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What's Wrong with the EJB 2 Specification?


Also in EJB 2:

Unlocking the True Power of Entity EJBs

Stateful Session EJBs: Beasts of Burden

EJB 2 and J2EE Packaging, Part II

EJB 2 and J2EE Packaging

EJB 2.0 Specification Release Review

The EJB 2.0 beta specification was released with great fanfare last summer during JavaOne. The EJB 2.0 specification introduced new features, including a souped-up version of entity bean CMP, message-driven beans, and additional CORBA interoperability. Application server vendors have rushed to support the EJB 2.0 specification; many of them have quickly provided message-driven bean support, but few have CMP and CORBA interoperability support so far.

Today, the specification is still in public final draft form with no official release date set, which is somewhat uncharacteristic. Previous versions of EJB specifications have typically remained in public final draft form for less than a quarter. So what's going on? Whatever the reason for the stall, I'm glad for it.

I have serious issues with some recommendations made in the EJB specification, most of which revolve around the proposal for introducing a fine-grained "dependent object". Before I ramble on about the nuances of dependent objects, there are other inconsistencies in the EJB specification:

  1. There are two tags for primary key identification: <prim-key-class> and <primkey-field>. The former tag is used to indicate the fully qualified class name of the primary key object, and the latter is used to indicate which CMP persistent field is the non-compound primary key of the entity EJB. Why does one tag start with prim-key and the other start with primkey? Also, <prim-key-class> is used for simple and compound primary keys, while the <primkey-field> tag is only used for simple compound primary keys. You must pay close attention to the specification otherwise you might make the silly assumption that use of items in the deployment description would be uniform.

  2. The ejbRemove() method is used inconsistently in session and entity beans. For session beans, the ejbRemove() method is invoked when a bean moves from the "method-ready" state to the "does not exist" state. This transition doesn't occur on a predictable basis, even though many developers believe that it occurs every time a client invokes the remove() method on a remote stub. For session beans, the ejbRemove() method is used as a container callback to notify the bean that it's being placed into "inactive" status. It is not used to indicate that the bean has been destroyed, but a container is allowed to make this transition as part of a remove() invocation from the client.

    This contradicts the intended use of ejbRemove() for entity beans, for which ejbRemove() is called when the bean is being destroyed in the persistent store. If you take a close look at the entity EJB state diagram, another container callback is used to notify a bean that it is being moved from the "pooled" state to the "does not exist" state: unsetEntityContext(). As an instructor to hundreds of students who're learning EJBs, it's often a nightmare to explain to them that ejbRemove() for session beans and unsetEntityContext() for entity beans represent the same event transitions, but ejbRemove() for entity beans really means destruction.

    Here's a proposal, though the migration to support it would be difficult: how about changing ejbRemove() in the SessionBean interface to be unsetSessionContext() and alter ejbRemove() in the entity bean interface to be ejbDestroy()? In this scenario, the ambiguous ejbRemove() wouldn't exist in either interface and consistency would exist between setXXXContext() and unsetXXXXContext() callbacks.

Dependent Objects

The EJB 2.0 specification introduced a new approach to doing CMP entity beans. It also introduces the concept of relationships between entity EJBs and dependent objects, which are also new to the specification. In previous versions, all entity beans were considered coarse-grained persistent objects, requiring every access to the bean to be completed over an RMI invocation. The network overhead and the request-level interception work done by a container -- transaction demarcation, security checks, etc. -- made entity EJBs heavyweight objects.

Coarse-grained objects are ideal in many situations, but there are situations in which more finely-grained, persistable objects exist too. For example, a customer profile might be considered a coarse-grained object, but the credit card information stored for a single customer profile might be too fine to warrant having RMI invocations and separate transaction management as part of the object's access logic. A fine-grained object may be needed by a system for one or more of the following conditions:

  • the accessed object doesn't need to have its interface exposed to remote clients;
  • the accessed object can be accessed over a method invocation as opposed to an RMI invocation (to improve performance);
  • the accessed object may not necessarily be identified through a primary key, and duplicates may be possible (they're strictly forbidden with entity EJBs);
  • the accessed object follows the life cycle of the accessor object so that it's created and destroyed contemporaneous to its accessor;

Please reference Figure 1: Fine-Grained Objects as EJBs and Figure 2: Advantages of Local Fine-Grained Objects, both below, for another view point.

Fine-Grained Objects as EJBs
Figure 1: Fine-Grained Objects as EJBs

Advantages of Local Fine-Grained Objects
Figure 2: Advantages of Local Fine-Grained Objects

The ability for a component architecture to host local, fine-grained objects as "attached children" to remote, coarse-grained objects is critical. If two objects are both considered remote, the persistence manager will ultimately have to perform separate database updates to manage both of the objects. However, if a coarse-grained object is managing a set of finer-grained objects, the chance for a persistence manager to do batch database access can significantly improve performance of the system.

To meet this need, the EJB 2.0 specification defines a dependent object as any object that's created by another object, can only be accessed by another object, or follows the life cycle (creation and destruction) of another object. Dependent objects are not entity EJBs and have a JavaBean-like syntax. Dependent objects can also participate in CMP relationships, giving a variety of options:

  • Entity Bean - Dependent Object relationships
  • Dependent Object - Dependent Object relationships (the depths of which are unbounded as defined by the specification (!?))
  • Dependent objects can participate in one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many relationships
  • Dependent objects don't require primary keys
  • Dependent objects can have duplicates
  • Dependent objects don't have to be "attached" to a parent object. This can occur if a parent object is destroyed and the deployment descriptor is configured not to perform cascading deletions of any child-dependent objects.
  • Dependent objects may have cascading deletions (if a parent object that the dependent object is attached to is destroyed, the dependent object and all of its dependent object children will be automatically destroyed)

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