Groovy: A Retrospective

I have been using Groovy, in ernest, for just over 4 years now, and as I am possibly moving to using something else (Scala) I wanted to write up some notes about it all (not getting into memory leaks, as that's a whole other story!).

Over the years I have read people saying that it is not production ready, or is only really a language designed for scripting and testing etc but I have been using it in a production setting for the last four years and generally find that it is now at a stable enough level for production use (yes, it is still slower than Java, even with @CompileStatic, so if you know from the start that you are building some low-latency stuff, then maybe go with something else).

Java to Groovy

I started using Groovy 4 years ago when I joined a team that was already using it as the primary development language and came straight from an enterprise Java background.  The nice thing about Groovy (certainly versus something like Scala) is that it is, for the most part, very similar to Java syntax, and if you can write Java then you can also write Groovy.  Which is great if you either have an existing Java team or a large Java hiring pool and you want to start using Groovy. The downside is that it takes considerable discipline and code review process to ensure a consistently styled code base, as from my experience, whilst the Java-to-Groovy switch can start in an instance, the journey is a gradual one.

From my experience, both of making the transition myself and from hiring other Java developers into the team, there are three main stages of the journey:

  1. I like the return keyword! - If making an immediate switch to a Groovy environment, most former Java devs (myself included) likely end up just writing java in *.groovy files - most people find dropping the semicolon the easiest first step, but lots of Java developers wont fully embrace idiomatic Groovy, a good example of this being use of the return keyword.

    I remember early code review conversations being advised that I didn't need the return, to which I insisted that I liked it and found it clearer to read - A conversation I have since been on the opposite end of with several newer colleagues since then.  The effect of this is fairly minimal - it means as you bring more Java developers on board, you will find patches of your codebase which are distinctly Java in style (return keyword, occasional semicolons, getters & setters, for-each loops etc) - still readable and functional groovy, just not idiomatic.

  2. I can type less!? - The second phase that appears to be common is the opposite end of the spectrum - with the discovery of dynamic typing and the ability to define everything as def (or not include the type at all in the case of the method arguments).

    I'm not sure if this is a result of laziness (fewer character to type, and less thinking required as to specific types) - which I don't really buy - or whether it is just perceived as the idiomatic way.  Another common trait here is to over use scripts (they have a use, but are harder to unit-test and in my opinion, don't offer much over just using a groovy class with a simple main method which just handles the CliBuilder and instantiates the class to run).

    Again, in my opinion, typing is better - I still don't buy that typing def rather than the actual type is actually that much of a saving, and often ends up being a code-smell (even if it didn't start out as one).  The official Groovy recommendation is to type things, with the exception of local method scoped variables - but even in that case I cannot see the benefit: there is no real gain to the developer in typing those precious fewer characters and the future readability suffers as other developers have to track through the code more to be sure as to what a variable is doing.

  3. Idiomatic, typed Groovy - In a circle-of-life analogy, the resulting code is actually quite close to Java (well, it's statically typed and I don't focus on brevity of code at the cost of readability), but makes full use of the best groovy features - automatic getters and setters with dot notation for access (where brevity is good!), all the collection methods (each, findAll, collect, inject), explicit Map and List declaration, optional (but typed!) method arguments, truthy-ness, etc.

    I suspect the evolution to this stage, in part, comes from working on a sufficiently large code base, for long enough to have to start dealing with the fall out of nothing being accurately typed - for me this was having to port some groovy code to Java and found several methods with several un-typed (sometimes defaulted) arguments, and the method body code just a large if block checking the types of the passed data and handling differently.

    A week or so ago I put together a small web-scraping project in Groovy - its just a few classes, but gives a good picture of how I code Groovy now after 4 years.

The good bits

I think it was probably a combination of the above journey and Groovy's maturing (I started using it at version 1.7), but it took probably 2 1/2 years before I wanted to start using Groovy at home and for my own projects, continuing to use Java in those first few years.  But now, I am happy to recommend Groovy (performance concerns noted), its a nice syntactical sugar that can really compliment the way you would normally program in Java and there are some things that I really miss when going back to Java.

  • The explicit maps and list definition is awesome - This is a good example where brevity and readability come together, and is kind of puzzling that this hasn't been natively supported in Java anyway.  The closest I can think that Java has is its Arrays.asList(..) method, which is a nice helper, but still more clunky than it needs to be.  When I go back to Java I definitely miss the ability to just natively define nested Map/List structures
  • The extended collection methods with closure support, for iterating, collecting, filtering etc are also great, and probably the biggest part of Groovy that I miss going back to Java (I know that Java streams have started to address this area, and my limited experience of these have been pretty nice, but not quite as good).  This isn't just a nice syntax for iterating or filtering (although, again, how has there not been a better native support for find/findAll in Java until now?), but also the support for more Functional Programming techniques such as Map-Reduce.
  • Another simple nice feature that adds readability and conciseness - being able to simply assert if ( list )  or if ( map ) to determine if a collection has any values is great.
  • Automatic getters and setters - this is a nice one in theory. I agree that it makes no sense to always have to create getters and setters for everything (even if it is normally the IDE generating them), and I like the dot notation for accessing them.  At first glance it feels like it is breaking the encapsulation of the object (and really maybe they should have implemented this feature as an annotation rather than messing with the standard Java access modifier behaviour) - but really its just doing what you would do by hand - if you leave your variables as default modifier (and don't add your own getters and setters) then Groovy will add the, at compile time, and you are free to use the getter and setter methods throughout the code. The idea that you then use private modifier for variables that you want for just internal use and not exposed. However, there is a long standing bug that means this doesn't work, and you actually get getters and setters for everything! Still, a nice idea.

It's not quite a farewell, as I will continue to use Groovy (partly because I still enjoy using Spring framework so much) for the time being, and only time will tell whether Scala and some other frameworks take its place as my go to hobbyist platform of choice!

1 comment:

  1. Tysvm for posting this. It sounds like if someone has been doing Java for ages, has transitioned to also doing Groovy, they are more optimally set up for enjoying a transition to Scala. IOW, if one is using Groovy for normal work but then runs into a performance limited issue, given their Groovy expertise, they might find the strongly typed Scala a more enjoyable and performant option than returning to Java.