Comparing Java, PHP and Ruby

I’m having another go at reading my feeds through Thunderbird, which allows me to mark posts so I can come back to them later (my previous reader doesn’t). And version 1.5 allows me to import OPML.

While scanning the feed list I came across a post yesterday on Professional PHP, which is 3 weeks old but very pertinent given the languages I’m developing with. The post, entitled “Why is PHP considered hard to maintain”, covers Tim Bray’s presentation given at the International PHP Conference in which Tim compares the relative merits of Java, PHP and Ruby. We aren’t just talking about the languages themselves, but also the frameworks (for example, JSF/Spring/Hibernate, Apache/mod_php, Ruby on Rails) that allow you to build web applications; of course, you have to be careful which criteria you choose to compare but I think Tim’s presentation succeeds.

I’ll cover the point about PHP maintainability below, but want to add my view on the relative merits of Java, PHP and Ruby as development environments …

I work in a large company designing and developing “enterprise” Java applications, based on Java EE. I’ve been using Java since 1997, initially with applets, then Swing thick client applications, and now thin-client enterprise applications. The objective of most projects is either adding new products, or cost reduction through improving existing business processes, and integration with existing systems usually plays a significant role. In an environment like this Java (EE) is ideal, as it has an excessive extensive set of libraries, is supported by the major tool vendors, and has a clear development and deployment model for separation of responsibilities.

One of the downsides of the Java platform (as opposed to Java the language) is the overhead of this predictability; the build-compile-test cycle, software configuration management, and the cost of tools.

For a while now, there has been a trend in Java EE to developing with a more lightweight application model based on frameworks such as Spring application framework, and Hibernate for database mapping. One of the rationales for Spring, as advocated by Rod Johnson, is that you can achieve the same effect as Java EE without constraining yourself to the full EJB-based Java EE programming model: EJB’s have been successful only as Stateless Session Beans, and you might as well therefore use Plain Old Java Objects (POJOs), which don’t have the overhead of requiring a full-blown Java EE application server.

Another aspect of Java is that it is a statically-typed language, with compile-time type checking. This usually results in more typing (or reliance on code completion tools) and constrains how you structure your code, with type-safe interfaces. Compile-time checking seems like a good idea as it validates that your code is consistent at the code-level, but it introduces the compilation step before you can test (which can be painful on a large code base) and it doesn’t guarantee that your code is going to behave how you want it to (more on this in a future post).

So I’ve been keeping an eye on developments in other programming environments (for web applications), namely PHP, Ruby and Python.

Python seems like an excellent general purpose language, and has the Django and Turbogears options for web applications. But so far it doesn’t seem to have gained the same traction as PHP or Ruby for web applications. However, for organisations with existing Java infrastructure the Jython implementation of the Python language in a Java VM gives you the advantage of coding in a dynamic language but with integration into the Java platform.

When I first looked at PHP I thought it was a bit of a mess; function names in camel case or with underscores, poor namespace support, and limited OO support. After a while I read George Schlossnagle’s excellent Advanced PHP Programming and this pointed me in the right direction.

Coming from a Java background, on my own PHP projects I use OO principles and so far it’s been going OK. Going back to the original post about PHP maintainability, I don’t find that PHP is difficult to maintain. If you follow an OO model, and adopt Test-Driven Development then I think maintainability should not be an issue. Of course, it is possible
to write unmaintainable code in PHP but I’ve also come across Java projects where the code base has become a maintenance headache through initial over-engineering and progressive undermining of the code design through staff turnover and scarce documentation.

Ruby, and in particular the Ruby on Rails framework, is cool at the moment. Championed by the people at 37 Signals, its principles of “convention over configuration”, making programming fun, and making it hard to program badly, seem to resonate with developers looking for a better way to develop. There is some debate, for example,
with the lack of support for compound primary keys, as to whether Rails is suitable for the enterprise. However, you can use Rails in conjunction with other technologies.

Tim’s presentation reflects my belief that no one framework has the edge on others in every case. For rapid development in green field projects I believe Ruby on Rails has the advantage, due to its enabling greater developer productivity. But I expect that Java EE (increasingly in the form of Spring+Hibernate) will be around for a long time in enterprise environments.

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