Tuesday Oct 16, 2007

Walking through the CEC 2007 JavaFX Message Prompter Source

The CEC Message Prompter in Action

Now that I'm back from CEC and out of jetlag, I've had some time to clean up  the CEC 2007 Message Prompter source code. Thanks to all those who asked for it, that was quite a motivation.

The CEC Message Prompter source code is free for your reading pleasure under an as-is basis, no warranty, no support, etc. Still, comments are of course very welcome.

The easiest way to try this out is to load up NetBeans (I use the current Beta 6), install the JavaFX module, then create a new JavaFX project. The stuff in the source code archive goes into the src subdirectory of your new JavaFX project. Choose "Main.fx" as the main class and feel free to enable Java Web Start.

In order to compile/run the app, you also need JAXB 2.0 (or use J2SE 6) and the mySQL JDBC Connector installed in NetBeans as libraries and assigned to the project you use for this app.

After starting the app, you'll see the window above. To the top is the message source selection GUI. Choose whether you want to have a database or a URL (for XML) connection. A sample XML file with some messages is included, so you probably want to use the URL method. Enter the file URL where you have your messages stored into the URL field, then click on the right (next) or left (previous) or the X (clear) buttons to display the messages. The optional Session field is for filtering messages by session ID but we never got to use it yet. 

Before I start with the code, a few words of introduction: This is my first JavaFX project and I welcome any suggestions on how to better code in JavaFX. It is also my first Java/NetBeans project since a long time, so I'm sure I can still learn a lot more about how to properly do it. But the learning journey into creating this app has been a fun and instructive one, so I hope this code can help others learn more about JavaFX too. If I had to do it again (And I hope I will, next year), I'd do some stuff differently, which I'll discuss at the end of this posting. 

Let's walk through the code in roughly the order of how the message flow works:

  • The basic idea is this:
  1. The audience sends their questions, feedback, messages etc. to the CEC backstage team through either Email, Instant Messaging or SMS through special Email or IM accounts or mobile phone numbers. The CEC backstage team reads the messages and stores them in a database where they can be approved, marked for deletion, marked for display on the Message Prompter and assigned a sequence to display in.
  2. The CEC Message Prompter is the application that the people on stage and occasionally the audience see/s and where the current question to be asked to the people on stage is displayed. So the app has to fetch messages from the database and display them on screen on demand and in a visually intuitive way.
  3. For testing/development/backup purposes, the Message Prompter can also accept messages out of a single XML file instead of a database.
  • The top level directory is supposed to go into the src subdirectory of a NetBeans JavaFX project, but I guess you could as well include this easily into any other IDE or just work from the command-line out of this directory. CECMessage.xsd is an XML schema courtesy of Simon Cook that defines the XML format for a list of messages. ExampleMessages.xml contains a bunch of messages for testing purposes. Most of the source code is in the cecmessaging subdirectory which is the name of the Java package bundle for this app. If you apply the Message schema to the JAXB xjc.sh script, it creates the java classes in the org/netbeans/xml/schema/cecmessage directory which describe the corresponding java objects.
  • Some things are best left to real Java, in this case the message fetching and conversion into JavaFX digestable classes. The nice thing about JavaFX is that it can seamlessly use Java classes for doing any heavy-lifting. Messages can come in as an XML file or from a database, in both cases they are fetched from Java helper classes that handle the complexity of fetching messages and who return an object structure to the main JavaFX application.
    In the case of messages coming in as a single XML file, the file is parsed by the XMLHelper class in cecmessaging/XMLHelper.java using the JAXB framework. The resulting object structure can then be interpreted by the JavaFX main class. Make sure you include JAXB 2.0 or later if you use J2SE 5, in J2SE 6 it's already included.
    If messages are to be retrieved from a database, then the DBHelper class in cecmessaging/DBHelper.java is used. It uses the mySQL JDBC connector for database access but you could easily plug in any other database connector. For simplicity, the database data is converted into a JAXB structure as if it was coming out of an XML document. Here is the definition of the database that Simon created:

    Database: cec Table: message


    Both XMLHelper and DBHelper sort the messages by the displayOrder field, then by id. The sort comparator for this particular ordering is in CECMessageComparator.java.
  • The heart of the Message Prompter lives in cecmessaging/Main.fx.
    • It starts with a few data structures:
      • The AnimValues class stores font sizes, colors, duration and other parameters used for animation. JavaFX does not let you specify defaults as part of the class definition, hence the attribute commands.
      • The Message class is modeled after the corresponding JAXB CECMessage class. It adds a few attributed to track a particular message's color and font size. The font size and color of a message depends on its position (whether it is highlighted or not) and can change while it is animated during transitions. That's why we need to keep track of them. The alive attribute is not used right now, it may become useful if I rework the animation stuff.
      • The Tag class is for handling, well, tags. Every word that shows up as a message, author, device or topic is treated as a tag and a tag cloud is generated based on how often the word shows up on the screen. This class stores the tag word, counts the number of appearance and stores the current font size of that tag on screen. Again, we need to track font size for animation.
      • The MessageList class is the main model class the application uses. It contains an AnimValue class, a list of Message class messages and list of tags. It knows where the messages come from and where the original message data in JAXB format is. It keeps track of the GUI Labels that graphically represent the messages on screen plus it knows how many messages to display at once, which one is to be highlighted and other useful parameters.
    • The following operation statements are really methods. They are written in script-like manner rather than in object-oriented manner. This means that they are not associated to a particular class other than the main one. Next time, I might use a more strict object-oriented approach, but hey, this is a scripting language, isn't it?
      • MessageSignature computes a single string out of all fields in a message for comparison purposes. Somehow .equals or .toString didn't work for me as expected, so Implemented this simple mechanism to see if two messages are equal.
      • ClearMessages clears all messages, its associated Label objects and makes sure that dying messages are animated and their tags updated. Actually, today the death of a message isn't animated yet but I hope to implement a nice way of dying for messages. I loved my Apple Newton back then in the 90ies and it had this nice animation where deleted stuff would vanish in a puff of smoke :).
      • CecmToMessage takes a JAXB message created by the XMLHelper or DBHelper class and creates the corresponding JavaFX Message instance. It also handles basic true/false associations for the approved and deleted fields, which are meant to be boolean but are actually strings in the XML schema.
      • MessageToLabel creates a Java Swing Label object that displays the message on screen. The nice thing about the JavaFX Label implementation is that it understands HTML. So we can use HTML freely here to control how the message is to be seen. Notice the bind statement where the Label text is: It ties the Label's text content to the Message's attributes (color, size, content). This means that whenever any of these attributes are changed in the Message object, the corresponding Label object is changed as well! This is a very nice mechanism for Model-View-Controller like programming and a big time saver when coding.
      • The messageDisplayable function decides whether a message is supposed to be displayed. This is just a logic expression checking the approved, deleted and toBeAsked fields and filtering by sessionId (In case one wants to restrict messages to a particular session). One could have implemented the filtering at the XMLHelper or at the DBHelper level, but I felt it would be better to have full control over displaying messages from the app itself.
      • UpdateMessages checks all currently displayed messages against their counterparts in the XML file or the DB. The idea here is that we want to be able to change a message even if it's already displayed in the application (you know, when accidentally a bad word came through :) ). This is called regularly before adding new messages to the screen.
      • compareMessageOrder does just that. Messages come in already sorted, but we still need to decide on ordering when going through them to detect whether a message is missing etc. (The naming is wrong, it should start uppercase. This is because this operation started as a function but then if-then is not accepted in functions by JavaFX...).
      • NextMessage adds a message to the display list. It also deals with the unexpected complexity of deciding which message to highlight in certain corner cases. For instance, when we want to preview 2 messages, the third one is to be highlighted, but if you only have 0-2 messages on screen, the highlight should be on the last etc. When done, the message animator is called to animate any newly higlighted or unhighlighted messages and the tags are updated.
      • PreviousMessage does the opporsite of NextMessage. Again, the handling of the highlight is a tad more complex than I would have wanted it. Again, we animate here as well.
      • RefreshTags goes through all messages displayed on screen and makes sure the tag list is up to date. Then it starts animation for those tags that have changed.
      • AnimateMessages checks all messages and whether their font sizes match their position and highlighting status. Then, it animates all messages that have changed their status into their destination sizes and colors. Animation is handled through the dur operator. It assigns a list of values to a single parameter in sequence, during a specified time. So when we want a piece of text to grow from 0 to 20 pixels in size during 500 milliseconds, we say something like text.size = [0..20] dur 500. Very nice! Color animations work by applying a string array with the color values in sequence to a string variable. I wasn't confident on how the animation works in terms of concurrency (for instance, if another thread happens to change a value while it is animated) and I've seen cases where the font sizes weren't correct (and that cost me quite some sweat drops!) so I added some watchdog code to make sure the font size is correct after the end of the animation. Now that I've seen the CEC 2007 JavaFX session (sic!), I know a bit more about how this is supposed to work so hopefully I won't need it any more :).
      • AnimateTags does similar things to the tags, a tad easier to do.
      • The LoadProperties stuff is not used at the moment, so isn't the properties file included with the source. I was planning to outsource all relevant defaults and constants into an external properties file, but didn't have the time to do it. But here's a start...
      • The Main part is fairly straight forward: It first instantiates the MessageList model structure with some default values, then proceeds to instantiate the GUI elements. Another nice thing about JavaFX is the declarative syntax where you just write down the GUI class with all the desired values and the runtime system takes care of instantiating the classes, hooking them together and assigning values to them, as well as tying in the methods to be called when a GUI element is activated. Also, the bind command is your best friend here in that it automatically binds GUI attributes to the model classes and saves you the hassle of implementing callback methods etc. You don't even need a GUI builder, just write down the widget hierachy and you're done. Very convenient.

That was it. All in all, learning JavaFX was a fun experience. And you can do it too, just go to the OpenJFX website and check out the tutorials and references.

What would I do differently if I had to write this app from scratch? Probably one or more of the following:

  • Use real object oriented style by attaching methods to classes etc. Possibly different classes in different files, loosely coupled by the main class, as in this nice Mariah Carey website example.
  • Rework the animation so it works on triggers. Triggers are a way of coupling code to variables, similar to binding. So, whenever a variable is changed, the trigger code gets executed. For instance, the tags could be updated and animated using triggers.
  • Introduce more eye-candy. JavaFX comes with full Java2D support, so I'd dig in deeper into its classes to implement nicer animations.
  • Make it more interactive by letting GUI elements slide in and out only when necessary so there's more real estate for the messages.
  • Introduce images and symbols to help with the eye-candyness.

Thank you for reading this and I hope you enjoyed this JavaFX example. Let me know your thoughts by using the comment function or by sending me email!

Friday Oct 12, 2007

Final CEC Reflections: The Wynn, ZFS Under the Hood, Messaging wrap-up

I'm now back home, sorting through emails and cleaning up some stuff before a regular week of work begins. Here are some highlights from Tuesday and Wednesday during the Sun CEC 2007 conference in Las Vegas:

  • The Wynn: After visiting the CEC Party, Barton, Yan, Henning and I decided to have dinner at the Wynn. It's one of the newest hotels in town and a must-see. This place sure has style! We went to the Daniel Boulud Brasserie which is located inside the hotel at the Lake of Dreams. This is one of the few restaurants in Las Vegas where you can actually eat outside the ever present air-conditioning and enjoy a great view. The lake features a gigantic rectangular waterfall surrounded by a forest. The lake and the waterfall are part of several mini-shows that occur at regular intervals in the afternoon, featuring impressive animatronics such as a  head coming out of the water (with projected animated faces) or a gigantic frog leaning over the waterfall back which also serves as a huge video screen. Music, light and animation are perfectly synchronized so that for instance the head emerging from the water perfectly matches its projected upon face or the light ripples running over the lake perfectly match the animation on screen.
    This is definitely my favourite Vegas hotel now, I wonder where our stock price needs to be to afford having our nect CEC at their convention center :).
  • ZFS Under the Hood: This was a great session done by Jason Bantham and Jarod Nash. They went through the ZFS Source Tour diagram and explained the little boxes one by one while describing the basic processes, mechanisms and data flow that ZFS uses to write and read data. And they were fun speakers too! Plus each attendee that asked a question got a piece of chocolate thrown at as an extra incentive to participate :).
  • Podcasting: After the closing session, Franz, Matthias, Brian, Dave and I recorded episode 3 of the CEC 2007 Podcast. We reflected on our impressions of the conference and on our project to aggregate and display audience messages during the main sessions. Actually, I'm cleaning up and commenting the JavaFX code as we speak to publish it in the next post for your code-reading pleasure :).

Monday Oct 08, 2007

CEC 2007 in Las Vegas: Podcasting, JavaFX Hacking and HPC Software

Since I've arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday, October 8th, I've been busy with a number of things that are going on at the Sun CEC 2007 Conference:

  • CEC 2007 Messaging:  One of the cool things during the general sessions is the ability for attendees to send in their questions and comments via Email, SMS or Instant Messaging in real time, while the speaker is presenting.  Backstage, these messages are fed into a database. Then, two aggregate feeds are created: One goes to the CEC Message Visualizer, a Java Application written by Simon Cook which visualizes the flow of information in a very nice way so the audience can see where their messages are going. The other feed goes mainly to the presenters on stage so they know what the current questions are and answer them. That feed gets visualized through a Java FX Script application that I've been busy writing over the last weeks.
  • Podcasting: Tune in to the new CEC 2007 Podcast that is going live at this very moment. In the first episode, Hartmut Streppel, Eric Bezille, Matthias Pfützner and I sit together at the Gordon Biersch in Las Vegas (Prost!) while we discuss our plans and projects for CEC 2007, including Service Virtualization and Consolidation, ZFS, Flying Zones, the Message Aggregation Process and other cool stuff. Send me email or call my mobil phone if you want to participate in one of our next episodes!
  • HPC Software: In about an hour, Roland Rambau, Barton Fiske and I will present on HPC Software: Roland will cover the general state of HPC Software at Sun and talk about HPC storage solutions around CFS' Lustre filesystem, Barton will present the Sun Visualization Software solutions and I'll cover the Sun Grid Engine and some information on Sun Studio Developer Tools.
So, have fun listening to the podcast and see you at the HPC Software session if you happen to be in Vegas!

Tune in and find out useful stuff about Sun Solaris, CPU and System Technology, Web 2.0 - and have a little fun, too!


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