CSS vs. In Code Styles

March 10, 2009

For this post I thought I’d share with you a recent response I made on the GWT forums regarding the question: “Which is better performance wise; CSS or in code styles?”.

Donald Knuth is credited as once saying “Premature optimization is the root of all evil”. I think the question asked here is well intentioned, however misguided. Whilst performance is important we’re often blinded by it’s supposed benefits as developers and forget more important concepts like separation of concerns. This is the key design principle that should be considered here, not performance. As you’ll also see though there are some nice performance benefits in taking steps to keep things separate.

Setting a style in CSS allows for the presentation aspects of the application to be nicely decoupled from the application code. Using CSS over code however is beneficial for a number of reasons:

1. It reduces the amount of code you have to write.

This cannot be understated enough. In browser land less code == better performance. The vast majority of AJAX/RIA apps performance shortcomings have nothing to do with running code, but rather the time taken to download and parse your JS. So by doing the right thing in keeping your different concerns separate you actually win when it comes to performance.

2. It keeps your code clean and focused on solving the business problem at hand.

When it comes to maintenance (which we all learn at uni is actually 80% of any application’s total cost over its lifetime) there’s nothing worse than trying to pick your way through a veritable minefield of presentation related cruft in an attempt to fix a logical problem. One wrong move, one misunderstood line and BAM, you’ve broken your carefully crafted interface. This is part of the reason why separating your concerns is so valuable, in a way it’s your insurance against complexity. If you can adequately separate things you’re effectively confining the risk to a single discrete, and usually well understood unit of functionality.

3. You can modify the look of your application without touching your code.

From a straight development perspective this is a real time saver. If you’re like me and have to develop large parts of your app in-situ inside an existing web application you don’t have the luxury of using the Hosted Mode browser for the home stretch. If you insist on putting all of your styles inside your code you’re stuck with a total recompile (which for me takes up to a minute) before you can see if your change was successful. Painful.

Further down the track if your client changes their mind and wants something changed, say a particular color or font, it’s really nice if you can make the change without a recompile. With every code change/recompile there’s always the possibility that you will break something that was previously working. Not good when you’re working on something mission critical, or high availability.

4. CSS style are computed natively.

Again this is a performance win. Anything that can be carried out natively by the browser is going to win over interpreted code. Sure some JS VMs like Tracemonkey and Squirrelfish can analyse your code and improve execution speed (and in some cases surpass native performance), however the issue here is that this on the fly optimisation doesn’t come free. This is really only beneficial for repetitive or frequently run pieces of code which may be aggressively optimised. Styles for the most part, bar dynamic ones (e.g. setting width in animations), don’t change often enough for this to be of use.

A common strategy which I use in real life is to apply classes to absolutely everything that could require styling. Then when I start the process of pulling together the look and feel I simply load the page, start analysing the page structure and the class names, then write my CSS. You’d be surprised how much flexibility you have and how quickly it all comes together.

Creating and running GWT projects from the command line isn’t all that hard, but it isn’t all that convenient either if you’re an Eclipse user. If you’ve read my previous post on Integrating Spring with GWT you would have seen that we still had to manually package and deploy the application to the app server before running up the hosted mode browser. This is quite different to a regular Eclipse Dynamic Web Project (part of the Eclipse Web Tools Platform) which allows you to automatically publish your project to the app server.

Creating a GWT module with Cypal Studio

Creating a GWT module with Cypal Studio

Thankfully there is a way to add a GWT facet to Dynamic Web Projects in Eclipse. It comes in the form of a third party plugin from development shop Cypal. Cypal Studio for GWT allows you to hook into your existing GWT SDK and add the GWT facet to your new/existing WTP project. From there you can go on developing your GWT application as you would a regular Dynamic Web Project in Eclipse and add the GWT stuff as you go. IMO this is a fantastic piece of work and really lowers the barrier to entry for developers new to GWT scene but who are already familiar with Eclipse.

To get started download Cypal Studio for GWT here, and then follow the instructions here.

Some might claim that I’m rehashing a topic that has already been solved however I’m compelled to write this article as I personally struggled to connect all the disparate dots in order to make Google Web Toolkit (GWT) integrate with the Spring Framework. This is intended to be the article that I wished I’d stumbled upon in the first 10 minutes of looking for a solution to the problem. Before we start I’d also like to acknowledge that I’ve borrowed heavily from the concepts that people like George Georgovassilis pioneered. There’s nothing really new or groundbreaking here, I’ve simply combined all the knowledge that I’ve gained from all over the place into one convenient guide.

Update: Since publishing this article I’ve been contacted by Richard Bondi with regard to some great work that he’s also done on the matter of which I wish to also acknowledge his fantastic work. If you want to know more on this subject then I heartily recommend you check out his article on how to Integrate Spring with GWT and once you’ve done that, stubbing in hosted mode. Thanks again Richard.

Why would anyone want to integrate Spring and GWT?

If you’re familar with GWT (and I’m assuming you are) you may have marvelled, as I did, with how seamless and uncomplicated client-server interaction is. You are also probably aware that GWT RPC services are not web services. In fact they’re just plain old servlets that are endowed with an ability to serialize and deserialize information across the wire using a rather compact encoding developed by Google.

The RemoteServiceServlet class is great insofar as it handles all the grunt work of the RPC side of things whilst letting you get down to the business of writing your business logic for your services. The fact that you have to extend RemoteServiceServlet raises a few gnarly questions however:

1. What happens if I’ve already got my business logic implemented as an existing Java class with it’s own inheritance heirarchy?

2. What if you want to reuse that same class to implement a SOAP web service or any other RESTful interface for that matter?

3. What if I want to use the service class internally and don’t need all the RPC stuff?

4. What if something better than GWT comes out and I just want to replace the presentation layer technology?

Ouch! Suddenly extending RemoteServiceServlet starts to look a bit painful and far less useful than it did before. Now we could either try to imitate the ostrich and pretend that this isn’t an issue, or we could address the problem head on. We’re going to take the latter option.

Enter Spring

One answer to the above questions is to use a technique called Dependency Injection (DI). The Spring Framework happens to come with quite a good IoC container implementation and has become an industry standard. Without getting into the details about what DI is and how it works, Spring was designed with the intent of making your code as loosely coupled to its dependencies as possible and promoting POJO based development for enterprise applications.

So what does this look like in practice? Well currently out RPC model looks like this:

Standard GWT RPC plumbing

Standard GWT RPC plumbing (image courtesy of Google)

Ideally we want to look more like this:

New and improved GWT RPC plumbing with Spring integration

New and improved GWT RPC plumbing with Spring integration

Not too different really. With the exception of two new classes and two new interfaces you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d hardly done a thing, not to mention that three of them are Spring MVC classes! Well that’s actually the truth of it, I’ve done bugger all. It’s also worth noting that all the work is on the server-side with nothing new for the client.

Going back to our sample code, essentially all we need to do now is wire up our DispatcherServlet (a front-controller) and point it to our new GwtRpcController class for all RPC requests. We’ll also need to break the inheritance chain on the YourServiceImpl (a.k.a. QuoteServiceImpl) class to prove a point.

Getting down to business

In order to illustrate the point, I’m going to walk you through an adaptation of a random quote program from another GWT tutorial originally found on netbeans.org. I’ve adapted the original example to Eclipse as it’s my IDE of choice and I’m using Tomcat 6 as my test server.

For this tutorial you’ll require the following

If you’re impatient like me you might also want access to the project source code which can be found here. Please note that you’ll have to download the dependencies separately as I don’t want to inadvertently infringe on any copyright restrictions.

Okay so maybe I lied a little beforehand, there’s a bit more that we have to do in the way of re-jigging our project structure to make it all hang together and work. Anyway, time to cut some code!

Creating the project

Open the terminal/command line and go to the folder where you’ve unzipped the GWT SDK. And run the following command to create your eclipse project:

./projectCreator -ant gwt-wisdom -eclipse gwt-wisdom -out /home/dave/eclipse/workspace/gwt-wisdom

Note: replace the -out parameter argument with your own project destination. Also I’m using Linux, Windows users should just get rid of the preceeding “./” and change all forward slashes to back slashes and the commands will work just fine.

Now run this command to create your GWT project structure:

./applicationCreator -eclipse gwt-wisdom -out ~/eclipse/workspace/gwt-wisdom org.example.gwtwisdom.client.GwtWisdom

Again replace the -out parameter with the same location you used for the command above

Next import the new application into Eclipse using the File > Import menu option. Choose the Existing Projects option from under the General category and then browse to where ever you output the project files to.At this stage you should be able to hit run and test that the application skeleton is working.

Additional project setup

So that your application will compile once we start adding Spring into the mix add the the Spring framework and Spring Web MVC jars (spring.jar, spring-webmvc.jar) to your applications build path.

Now we need somewhere to put all our configuration files and deployment time dependencies. Create the following directory structure at the base of your project WebContent/WEB-INF/lib. This is almost identical to the Eclipse WTP project structure and will become useful later when we automate the project build with an Ant script.

In the WebContent/WEB-INF folder create a web.xml file an copy and paste the text below into it:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<web-app id="WebApp_ID" version="2.5"

    <display-name>GWT Wisdom</display-name>

    <!-- Initialise the Spring MVC DispatcherServlet -->

    <!-- Map the DispatcherServlet to only intercept RPC requests -->



Now I’m aware that the integrated Tomcat instance that comes with GWT has a web.xml file but we can’t actually modify the Tomcat web.xml file as it is dynamically regenerated by the compiler every time we start hosted mode. Hence why we’re creating our own.

If you were paying attention in the last step you would have seen that we defined a servlet in the web.xml file. This is the Spring Web MVC DispatcherServlet which will intercept our RPC requests and route them to the correct service. Each DispatcherServlet instance requires a bean definition file of the same with a “-servlet.xml” suffix. So in the same folder create a file called spring-servlet.xml and copy and paste the following into it:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<beans xmlns="http://www.springframework.org/schema/beans"

    <!-- The application context definition for the DispatcherServlet -->

    <!-- Maps the request through to a concrete controller instance -->
    <bean id="urlMapping" class="org.springframework.web.servlet.handler.SimpleUrlHandlerMapping">
        <property name="mappings">

    <!-- GwtRpcController wraps our service in order to decode the incoming -->
    <!-- request then delegates processing of the call to the POJO service -->
    <!-- and then encodes the return value forwarding the response. -->
    <bean id="quoteController" class="org.example.gwtwisdom.server.GwtRpcController">
        <property name="remoteService">
            <bean class="org.example.gwtwisdom.server.QuoteServiceImpl" />


This will be used to configure the DispatcherServlet to route calls to our services. It does so via the SimpleUrlHandlerMapper which uses regular expression syntax to match the request url to a controller bean ID.

Now you’ll need to add the following jars to the WebContent\WEB-INF\lib folder: commons-logging.jar, gwt-servlet.jar, gwt-user.jar, spring.jar, spring-webmvc.jar. This is necessary for when it comes time to deploy the app.

Creating the RPC quote service

Next we’re going to create our RPC service. Start by creating a subpackage of the *.client package and call it “service”.

Create a new interface called QuoteService and make it look like the code below:

package org.example.gwtwisdom.client.service;

import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.RemoteService;
import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.RemoteServiceRelativePath;

public interface QuoteService extends RemoteService {
    public String getQuote();

Those already familiar with GWT will know that the next step is to create an async service interface to pair with the QuoteService interface we just created. Create a new interface again in the *.client.service package called QuoteServiceAsync and modify it so it looks like the following:

package org.example.gwtwisdom.client.service;

import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.AsyncCallback;

public interface QuoteServiceAsync {
    public void getQuote(AsyncCallback<String> callback);

Enough of interfaces. Now it’s time to code up the actual service itself. Create a new package under the org.example.gwtwisdom package called server. Once that’s done create a new class and call it QuoteServiceImpl.

package org.example.gwtwisdom.server;

import java.util.ArrayList;
import java.util.List;
import java.util.Random;
import org.example.gwtwisdom.client.service.QuoteService;

public class QuoteServiceImpl implements QuoteService {

    private Random randomizer = new Random();
    private static List<String> quotes = new ArrayList<String>();

    static {
        quotes.add("No great thing is created suddenly - Epictetus");
        quotes.add("Well done is better than well said - Ben Franklin");
        quotes.add("No wind favors he who has no destined port - Montaigne");
        quotes.add("Sometimes even to live is an act of courage - Seneca");
        quotes.add("Know thyself - Socrates");

    public String getQuote()
        return quotes.get(randomizer.nextInt(quotes.size()));


Now some of you might be saying to yourselves “hey wait a minute, don’t we have to extend RemoteServiceServlet?”. Well read on. I’m about to show you a magic trick straight out of the Gang of Four (GoF) playbook.

To cap it all off before we continue, we should probably update our module configuration file to include our new service mapping. Copy and paste the following into your GwtWisdom.gwt.xml file:

<!-- RPC service servlet declarations                             -->
<servlet path="/quote.rpc"

All rise for the GwtRpcController

Here’s the fun part, now we’re going to create the GwtRpcController. In the org.example.gwtwisdom.server package create a class called, you guessed it GwtRpcController. Then copy and paste the following code into it:

package org.example.gwtwisdom.server;

import javax.servlet.ServletContext;
import javax.servlet.http.HttpServletRequest;
import javax.servlet.http.HttpServletResponse;

import org.springframework.web.context.ServletContextAware;
import org.springframework.web.servlet.ModelAndView;
import org.springframework.web.servlet.mvc.Controller;

import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.IncompatibleRemoteServiceException;
import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.RemoteService;
import com.google.gwt.user.client.rpc.SerializationException;
import com.google.gwt.user.server.rpc.RPC;
import com.google.gwt.user.server.rpc.RPCRequest;
import com.google.gwt.user.server.rpc.RemoteServiceServlet;

public class GwtRpcController extends RemoteServiceServlet implements
        Controller, ServletContextAware {

    private ServletContext servletContext;

    private RemoteService remoteService;

    private Class remoteServiceClass;

    public ModelAndView handleRequest(HttpServletRequest request,
            HttpServletResponse response) throws Exception {
        super.doPost(request, response);
        return null;

    public String processCall(String payload) throws SerializationException {
        try {

            RPCRequest rpcRequest = RPC.decodeRequest(payload,

            // delegate work to the spring injected service
            return RPC.invokeAndEncodeResponse(this.remoteService, rpcRequest
                    .getMethod(), rpcRequest.getParameters());
        } catch (IncompatibleRemoteServiceException ex) {
                            "An IncompatibleRemoteServiceException was thrown while processing this call.",
            return RPC.encodeResponseForFailure(null, ex);

    public ServletContext getServletContext() {
        return servletContext;

    public void setServletContext(ServletContext servletContext) {
        this.servletContext = servletContext;

    public void setRemoteService(RemoteService remoteService) {
        this.remoteService = remoteService;
        this.remoteServiceClass = this.remoteService.getClass();


This class works on the principle that it is both a RemoteServiceServlet AND a Spring MVC Controller (don’t you just love polymorphism?) meaning that it can not only be used as a target by the DispatcherServlet for handling incoming RPC requests, but also to decode the incoming RPC requests. Remember I previously mentioned the Gang of Four? Well you’re looking right at the strategy pattern baby. Pretty cool huh?

Upon receiving a request we delegate handling of this to the Controller’s superclass (the RemoteServiceServlet) to handle the unmarshalling of the request. We then intercept the processing of the message by overriding RemoteServiceServlet.processCall method and delegate the processing to the RemoteService POJO.

Where did we get this magical POJO from you ask? Well we injected it into the class via the setRemoteService setter back in the spring-servlet.xml bean definition file earlier.

Okay one last thing before we continue on to preparing the app for deployment. We need to tie all of this together by doing some work to display our quotes in the GWT entry point class and fixing up some of the HTML.

In the GwtWisdom.html file copy and paste the following in below the body tag:

This is an AJAX application that retrieves a random quote from
the Random Quote service every three seconds. The data is retrieved
and the quote updated without refreshing the page!

Once you’ve done that, replace the method body of the GwtWisdom classes onModuleLoad method with the following:

    public void onModuleLoad() {
        final Label quoteText = new Label();

        Timer timer = new Timer() {

            public void run() {
                // create an async callback to handle the result:
                AsyncCallback<String> callback = new AsyncCallback<String>() {

                    public void onFailure(Throwable t) {
                        // display error text if we can't get the quote:
                        quoteText.setText("Failed to get a quote");

                    public void onSuccess(String result) {
                        // display the retrieved quote in the label:
                QuoteServiceAsync service = (QuoteServiceAsync) GWT


Note: since this is client-side code be careful that you use the google timer implementation as opposed to the stock Java one otherwise it won’t work like you expect.

That should take care of the display side of things. If you want you can also jazz it up a bit by putting some styles in the GwtWisdom.css file.

Ditching the GWT tomcat server

Remember that earlier on we created our own custom web.xml to initialise the Spring context via a DispatcherServler? Well because of this we can no longer rely upon the integrated tomcat server that comes with GWT to run our app. Fortunately the hosted mode browser comes with a -noserver switch which allows us to configure it to use the server of our choice during development.

There’s a bit of a knack to getting this running all running nice and seamlessly within Eclipse. First we’re going to have to compile the application then package it up and deploy it to the server just this once just so the server has knowledge of your app. Don’t worry, once it’s running in hosted mode the app will use your workspace code, but trust me we need to do this just once.

I’m actually going to use Ant to build and package the app. Conveniently, this is going to work out great in future when I need to bundle the app up into a war file and deploy it elsewhere.

First create a file called build.xml in the root of your project and copy and paste the script below into the build file.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<project name="gwt-wisdom" default="compile" basedir=".">
        Build file. This is used to package up your project as a war, if you
        want to distribute/deploy it. This isn't needed for normal operation.

    <property file="build.number"/>

    <!-- GWT properties - change these to suit your distribution (i.e. windows, mac or linux) -->
    <property name="platform" value="linux"/>
    <property name="gwt.home" value="/home/dave/eclipse/lib/gwt/linux/1.5.1"/>

    <!-- Build properties - shouldn't need changing -->
    <property name="name" value="GwtWisdom"/>
    <property name="module" value="org.example.gwtwisdom.GwtWisdom"/>
    <property name="src.dir" value="src"/>
    <property name="web.dir" value="WebContent"/>
    <property name="lib.dir" value="${web.dir}/WEB-INF/lib"/>
    <property name="bin.dir" value="${web.dir}/WEB-INF/classes"/>
    <property name="test.dir" value="test"/>
    <property name="out.dir" value="build"/>
    <property name="dist.dir" value="dist"/>

    <!-- set classpath -->
    <path id="project.class.path">
        <pathelement path="${java.class.path}/"/>
        <pathelement path="${lib.dir}/gwt-user.jar"/>

        <!-- Additional dependencies go here -->
        <pathelement path="${lib.dir}/spring.jar"/>
        <pathelement path="${lib.dir}/spring-webmvc.jar"/>
        <pathelement path="${lib.dir}/commons-logging.jar"/>

    <target name="clean">
        <delete file="${dist.dir}/${name}.war"/>
        <!-- Delete the bin directory tree -->
            <fileset dir="${bin.dir}" includes="**/*.class"/>

    <target name="compile" description="Compile both client &amp; server code">
        <!-- cross-compile client-side java classes -->
        <mkdir dir="${out.dir}"/>
        <java classname="com.google.gwt.dev.GWTCompiler" dir="${basedir}" fork="true">
            <jvmarg value="-Xmx256M"/>
                <pathelement path="${java.class.path}"/>
                <pathelement location="${src.dir}"/>
                <pathelement location="${bin.dir}"/>
                <pathelement path="${gwt.home}/gwt-user.jar"/>
                <pathelement path="${gwt.home}/gwt-dev-${platform}.jar"/>
            <arg line="-out ${basedir}/${out.dir}"/>
            <arg value="%*"/>
            <arg value="${module}"/>
        <copy todir="${web.dir}">
            <fileset dir="${out.dir}/${module}"/>

        <!-- compile server-side java classes -->
        <mkdir dir="${web.dir}/WEB-INF/classes"/>
        <javac srcdir="${src.dir}:${test.dir}" destdir="${bin.dir}" includes="**" debug="on" debuglevel="lines,vars,source" source="1.5">
            <classpath refid="project.class.path"/>

    <target name="package" depends="compile" description="Package up the project as a war">
        <mkdir dir="${dist.dir}"/>
        <war destfile="${dist.dir}/${name}.war" webxml="${web.dir}/WEB-INF/web.xml">
            <fileset dir="${out.dir}/${module}">
                <include name="**/*.*"/>
            <fileset dir="${web.dir}">
                <include name="**/*.*"/>
                <exclude name="WEB-INF/web.xml"/>

    <target name="all" depends="package"/>


Run the build script using the package target (Alt+Shift+X then Q). Alternatively if you’re using Ant from the command line then running “ant package” from the project directory should do the trick. This should compile and package the app automatically for you into a war file.

If the build fails for any reason you might have to edit some of the property elements listed at the top of the file depending on your platform (windows, mac or linux) and where you unzipped your GWT libs. Just change these as appropriate and everything should work fine.

From here you can just go ahead and fire up Tomcat and deploy the war file onto the app server either via the admin console or the autodeploy directory. At this point you should be able to test your application by opening your web browser and navigating to http://localhost:8080/GwtWisdom/GwtWisdom.html. If this works then we’re all good to proceed to the next stage.

Getting hosted mode to run with -noserver

Okay we’re getting close now. This step isn’t essential really, what I’ve shown you so far should be more than enough to demonstrate the application in action. If however you want to continue debugging and testing your app in hosted mode for development like I do then read on.

We’re going to need to edit the launch configuration in order to run the app in hosted mode using our own Tomcat instance as opposed to the integrated Tomcat server. You can do this one of two ways, either edit the GwtWisdom.launch file directly or you edit them via the Eclipse run configuration manager. We’re going to do it via the run configuration manager.

You can open the manager by right-clicking on the project Run As > Run Configurations. Once there, you should see in the left-hand tree view under Java Applications the GwtWisdom launch configuration. Select it and then click the Arguments tab over on the right hand side. Check that the program arguments resemble those below. Your configuration may differ slightly as far as the port is concerned but should read something like:

-out www GwtWisdom/GwtWisdom.html
-port 8080

This configuration tells the hosted mode browser to use an external server on the given port and where it should find your applications home page on the server.

You might also have to add the contents of your WebContent/WEB-INF/lib folder to the classpath tab in order to get it working but try it first by clicking apply and then run.

Sweet sweet success!

All that’s left to do is run the project. If you’ve configured it correctly it should fire up the app in all its hosted glory. Your services are now free from the tyranny of RemoteServiceServlet!

Now if only we could figure out a way to remove the dependency on the QuoteService interface from the service. Then it really would be a bona-fide POJO…another day, another challenge.


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