Data entry form is the common use case in an interactive application. Application displayes a data entry form and collects user input. If entered data is correct, application accepts is and displays a success message. Otherwise, application redisplays the data entry form along with relevant errors, the user fixes the errors and submits the form again.
In this use case a user is allowed to fill out the form in several attempts, while the form preserves data entered by the user on previous attempts.
Struts framework is built around the Front Controller pattern. This pattern gives no guidelines on how consecutive requests should interact with each other and with business objects, neither does it specify how the application should manage the view state and the state of the business object.
Left to their own devices and constrained with framework limitations, web developers devised the pattern for building interactive forms with Struts. For the lack of a better approach this pattern became a standard practice in Struts community.
An interactive web application operates in two phases. On render phase (or output phase) browser requests a web resource to render itself. On accept phase (or submit phase) browser sends input data to a web resource, usually by submitting an HTML form.
Struts implements this two-phase request/response approach utilizing setup/submit pattern and two types of actions:
setup action (pre-action, output action, render action) prepares output data before displaying a JSP page;
submit action (post-action, input action, accept action) accepts user input.
Setup/submit action pattern is a standard practice for building interactive application with Struts.
It is common to have several actions of either type for a web resource. For example, if you deal with Customer web resource, you are likely to define two setup actions: viewCustomer.do and editCustomer.do and three submit actions: addCustomer.do, updateCustomer.do and deleteCustomer.do.
Setup action loads data from database and queues it into one or more arbitrary objects located in the request or session scope. Submit action processes input data and redisplays the same data entry form if errors has been found in the input. If input does not contain errors, submit action forwards to a success page.
This approach is not perfect:
- Classic setup/submit pattern is focused on a JSP page, not on a web resource in general.
- Every page of a web resource is likely to have its own pair of setup and submit actions. The picture above represents one JSP page and two actions associated with it. More pages, more actions, and things can quickly get out of control.
One web resource is defined with several action mappings in the struts-config.xml file as well as with several Java classes.
- Output data is scattered in an uncontrolled manner throughout request and session scope.
- In case of error the data entry form is redisplayed by a submit action; that opens a whole can of worms:
- If input data is invalid and autovalidation is turned on, a submit action class is never get called and cannot affect the workflow.
- One page is represented with two different URLs in the browser.
- An attempt to refresh a page after it has been redisplayed causes double submit.
Success page often corresponds to a logically different web resource, this leads to a spaghetti code both in Java code as well as in struts-config.xml file.
The remainder of this page shows the ways to improve classic Setup/Submit pattern.
Step 1: Share one ActionForm as input/output buffer
ActionForm was originally designed to collect request data. Despite of that, online poll shows that about 60% of Struts users employ ActionForm as the holder of output data as well. This makes a lot of sense:
Setup action populates ActionForm and its nested properties with business data and forwards to a JSP page.
JSP page displays a data entry form filled in with information from the ActionForm.
When HTML form is submitted, the ActionForm is populated automatically by Struts with values from the request.
- If input is invalid, data entry form is redisplayed; it will contain data submitted by a user on a previous step.
Therefore, instead of queueing output data to arbitrary objects in request or session scope, a setup action fills out an ActionForm as the holder of input/output data. Mappings of both setup action and submit action would refer to the same ActionForm in their "name" attribute.
Shared ActionForm makes it easy to preserve incremental changes made by a user in a data entry form and ensures, that all data related to a particular web resourse, is neatly stored in one place.
Step 2: Do not forward to a page that does not belong to current web resource
A submit action should not forward to a success page belonging to another logical web resource. Instead, it should forward (or even better, redirect) to a setup action of the success page. This allows to break a convoluted M:M relationship between actions and pages down to simple and observable 1:M relationship. That is, several pages should correspond to one web resource, not the opposite!
Another benefit of transferring to an action instead of a page is that you don't need to care about what will be displayed on success page. You do not have to select a proper page and you do not need to setup output data for that page. This is the business of the web resource you are transferring to, this is what its setup action should do.
With this simple change an application can be broken into separate independent chunks. There is no need to build inflexible "flow" from one page to another. Proper page is selected and displayed by its respective setup action.
Step 3: Do not use autovalidation
Turn autovalidation off and perform validation manually. This ensures your full control over input data and over the workflow. With autovalidation turned off your action class will always be called, so you can make a better decision what to do in case of error, whether you want to redisplay the same data entry form, shoud you transfer the control to another web resource or maybe you need to modify your business object instead.
Step 4: Reload setup action to redisplay a page
Autovalidation is used together with "input" attribute of action mapping in struts-config.xml file. If ActionForm.validate returns non-empty error object during autovalidation, Struts forwards to location defined in the "input" attribute. Usually, it is the same data entry form that was just submitted. Therefore, the same form can be represented in the browser with two different URLs: one URL when it is rendered by a setup action, and another URL when it is redisplayed by a submit action. In most cases browser is forwarded to the page, not redirected, so an attempt to refresh a page after it has been redisplayed causes double submit.
These are techniques worth considering when you need to redisplay data entry form:
Forward to data entry page from submit action, use Struts token feature to catch the resubmit. This approach does not protect a user from an unfriendly POSTDATA message and it does not help with two URLs situation. Use this approach if your ActionForm is request-scoped and you want to reuse data entered by a user.
- Forward to a setup action (not directly to a page) to better separate your input and output code. This approach ensures that each of your action classes perfoms only the tasks in is intended to perform: submit action should not render a page.
Redirect to a setup action (not directly to a page) appending a business object ID and another relevant information to the target URL. This approach eliminates resubmit on page refresh, and it solves dual URLs issue. Use this option if you want to provide the better and cleaner user experience but you don't want to use session-scoped ActionForms. Your setup action must be able to initialize the ActionForm using ID and another request parameters that you have sent in redirected request. If your data entry form is quite large, sending all information in a redirected request may not be feasible.
Redirect to a setup action (not directly to a page), keeping data entered by a user in a session-scoped ActionForm. This approach is user-friendly, it eliminates resubmit on page refresh, solves dual URLs issue and provides a clean redirected URL. The only downside of it is keeping ActionForm in the session between requests; this may not be desirable for some applications.
These techniques (except the first one) can be commonly called as action reloading, because a page is redisplayed using the same setup action that was used for for initial page display. Using redirection instead of forwarding protects from implicit double submit and hides the submit URL from the browser and from the user. This way a page is visible and accessible only with setup (render) URL.
Step 5: Initialize ActionForm manually in setup action
ActionForm should be populated only on submit phase. To protect ActionForm from unintended modification by setup action, do not set "name" attribute in setup action mapping. This will prevent Struts from instantiating and populating the ActionForm. To setup ActionForm data you need to instantiate it yourself and to put in into appropriate scope, either into request or into session. You will also have to refer to the ActionForm explicitly using "name" attribute of your input elements.
Step 6: Consolidate your actions; use DispatchAction flavor or action dispatcher for submit action
A simple web resource like Customer can have couple of setup action mappings like viewCustomer.do and editCustomer.do and several submit action mappings like addCustomer.do, updateCustomer.do and deleteCustomer.do. Of course, this does not mean that you need to define five corresponding Java classes. It would be great if you could reduce number of action classes down to two: one setup action and one submit action per web resource. It would be also great to reduce number of action mappings in struts-config.xml file.
First, let us deal with setup actions. You can combine two aforementioned mappings into one setupCustomer.do and to differentiate between edit and view modes using a request parameter, like setupCustomer.do?mode=edit . Whether to use this approach or not depends on your idea of "clean URLs" and other factors.
Dealing with submit actions is a more straightforward process, just use one of DispatchAction flavors. Struts core library includes several dispatcher actions: DispatchAction, LookupDispatchAction an MappingDispatchAction. Despite of this variety, all these actions have their deficiences:
LookupDispatchAction is heavy, uses inverted reference to resource files.
MappingDispatchAction can be used to dispatch only one method.
Therefore I recommend using EventActionDispatcher to dispatch events to any arbitrary action class.
Step 7 (optional): Reduce number of actions down to one
EventActionDispatcher mentioned in the previous section, is pretty smart. It can detect the logical type of request that it receives: is it a render request or submit request. It does this by looking for event in the request.
If EventActionDispatcher finds event in the request, it calls the corresponding method handler. This is a submit phase. If dispatcher cannot find event in the request, it calls default method. This request is supposed to belong to render phase, so you can prepare the ActionForm and render a page.
As you can see from the picture, the whole web resource is now controlled with only one action class and has only one URL. Neat! A web resource can have several JSP pages corresponding to it, so you can choose a proper one depending on the incoming event and on the state of the resource. For example, if you create a login component, you may decide to have two pages: Login and Logout, and you can display either one depending on user login status.
Remember, the primary object in a web application is a web resource, not a page. A page is just a view; one web resource can have several views. Do not build application around pages, build it around web resources. In Struts, web resources are represented with Action and ActionForm classes.