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December 28, 2008

WiMIC Browser v.3 – MySQL, BlazeDS, Lucene, Spring, Flex 3.0, Cairngorm

Follow-up to WiMIC Browser v.2 – migrated to Adobe Flex Cairngorm application framework from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I've taken advantage of some new technologies to redevelop the Women in Modern Irish Culture data browser. The application will eventually give full online access to a big biographical and bibliographical database developed by researchers at Warwick and University College Dublin. The last version was rather over-complicated and ponderous, giving slow and awkward access to the data. This new version provides a much more instantaneous view onto the thousands of records. It is now really a data browser rather than just a search tool. Researchers can immediately scan through thousands of records, which are all immediately loaded into data grids. Whereas the old version served up 12 records at a time as a result of database queries via JSON, the new version can serve up over 9000 records in a few seconds, using the highly efficient BlazeDS mechanism.

Rapid data browsing with BlazeDS

This is how it works:

  1. the Flex/Flash interface calls a method on a Remote Object that will return an ArrayCollection of Author objects;
  2. the RemoteObject proxies through to a corresponding method in a class exposed via BlazeDS;
  3. the Java method is in fact a Spring bean which queries the database using Spring's jdbc utils (the data is now on MySQL rather than SQL Server);
  4. Spring builds a Flash Remoting ArrayCollection of Author objects (corresponding to my Flex Author class);
  5. the ArrayCollection is returned as the result of the proxied method using the effiiciently compressed AMF protocol;
  6. the ArrayCollection is added to the Flex Cairngorm model, to which the datagrid is bound;
  7. the data appears in the grid, and can be browsed and re-ordered instantly.

Even when retrieving all 9000+ authors, that only takes a few seconds.

The authors are listed in an AdvancedDataGrid, allowing the researcher to drill down into a selected record. This retrieves further data about the selected author (using BlazeDS) including a list of publications.

Fast and smart querying with Lucene

In addition, I have used the Lucene Java library to add query interfaces that search pre-built indexes. Lucene performs free-text and exact searching as required, and also uses synonyms. So, for example, a researcher could search for "Dublin AND poetry" in the simple search form, and see almost instantly all authors with the words "Dublin" AND "poetry" in their records (including their publications). It would also list records containing "poem" and "poems", giving them a lower ranking in the results.

To be even more precise, one can search for "Locations:Dublin AND Genres:poetry" which would return only authors of poetry with some association with Dublin. "Locations" and "Genres" being fields in the Lucene index. I'm using that mechanism to create a search interface with specific fields such as "genre", "surname", "firstname", "publication title" and "location".

As with other queries, BlazeDS is used for highly efficient transmission of results.

A further addition, again using BlazeDS and Lucene, is the ability to list authors who had published in a selected decade. Each author record in the Lucene index contains a list of the decades in which they published. The efficiency of this approach is demonstrated by viewing all authors to have published since 2000.

Now that I have all of these elements in place, I'll be able to quickly add more features and richer data, including more information on publications.

Try it out here.

September 06, 2007

WiMIC Browser v.2 – migrated to Adobe Flex Cairngorm application framework

Follow-up to WiMIC Browser – my first big Flex application from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

WiMIC Browser is a Flash based rich internet application that gives online access to an extensive biographical and bibliographical database. It was originally built in Flex 2.0 using a home grown MVC application framework. I have now migrated it into the Cairngorm framework, a process that took about six days.

The application behaves just as before, but the plumbing behind it has been rationalised and improved using Cairngorm. The project now looks like this in the Navigator:

WiMICBrowser 2 Navigator

The migration was quite straightforwards. The design of the original app was quite similar to that of a Cairngorm app. However, the framework offers a few neat tricks:

  1. A simple and easy to understand event based controller. Views can initiate events, which are then passed onto the required command by the controller. Once the event is called, the originating view is forgotten about.
  2. The AppModelLocator singleton, which gives access to centrally stored value objects. Elements in views are bound directly to value objects and properties in the model. If a command updates the model, then changes are made to the bound elements.
  3. In this app, tab navigators are used to contain the various views. The TabNavigator.selectedIndex property of each tab navigator is bound to a property in the model. That means that a command can change the currently displayed tab by changing the relevant property in the model.
  4. Chaining of commands – a command can call another command. For example, when viewing a single publication record, the GetSinglePublication command calls further commands depending upon the type of publication that is being viewed.
Most importantly, my code is now much easier to understand and to develop further. As Cairngorm is a widely understood and documented framework, it will be easily understood by other developers.

July 17, 2007

WiMIC Browser – my first big Flex application

Writing about web page

The University of Warwick History Department is today releasing the beta version of its WiMIC Data Browser. This is a Flex 2 application that I have built to give online access to the huge bibliographical and biographical database of “women in modern Irish culture”, compiled by a team of researchers at Warwick and at University College Dublin.
The WiMICBrowser is an example of the kind of Rich Internet Application now made possible with the Adobe Flex development toolset. It provides four search interfaces, of varying degrees of complexity. For example, users can do a "Simple Author Search" by selecting the Authors tab and the Simple Search tab. This interface allows them to do a freetext search of various fields in the database's People table.

WiMIC Browser Simple Author Search

To compliment this simple search, there is also a "Complex Author Search" form that contains many more fields and options. Note that the user is given the option of saving the search in their "Filing Cabinet". This uses the Flex/Flash Shared Object system (Flash's equivalent of cookies) to permanently store the search parameters on the client machine's hard disk (until they select to delete it). A future migration of the application to Flex 3 and the Adobe Internet Runtime will allow these searches to be saved to ordinary files on disk, and hence allow them to be moved between PCs. I will also consider allowing users to share their searches online. Here is the search saved in the Filing Cabinet, with the options to re-run or delete it:

WiMICBrowser filing cabinet

And the results of the search is a list of mathing authors presented in a standard Flex datagrid, with the option to view a full record of any of the authors. An author record is shown below. Note that the results list remains populated with the results and accesible on a single click of a tab.

WiMICBrowser author record

The author record contains a rich array of data. Some authors are listed in the database under several names, thses are shown in the "All known names" list. Publications for the author are shown in the datagrid on the right. This shows 12 records at a time, with a paging control to move through the data. Notice that there is a link next to each publication record. Selecting the magnifying glass link opens that publication record in the Publications -> Selected Publication Record tab. For exmple, here is a book record:

WiMICBrowser Book Record

Each type of publication (book, book chapter, article, journal edition, play, film) has its own type of publication record page similar to this. These are created as Flex View States based on a generic Publication Base State. All of them list the authors of the publication, with their role in authoring it stated (for example, "editor"). The various recorded versions of the publication are also listed. In the case of a book, a datagrid is given listing its publishers and printers.

Publication records can also be found using the two publication search interfaces. Again these are "Simple" and "Complex". They work in a similar way to the Author Search interfaces. Here is the Complex Publications Search:

WiMICBrowser complex publications search

In this case the search is configured to return all books and articles (see the filter on the right) that are of the genre "religious", in the languages "Irish" and "English", written between 1700 and 2000. There are many other options for configuring and filtering the search. The SQL query for this search was rather difficult to write!

The results are again shown in a paged datagrid:

WiMICBrowser publication search results

The application is now available as a "beta", with the aim of getting feedback from researchers and students working in this field.

I will also soon write a technical review of the application, with consideration of the techniques used to build it, and the feasibility of creating similar applications in the future. For now, I will just say that for such a complex application, it was quite simple to contruct. The Flex/Eclipse IDE makes this possible. Employing a relatively sensible application framework has helped. I constructed my own MVC framework loosely based on my experience with Java application frameworks. The project structure is shown below:

WiMICBrowser project structure

The WiMICBrowser.mxml file defines both the container control (a set of customised TabNavigator controls) and the controller code (which maps actions onto action classes, and equips them with the required model objects and views). Note that the queries are specified in the queryDefinitions.xml file, loaded on start up. This is kept externally to the application, so that I can modify the queries independently. The queries themselves are SQL Server stored procedures.

The dataservices folder contains a class that does all of the work of connecting to a servlet to do the database queries. Communication with the servlet is via JSON, with the servlet mediating queries and results between the client app and a SQL Server. If I wish to employ a different method for communicating between the application and the database, or even using a different database, I just need to change the dataconnector class.

The utils folder contains various utilities, including the FilingCabinet class, which does all of the work of serializing and de-serializing model objects and query objects into the SharedObject storage (note that by default Flash/Flex does this really badly, serializing custom classes is not straightforwards). In the future I would like to try migrating the application to the Adobe Internet Runtime, so that it can run outside of the browser sandbox. That will then allow me to escape reliance on the SharedObject store. I will also soon add an option to create folders of selected publication and author records.

What then do I think of Flex and RIA technologies? Yes, at last we can easily and safely build complex web applications that run well on [m]any different platforms.