Java: Brewed to perfection?
- By Deborah Melewski
The Java programming language was born amidst a flurry of promises that included
reduced development costs, platform independence and lower maintenance overhead.
As with any new technology in its infancy, Java was put through its paces and
scrutinized at every turn.
Were the last five years a case of Java jive? Not at all, according to those
who have worked closely with the language. With some nurturing by parent Sun
Microsystems, Java is widely used today and measures up well to its claims.
Indications are that for moderate-sized applications, at least, Java has broken
through some of the performance barriers it had to overcome. Advances in optimizing
compilers are largely to thank, although experience gained architecting Java
applications may be equally as important.
One of the leading criticisms to consistently plague Java is its performance.
When stacked up against its most recent predecessors -- C++, for example --
Java was proclaimed to be very slow once deployed on the Internet.
Sun has acknowledged the importance of the performance issue and has, in fact,
taken steps to help boost Java performance. "Customers have insatiable wants
when it comes to performance," said Gina Centoni, director of Java platform
product marketing at Sun. "They are constantly pushing the buttons on all of
their systems, creating greater and greater dependencies and more complex systems.
As a result, their performance requirements continue to increase," she added.
"So performance is a space we continuously invest in."
Others are also hot on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) performance trail. IBM
has its own technology, Oracle has built the JVM into pieces of Oracle 8i, and
Austin, Texas-based Tower Technology Corp. offers the TowerJ Java deployment
In a move to further increase Java server-side performance, Sun has released
HotSpot, its next-generation JVM. The HotSpot VM is accompanied by a compiler
for server applications. According to Centoni, HotSpot for Servers has already
provided significant performance increases.
In a significant move for Sun, Java 2 Standard Edition Version 1.3 will replace
the classic JVM with the HotSpot VM as the default runtime. It will be available
as the standard build during the first quarter of next year.
Centoni explained that there are significant differences between client and
server performance issues. While Java and the JVM predominantly have roles on
the server side, the client side has had its share of performance woes. Sun
will also reach out to accelerate applications on the client early next year
with the release of yet another new compiler.
"More recently most of the performance criticisms have been in the area of
client performance," said Centoni. "For example, this involves how quickly your
Java applications open, how quickly they refresh on screen, and how quickly
you can download an applet into your application."
While the VM plays a key factor in Java performance, there are many other
things to consider. "In the user's experience, Java plays only about 25% of
the performance role, and that falls under the VM and Java runtime," said Centoni.
"We take that role very seriously and we're constantly optimizing; we've made
big investments there."
>p> Ironically, the root of Java's performance problems may be the technology's
most widely touted virtue: portability. Because Java is an interpreted language
portable across so many different platforms, a virtual machine is required to
convert Java bytecode into the zeros and ones of machine-level code for each
specific piece of hardware and operating system encountered. [In fact, some
developers advocate use of static, or non-interpreted, virtual machines that
can draw out the best performance of an individual platform. Portland, Ore.-based
Instantiations Inc., for example, offers the Jove tools suite, including a native
optimizing compiler for Windows, to meet such needs.]
The HotSpot performance engine is said to speed execution of Java bytecode,
which is particularly helpful in enterprise server environments that use multiple-processor
platforms and multithreading.
However, the JVM cannot be Java's silver bullet. There are at least three
factors remaining outside of the JVM's reach that can make or break Java performance.
The first is the operating system and hardware platform the applications will
run on. Obviously, a variety of platforms are found on the Internet. The problem?
Some are bigger, better and faster than others.
Also factoring into Java performance is the use of native code libraries to
perform certain GUI-related functions. Because these specific pieces of code
run directly on the operating system, and not through the JVM, they have remained
somewhat out of the realm of Java.
The third performance factor is application design and architecture. This
area has improved substantially now that Java and those developing with the
language have been around the block a few times. There are a number of ways
to design (and not to design) a Java application that can help. There are also
various ways to code and deploy that will help with the way an application performs.
Often, these performance problems derive from communication back and forth over
the network. Servlets, many say, are an appropriate technique to meet some of
these issues. As well, problems can arise as a result of object-oriented programs
in terms of object creation or collection.
According to Centoni, IT professionals making application decisions need to
be acutely aware of these issues. It is important to take into consideration
the bigger picture, including such things as how you have designed your application,
and where you plan to deploy it.
Sun, third-party tools providers and those using the technology in development
have been able to piece together, and oftentimes share, solutions and experiences
that address some of these areas. There are many radically different approaches
that can be taken. For example, if you are designing a plain vanilla form for
data entry, Java is not going to be your best solution. HTML or eXtensible Markup
Language (XML)-based solutions would be better choices.
Importance of good design
Michael Denley, vice president of software services at Rorke Data Inc., Eden
Prairie, Minn., has strong feelings about the role design plays in Java performance.
"We hear sometimes rightly but most times wrongly that Java is getting a rap
for poor performance," said Denley. "We always respond, 'Not our Java.'"
Denley firmly believes that poor performance typically stems from the way
the application was designed and developed. "We spend a lot of time in our design
to make sure we use good object-oriented programming practices," he said, explaining
that the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and tools from Rational Software have
been implemented to support design.
Rorke Data is the maker of the 100% pure Java-certified FLEXSTOR.db data warehouse
repository for digital content and asset management. Now in its fifth release,
FLEXSTOR.db handles millions of pieces of information or business assets that
include pictures, sounds and movies. These pieces are all indexed by the system
and can be easily moved around on the Internet.
|Cross-platform support was a major criteria in the company's
choice of Java and the Oracle tools from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle
Corp. "One of the most significant Java advantages, from a development point
of view, is that it gives us a strong and stable set of source code," said
We hear sometimes ... that Java is getting a rap for poor performance.
We always respond 'Not our Java.'"
-- Michael Denley,
"It's a universal language that you can develop once and use across multiple
platforms. If I did this in C++, I'd have variations for each of the platforms
I supported because of different libraries and platform issues."
"All designs have limitations," said Joe Mullen, product manager at Rorke.
"You need experience to know how to do things right; it's just like any other
language in that respect. For example, if you code C wrong you're going to have
memory leaks and crash -- and that's not good for performance, either.
"With Java, you have different issues such as garbage collection. But if you
spend the time to do it right in the Java world then it performs very well,"
said Mullen, adding that testing tools for analyzing object leaks and performance
bottlenecks in the code itself are also critical to the outcome.
Rorke Data does not use Sun's HotSpot technology, but instead takes advantage
of virtual machines in the Oracle Application Server (OAS) and Oracle database
for performance. The company takes advantage of the VM in the database by putting
persistent JavaBeans in the database.
According to Mullen, Rorke is getting all the performance it requires from
Oracle 8i. "From a performance standpoint, HotSpot would be more applicable
to us on the server side, and we don't have any performance problems
inherent on what we're doing on the server."
In fact, the company has found its main performance problems to be associated
with communications over the network. Because of the large amounts of content
being moved, tasks such as bringing images in the database down to the client
can be slow. Sometimes these issues are a result of slower modem speeds, but
in many cases the problems can be minimized with the management and caching
technologies provided by Oracle.
According to Vince Casarez, Oracle's vice president of tools marketing, performance
issues need to be addressed in both the development and deployment of Java applications.
"Oracle leverages Sun's Java 2 spec to be able to plug-in some areas we can
speed up on the development side, such as garbage collection, memory management
and so on," he explained.
Jeremy Burton, vice president of server marketing and Oracle technology networks,
added that "on the server side in deployment, Java got a reputation for being
slow because what people initially tried to do with Java was to build the same
kind of user interfaces they had used in client/server.
"Sun has worked a lot over the last couple of years to improve performance
on the client side," said Burton. "The HotSpot initiative helps as well, speeding
the execution of bytecode so that user interfaces respond better and work more
like Windows applications."
Burton has also found that the world has changed somewhat. "People are not
trying to rebuild Windows client/server applications in Java; by and large,
people are now using HTML for their user interface and then [running] all the
Java code on the server," he said.
What Oracle may be touting is purely server-side Java. The company emphasizes
scalability rather than flat-out performance because the bottleneck is usually
the network when accessing information, not the raw execution of code on the
Another company that finds most performance hits stemming from the network
itself is EH Sof-solutions, Omaha, Neb. Two years ago the firm chose VisualCafé
from Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. as its standard Java development
EH Sofsolutions consults with and mentors companies embracing new technologies
such as the Internet, e-commerce and Java. The firm is currently using Java
and VisualCafé to develop a distributed decision support system (DSS) for a
large company in the transportation industry.
People accessing the DSS are out in the field moving goods. The DSS tracks
movement, equipment and personnel. Java's portability has particularly benefited
this project because the transportation company has a wide mix of platforms,
including NT, Novell, NCR, HP, Solaris, AIX and OS/390. The system accesses
data on the mainframe, while the server side runs on HP boxes. Out in the field,
the clients are mixed, but a majority are Windows NT-based.
The new DSS uses BEA's WebLogic Java Application Server and Tuxedo for transaction
processing. Java's portability has also played a role in increasing server performance
with its ability to spread the application out among all the servers to balance
the load. "With the Java tools, there's a framework in place so we don't have
to be concerned about what we're running on or where we're running. It's all
handled for us," explained Curtis Palm, CEO at EH Sofsolutions.
Java performance has not been a major concern for the company. "Some of the
biggest hits we've seen in performance are in the network itself, when moving
information around," said Palm. "Java solves a lot of that with its ability
to easily move objects around; for example, you can do number-crunching on the
client box and then just send the object back.
"A lot of the performance bottlenecks I've personally witnessed have been
in poorly architected systems," added Palm. "For example, where you see a lot
of object creation or a lot of memory storage. Or when you're doing way too
much with code in memory that's not actually being touched," he said. "These
things can't be attributed to Java itself, rather to the architecture when someone
didn't understand multithreading or object-oriented concepts [very] well."
EH Sofsolutions uses Symantec's JIT compiler. Palm notes that HotSpot technology
"works well if you have applications that are doing a lot of things repetitively,
because it becomes more efficient the more you use it." Palm was quick to point
out that if there is a one-time load, you do not really benefit from the technology
that much. "But if it is something in a 24x7 application, it tends to work very
well," he added.
Palm also strongly recommends the use of testing and debugging tools to help
ensure performance. He has found the Symantec tools to be very good in debugging
code, and has also brought in additional code coverage and analysis tools, including
JProbe from KL Group and DevPartner from Compuware/NuMega.
"As you're creating your code, also take a look to see if you can identify
performance bottlenecks," suggests Palm. "These types of problems are usually
about 20% of the code, but 80% of the work. If you can identify that and smooth
out the rough edges, then you will be in much better shape as the project unfolds,"
"You can also use these tools to look at your code retroactively, to see where
the big footprints are or why something is taking so long to load. Even if you
can't go back and fix it, you'll learn from it for your next project," said
Palm concluded that performance all falls back on the architecture. "It's
a new world; we must be very concerned about the distributed nature of it and
what events you're triggering, where they're going and how they're playing out,"
he noted. "It's not like Visual Basic, where you can draw a few controls on
a form, hook it up to a database and life is good."
Roadmap to experience
Concept Five Technologies, a McLean, Va.-based applications integrator, has
a number of corporate-based frameworks with Java implementations, along with
a number of Java-centric professional services engagements at Fortune 500 companies.
John Marsh, senior distributed project architect at Concept Five, started
working with Java as a high-level designer even before Sun's official announcement
of the language. He cites HotSpot as one of the technologies coming to speed
up Java. "HotSpot does more tuning and looks harder at what's happening as it
decides what's worth compiling," explained Marsh.
Marsh also points out that there are alternatives to HotSpot. "IBM has their
own technology, and Oracle has built the JVM into front-end pieces of Oracle,"
he said. "There are also compilers that compile Java code to native object code
While this is a reasonable thing to do for server platforms, it obviously
does not work for downloadable applets. But if you are building server systems,
you can pick the best performance approach for a particular situation or platform.
Marsh also suggests that there are system or Java profilers that can help tune
systems, as well as help find the pieces of an application that run more slowly
A real performance barrier on the Internet is the downloading of code, according
to Marsh. "A lot of systems people have realized they didn't need that as much
as they thought they did. When Java originally came out it offered a lot of
things you couldn't do with standard HTML," said Marsh. "While Java is still
much better for highly interactive systems, there are areas such as filling
e-business forms that can be handled with 1K of an HTML file just as well as
if 100K of Java code had been used."
User interface tools can help
While object-oriented programs can be an issue, Java performance woes ultimately
come down to the interpretation situation, said Darren Cervantes, associate
product manager at Boulder, Colo.-based Rogue Wave Software. "It's been a classic
problem for the Java language. It's an interpreted language, and to whittle
that down to a high-performance model has taken some time," he said.
Cervantes believes that the industry is just getting into improved performance
with some of the new JVMs like HotSpot, TowerJ and IBM's new JVM. "Hopefully,
with those JVMs we will see a large boost in the performance of the Java code
as it is optimized at runtime instead of just interpreted as bytecode the way
it has been," he said.
Another way to boost performance, said Cervantes, is to use thin-client applications.
"A developer should pay attention to how much space the client side of an application
is using," he said. "Developers can create a wonderful user interface, but the
time it takes the user to download the UI and then use the particular component
may take longer than it needs to depending on how well designed it is and whether
it includes excess language."
Essentially, the thin client means the developer has taken pains to boil it
down to the minimum necessary code. A lot of the functionality can then be put
back on the server because that is traditionally a much more powerful machine.
To help create the thin client-side user interface, Rogue Wave Software offers
StudioJ, a suite of Java-Beans components and classes. StudioJ provides developers
with full libraries, and includes all source code and make files. StudioJ is
also written in 100% Java and supports most Java IDEs
Bob Bickel, senior vice president of products at Mount Laurel, N.J.-based
Bluestone Software, recognizes that Java is still a fairly new language and
therefore has not been thoroughly optimized. However, he finds that the many
positives -- such as Java's cross-platform capabilities -- far outweigh any
of the negatives.
Bluestone offers the Sapphire/Web Application Server and the Bluestone XML
Server. "On the Bluestone server-side Java code, we make zero changes when we
move it from NT to Linux, to Solaris, to AS/400 to OS/390. We have a big application
server that is very robust and has a lot of complexity to it," explained Bickel.
"For us to be able to make zero code changes to do all those platforms is just
mind-boggling to me."
Bluestone's application server is set such that the Java runtime environment
is linearly scalable as well as fault tolerant, meaning that any number of application
servers can be put together to handle the load of users coming into a Web site,
Another performance plus in this environment, said Bickel, is that the plug
can be pulled on any one of those servers and the users will not see any downtime.
They will simply be rerouted to another server. "The Java instructions may be
running a little bit slower, but the fact that you can just add computers to
solve a performance problem in a way eliminates that issue," said Bickel.
Information Technology Resources (ITR), Buena Park, Calif., is an outsourcing
company working with American Isuzu Motors based in Orange County, Calif. American
Isuzu Motors supports a nationwide network of some 750 truck and SUV dealers
with its Dealer Communications System (DCS) applications.
DCS is basically a series of programs and screens that allow dealers to communicate
around the country with the manufacturer to order spare parts, report retail
sales of vehicles and submit warranty claims. The system was running CICS COBOL
and Objectstar applications on the mainframe.
"Our charge was to move that antiquated system up to state-of-the-art technology,"
said Jim Turner, ITR group manager. "We chose Java and Internet technologies
to do that. Our new implementation is Java going to a Web server that's physically
running on the mainframe in our data center. The Java links directly to CICS
COBOL," he explained.
"We chose to go with Java based on development time, and the fact that IBM
was touting a product suite that included a Java IDE, the Web server and the
Java gateway that would allow legacy-to-Web applications," said Turner.
"The alternative would have been an architecture with a big NT database in
the middle. We would have had to write code to go from the PCs at the dealerships
to the database and the mainframe, and back," he explained. "This was an extra
overhead layer we didn't want to deal with."
With the new architecture, dealers use a dial-up 800-number. They download
Web pages in Java applets, which are, in essence, application screens. Some
of the dealers have older PCs and modems, which means slower connect speeds.
Turner noted that "anything we can do to reduce the size of what's going across
the pipe enhances performance."
For Turner, Java performance can be a concern, but he stressed that it depends
a lot on the platform it is put on. To address performance, the company is using
Sun's JVM, which Turner has found to be slower than some of the others out there.
"We chose Sun because of its pure support of the Java development environment
and runtime," he noted.
"The problem we had with performance on our system was due more to the loading
of applets off of our Web page for people coming in from dial-up," said Turner.
"We're going to move to servlets. The application has two sections; the piece
on the PC that runs applets runs just fine. The applets download time from the
server, however, is significant."
For tools, ITR uses IBM VisualAge Java, Lotus Domino Go Web Server on the
mainframe, and IBM's WebSphere. From Phoenix-based UniKix Technologies, ITR
brought in 3270 ScreenBean, a JavaBean that provides direct access to legacy
mainframe 3270 applications; and PathFinder, which automates navigation through
legacy 3270 applications and identifies data fields to be shared with other
Turner has also looked at Sun's HotSpot technology, and is hoping that it
may help to speed up some of the servlets on the host. ITR has not yet implemented
HotSpot, because at the moment, according to Turner, the company is heavily
focused on trying to get all of the new applications out.
According to David Matthews, vice president of marketing at UniKix, Java started
out very much as a client language. "We were seeing a lot of the same performance
issues in client/server. By and large, a lot people are aware of those issues
now, and we're seeing interest in switching to the server side," he said.
In addition to seeing improvement in JVM and compiler technology, Barry Tait,
sales engineer at UniKix, noted that there are performance gains in moving to
"In the past, there were some problems due to download times, particularly
in downloading applets," said Tait. "Thirty seconds to a minute to download
is far too long. We've found that with servlets, once they are cached in memory,
subsequent access becomes faster."
Matthews believes that Java on the server side will be the next enterprise
language, replacing COBOL over time. "Java is where the bulk of new apps will
be written," he said. "We have to bring our systems software architecture into
a full Java environment and that's what we're in the middle of doing right now."
With all the benefits of Java, is performance truly an issue these days? Concept
Five's Marsh believes that it is getting to the point where performance is certainly
not a deterrent to a large percentage of applications. For real high-volume
software or real-time systems, however, he believes it will still be a barrier.