simple terms of its Java EE common ancestor improving on its own and in larger terms of changes in the web development world.
But even in that "active development" alternate universe, the path would have been awkward. Though XPages has the capacity to be well-structured, Designer and IBM provided no help on this: no model framework, no internal routing, not even an indication that writing Java code was possible in an XPages app until several versions in. The "MVC" aspects of its JSF components were beaten down to match the expectations of an NSF container and of LotusScript developers. There's very good reason for that - very few Domino shops were likely to send developers to computer-science boot camps to learn about proper Java EE structure, and the only way XPages was going to work at all was if it started out as "forms but with partial refresh".
And, after that first unstructured version, it largely fell prey to the usual problems of enterprise software: IBM isn't in the business of doing things their customers aren't asking for, and the community members asking for, say, a
faces-config.xml editor weren't backing those requests up with big licensing checks. I get that, too, I really do. If you spend too much time hypothesizing about and implementing what customers might want, you run the risk of throwing your money down a bottomless hole while your actual customers suffer and leave. So IBM generally swings hard in the other direction, and it's understandable if unfortunate in cases like this, especially when what your customers are strictly asking for is stasis.
So What Now?
Our current situation now is that HCL plans to have a roadmap in Q1 2019, so I suppose we'll wait and see what they say again. I've been mulling over what I think should be the way forward for XPages and its users, and I don't see any clear good solution.
Another possibility would be open-sourcing the stack and either maintaining it as a project themselves, giving it to OpenNTF, or handing it to an organization like Eclipse, which now holds the reins of Java/Jakarta EE generally. I think that open-sourcing it would have immediate benefits to XPages developers regardless of what else they do with it, but I'm skeptical of how much of a life it would have if it was converted to a community-run project. As it stands, I can only think of a handful of people who a) are aware of XPages and b) would be capable of contributing to its core code. That's not a problem if you are employing people to work on it full-time, but I don't think it has a large enough base to exist on a "side project" basis. Attracting new blood would be an uphill battle: even projects like Andmore that have a clear purpose for existing and a contingent of people desperate to keep their workflow can wither on the vine immediately. Outside of Domino developers, XPages would be viewed as "JSF, except old and restricted to a platform you thought died in the 90s".
The other main thing to do with the stack that doesn't involve killing it, I think, would be pushing it to a state that focuses on REST APIs instead of handling the UI itself, which is something that some XPages devs have been doing already, either by switching to plugins serving up JAX-RS services or via in-NSF controls. This is something that IBM kind-of-sort-of said they were aiming for a couple years ago when they put forward SmartNSF as a good option, but the effective demise of the Extension Library cut off its path into the core, at least for now. Overall, I think that this would make sense. The experience of writing REST services inside an NSF (or in an OSGi plugin) is significantly worse than JAX-RS in a normal Java EE or Spring app, but it provides a clear path for existing NSFs and code to continue being used - more or less - without having to set up a second app server. It may not be the preferred solution for Java in Domino, but it would have the advantage of improving the platform without having to worry anymore about how, say, all the core renderers use tables for layout.
For XPages developers, my long-proffered advice remains the same: learn things that aren't XPages. Whether that means diving head-first into Java EE or Spring, focusing on client-JS development, learning Node, or any other option, you'll likely be well-served by it.
It's possible that you could continue to do XPages work or go back to the Notes client indefinitely - XPages will get patches if nothing else, and Nomad breathes undeserved life into LotusScript - but there's no guarantee there. There's no guarantee anywhere else, I suppose, but staying too tied to Domino-specific technology keeps you at immediate risk of a from-above directive to switch away.
In short: do not expect a cavalry to ride to your aid.