Renaissance of EJB

Software is organic. Much like carbon-based life forms, software grows and evolves. Features die. New features are born. Release numbers keep adding up like the rings of a healthy tree. EJB is no exception to the rule of software evolution. In fact, as far as technologies go, the saga of EJB is more about change than it is about stagnation. Only a handful of other technologies can boast the robust metamorphosis and continuous improvements EJB has pulled off.

It’s time to catch a glimpse of the new incarnation of EJB, starting with an example of a simple stateless session bean and then revealing the features changes that make EJB an easy-to-use development tool.

To explore the new features of EJB 3, we’ll be pointing out some of the problems associated with EJB 2. If you are not familiar with EJB 2, don’t worry—the important thing to remember is how the problems have been resolved in EJB 3.

The problems associated with EJB 2 have been widely discussed. In fact, there have been entire topics, such as Bitter EJB (Manning Publications, 2003) written about this topic. Chris Richardson in POJOs in Action rightfully identified the amount of sheer code you had to write to build an EJB:

You must write a lot of code to implement an EJB—You must write a home interface, a component interface, the bean class, and a deployment descriptor, which for an entity bean can be quite complex. In addition, you must write a number of boilerplate bean class methods that are never actually called but that are required by the interface the bean class implements. This code isn’t conceptually difficult, but it is busywork that you must endure.

In this section, we’d like to walk through some of those points and show you how they have been resolved in EJB 3. As you will see, EJB 3 specifically targets the thorniest issues in EJB 2 and solves them primarily through bold adoption and clever adaptation of the techniques widely available in popular open source solutions such as Hibernate and Spring. Both of which have passed the "market incubation test" without getting too battered. In many ways, this release primes EJB for even further innovations by solving the most immediate problems and creating a buffer zone for the next metamorphosis.

But first, let’s look at a bit of code. You will probably never use EJB 2 for building simple applications such as Hello World. However, we want to show you a simple EJB implementation of the ubiquitous Hello World developed using EJB 3. We want you to see this code for a couple reasons: first, to demonstrate how simple developing with EJB 3 really is, and second, because this will provide context for the discussions in the following sections and make them more concrete.

HelloUser Example

Hello World examples have ruled the world since they first appeared in The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie (Prentice Hall PTR, 1988). Hello World caught on and held ground for good reason. It is very well suited to introducing a technology as simply and plainly as possible. While almost every technology book starts with a Hello World example, to keep things lively and relevant we plan to deviate from that rule and provide a slightly different example.

In 2004, one of the authors,wrote an article for the in which he stated that when EJB 3 was released, it would be so simple you could write a Hello World in it using only a few lines of code. Any experienced EJB 2 developer knows that this couldn’t be accomplished easily in EJB 2. You had to write a home interface, a component interface, a bean class, and a deployment descriptor.

Listing 1.1 HelloUser Session bean

HelloUser Session bean HelloUser Session bean

Listing 1.1 is indeed a complete and self-contained example of a working EJB! Note that for simplicity we have kept both the interface and class as part of the same listing. As you can see, the EJB does not look much more complex than your first Java program. The interface is a plain old Java interface (POJI) O and the bean class is a plain old Java object (POJO) ©. The funny @Stateless symbol in listing 1.1 is a metadata annotation C that converts the POJO to a full-powered stateless EJB. If you are not familiar with metadata annotations, we explore them in topic 2. In effect, they are "comment-like" configuration information that can be added to Java code.

To execute this EJB, you have to deploy it to the EJB container.

However, don’t worry too much about the details of this code right now; it’s just a simple illustration. We’ll dive into coding details in the next topic. Our intent for the Hello World example is to use it as a basis for discussing how EJB 3 addresses the thorniest issues that branded EJB 2 as ponderous.

Let’s move on now and take a look at what has transformed the EJB elephant into the EJB cow.

Simplified programming model

We heartily agree with Chris Richardson’s quote: one of the biggest problems with EJB 2 was the sheer amount of code you needed to write in order to implement an EJB.

If we had attempted to produce listing 1.1 as an EJB 2 example, we would have had to work with several classes and interfaces just to produce the simple one-line output. All of these classes and interfaces had to either implement or extend EJB API interfaces with rigid and unintuitive constraints such as throwing java.rmi.RemoteException for all methods. Implementing interfaces like javax.ejb.SessionBean for the bean implementation class was particularly time consuming since you had to provide an implementation for lifecycle callback methods like ejbCreate, ejbRemove, ejbActivate, ejbPassivate, and setSession-Context, whether or not you actually used them. In effect, you were forced to deal with several mechanical steps to accomplish very little. IDE tools like JBuilder, JDeveloper, and WebSphere Studio helped matters a bit by automating some of these steps. However, in general, decent tools with robust support were extremely expensive and clunky.

As you saw in listing 1.1, EJB 3 enables you to develop an EJB component using POJOs and POJIs that know nothing about platform services. You can then apply configuration metadata, using annotations, to these POJOs and POJIs to add platform services such as remoteability, web services support, and lifecycle callbacks only as needed.

The largely redundant step of creating home interfaces has been done away with altogether. In short, EJB service definitions have been moved out of the type-safe world of interfaces into deploy and runtime configurations where they are suited best. A number of mechanical steps that were hardly ever used have now been automated by the platform itself. In other words, you do not have to write a lot of code to implement an EJB!

Annotations instead of deployment descriptors

In addition to having to write a lot of boilerplate code, a significant hurdle in managing EJB 2 was the fact that you still had to do a lot of XML configuration for each component. Although XML is a great mechanism, the truth is that not everyone is a big fan of its verbosity, poor readability, and fragility.

Before the arrival of Java 5 metadata annotations, we had no choice but to use XML for configuration. EJB 3 allows us to use metadata annotations to configure a component instead of using XML deployment descriptors. As you might be able to guess from listing 1.1, besides eliminating verbosity, annotations help avoid the monolithic nature of XML configuration files and localize configuration to the code that is being affected by it. Note, though, you can still use XML deployment descriptors if they suit you better or simply to supplement annotations.

In addition to making the task of configuration easier, EJB 3 reduces the total amount of configuration altogether by using sensible defaults wherever possible.

Dependency injection vs. JNDI lookup

One of the most tedious parts of EJB 2 development was writing the same few lines of boilerplate code many times to do a JNDI lookup whenever you needed to access an EJB or a container-managed resource, such as a pooled database connection handle. In POJOs in Action, Chris Richardson sums it up well:

A traditional J2EE application uses JNDI as the mechanism that one component uses to access another. For example, the presentation tier uses a JNDI lookup to obtain a reference to a session bean home interface. Similarly, an EJB uses JNDI to access the resources that it needs, such as a JDBC DataSource. The trouble with JNDI is that it couples application code to the application server, which makes development and testing more difficult.

In EJB 3, JNDI lookups have been turned into simple configuration using metadata-based dependency injection (DI). For example, if you want to access the HelloUser EJB that we saw in listing 1.1 from another EJB or servlet, you could use code like this:


Isn’t that great? The @EJB annotation transparently "injects" the HelloUser EJB into the annotated variable. EJB 3 dependency injection essentially gives you a simple abstraction over a full-scale enterprise JNDI tree. Note you can still use JNDI lookups where they are unavoidable.

Simplified persistence API

A lot of the problems with the EJB 2 persistence model were due to the fact that it was applying the container paradigm to a problem for which it was ill suited. This made the EJB 2 entity bean programming model extremely complex and unintuitive. Enabling remote access was one of the prime motivators behind making entity beans container-managed. In reality, very few clients made use of this feature because of performance issues, opting to use session beans as the remote access point.

Undoubtedly entity beans were easily the worst part of EJB 2. EJB 3 solves the problem by using a more natural API paradigm centered on manipulating metadata-based POJOs through the EntityManager interface. Moreover, EJB 3 entities do not carry the unnecessary burden of remote access.

Another limitation with EJB 2 was that you couldn’t send an EJB 2 entity bean across the wire in different tiers. EJB developers discovered an anti-pattern for this problem: adding another layer of objects—the data transfer objects (DTOs). Chris sums it up nicely:

You have to write data transfer objects—A data transfer object (DTO) is a dumb data object that is returned by the EJB to its caller and contains the data the presentation tier will display to the user. It is often just a copy of the data from one or more entity beans, which cannot be passed to the presentation tier because they are permanently attached to the database. Implementing the DTOs and the code that creates them is one of the most tedious aspects of implementing an EJB.

Because they are POJOs, entities can be transferred between different tiers without having to resort to anti-patterns such as data transfer objects.

The simplification of the persistence API leads to several other benefits, such as standardization of persistence frameworks, a separable persistence API that can be used outside EJB container, and better support of object-oriented features such as inheritance and polymorphism.

Standardized persistence

One of the major problems with EJB 2 entity beans was that ORM was never standardized. EJB 2 entity beans left the details of database mapping configuration to the provider. This resulted in entity beans that were not portable across container implementations. The EJB 2 query mechanism, EJB-QL, had a similar unfinished feel to it. These standardization gaps have in effect given rise to highly divergent alternative ORM paradigms like Hibernate, Oracle TopLink, and JDO.

A major goal of JPA is to close the standardization gaps left by EJB 2. EJB 3 solidifies automated persistence with JPA in three distinct ways. First, it provides a robust ORM configuration set capable of handling most automated persistence complexities. Second, the Java Persistence Query Language (JPQL) significantly improves upon EJB-QL, standardizing divergent OR query technologies. Third, the EntityManager API standardizes ORM CRUD operations. But standardization isn’t the only benefit of the simplified API: another great feature is that it can run outside the container.

The cleanly separated Java Persistence API

As we touched on in section 1.2.3, API persistence isn’t just a solution for server-side applications. Persistence is a problem that even a standalone Swing-based desktop application has to solve. This is the realization that drove the decision to make JPA a cleanly separated API in its own right, that can be run outside an EJB 3 container. Much like JDBC, JPA is intended to be a general-purpose persistence solution for any Java application. This is a remarkably positive step in expanding the scope of EJB 3 outside the traditional realm of server applications.

Better persistence-tier OO support

Because EJB 2 entity beans were record oriented, they didn’t support rich OO features like inheritance and polymorphism, and they didn’t permit the mixing of persistent state and domain logic. As you saw in section 1.1.3, this made it impossible to model the domain layer in DDD architecture.

EJB 3 entities have robust OO support, not just because they are POJOs but also because the JPA ORM mapping scheme is designed with OO in mind. JPQL has robust support for OO as well. Getting impatient to learn more about JPA?

Test-driven development has become quite popular because it can dramatically improve performance of software applications. Let’s see how EJB 3 improves the testability of applications.

Unit-testable POJO components

Being able to unit-test component state or logic in response to simulated input is a critical technique in increasing code quality. In EJB 2, only functional testing of components was possible since components had to be deployed to the container to be executed. While functional testing simulating user interactions with the system is invaluable, it is not a good substitute for lower-level unit testing.

Because all EJB 3 components are POJOs, they can easily be executed outside the container. This means that it is possible to unit-test all component business logic using testing frameworks such as JUnit or TestNG.

These are just the primary changes to EJB 3; there are many more that we’ll cover throughout the topic.

Just in case you thought you had to choose between Spring and EJB 3, we thought we’d mention why they don’t necessarily need to be regarded as competing technologies.

EJB 3 and Spring

As we mentioned earlier, EJB 3 and Spring are often seen as competitors; however, if you look more closely, you can see that they can also be complementary. Spring has some particularly strong points: support for inversion of control (IoC) for components with simple lifecycles such as singletons; feature-heavy (but slightly more complex) aspect-oriented programming (AOP) support; a number of simple interfaces such as JDBCTemplate and JMSTemplate utilizing common usage patterns of low-level Java EE APIs; and so on.

EJB 3, on the other hand, provides better support for transparent state management with stateful session beans, pooling, thread-safety, robust messaging support with MDBs, integrated support for distributed transaction management, standardized automated persistence through JPA, and so on.

From a levelheaded, neutral point of view, EJB 3 and Spring can be complementary technologies. The good news is that parts of both the Spring and Java EE communities are working diligently to make Spring/EJB 3 integration a reality. This is particularly good news if you have a significant investment in Spring but want to utilize the benefits of EJB 3.However, we’d like to list the possibilities now.

Treating EJB 3 business-tier components as Spring beans

It is possible to treat EJB 3 business-tier components as Spring beans. This translates into an architecture shown in figure 1.8. In this architecture, Spring is used for gluing together the application that contains EJB 3 business-tier components.

The Spring Pitchfork project, part of Spring 2, is meant to make such an integration scenario completely transparent. The Spring framework plans to support EJB 3 annotation metadata specifying stateless session beans, interceptors, resource injection, and so on.

Spring/EJB 3 integration strategy. It is possible to use EJB 3 business-tier components as if they were Spring beans. This allows you to use the complementary strengths of both technologies in a "hybrid" fashion.

Figure 1.8 Spring/EJB 3 integration strategy. It is possible to use EJB 3 business-tier components as if they were Spring beans. This allows you to use the complementary strengths of both technologies in a "hybrid" fashion.

Integrating the JPA into Spring

Suppose that you find Spring is a good fit for your business-tier needs and you simply want to standardize your persistence layer. In this case, it is easy to integrate JPA directly into Spring, much like Spring/Hibernate or Spring/JDO integration. This scheme is shown in figure 1.9.

Spring/JPA integration. Because JPA is a cleanly separable API, you can integrate Spring with JPA just as you would integrate Hibernate.

Figure 1.9 Spring/JPA integration. Because JPA is a cleanly separable API, you can integrate Spring with JPA just as you would integrate Hibernate.

In addition to using Spring with JPA, you may find yourself in a situation where you would like to use both Spring and EJB 3 session beans together. Let’s examine the possibilities of such integration.

Using Spring interfaces inside EJB 3 components

Yet another interesting idea is to use some of the Spring interfaces like JDBC-Template and JMSTemplate or even Spring beans inside EJB 3 components. You can do this either through direct instantiation or access through the Spring application context. Container vendors like JBoss, Oracle, and BEA are working to provide seamless support for integrating Spring beans into session beans and MDBs. This kind of integration is visualized in figure 1.10. We’ll discuss combining the power of EJB 3 and Spring in topic 16.

 In certain cases, it might be a good idea to use Spring from EJB 3. Although it is possible to do so today, such support is likely to be much better in the future.

Figure 1.10 In certain cases, it might be a good idea to use Spring from EJB 3. Although it is possible to do so today, such support is likely to be much better in the future.


You should now have a good idea of what EJB 3 is, what it brings to the table, and why you should consider using it to build server-side applications. We gave you an overview of the new features in EJB 3, including these important points:

■ EJB 3 components are POJOs configurable through simplified metadata annotations.

■ Accessing EJBs from client applications has become very simple using dependency injection.

■ EJB 3 standardizes the persistence with the Java Persistence API, which defines POJO entities that can be used both inside and outside the container.

We also provided a taste of code to show how EJB 3 addresses development pain points that were inherent with EJB 2, and we took a brief look at how EJB 3 can be used with Spring.

Armed with this essential background, you are probably eager to look at more code. We aim to satisfy this desire, at least in part, in the next topic. Get ready for a whirlwind tour of the entire EJB 3 API that shows just how easy the code really is.

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