I've spent the last three weeks working part time on a project called LPW at work. LPW is a set of web services that talk with the Swedish student databases. The libraries are implemented in Java and deployed with Axist. My project was to create a web system that students can use to access various LPW services. We had a an old implementation of this, written in Java with uPortal as a framework, but for the new implementation we decided that using Ruby on Rails would be interesting and probably worthwhile.
I've spent about 40 hours on the implementation. I did everything except the user interface. I got finished HTML-pages and integrated these with the system. Initially we expected the complete development to take about 120-150 hours with Ruby and about 250 if we did it in Java. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure the Java version would have taken more than that; probably between 350 and 400 hours. Since I wrote the first version in Java I can say this pretty accurately.
So, did I have any interesting experiences while writing this system? Oh yes; otherwise I wouldn't be writing. First of all, I managed to release two plugins in the process of this project. More information about them can be found in older blog entries. I also tried Mongrel for the first time, and I just have to say that I will never go back to WEBrick.
But the most interesting part with using Ruby was that I would have to get SOAP4R and Axis to work together. In the process I found some interesting things. Let me describe the relevant layout of my application.
The project goal was to implement 4-6 different services, which are all available as separate WSDL-files. I generated the drivers for these with wsdl2ruby. After generating the clients for each, I renamed the driver.rb into for example addr_driver.rb, and created a file called lpw_valueobjects.rb where I put all valueobjects found in defaultDriver.rb. I then repeated this process for each service. I then put all these files into the directory RAILS_ROOT/vendor/lpw.
Now, hitting one or two web services each time a student goes to a page isn't really realistic, so I decided early to implement some way of caching the results of the service calls. Since the data in question is pretty static this works well.
So, to integrate the services into Rails, I created a base class called LPWObject in the models-directory. In this class I defined self.wsdl_class and a few other helpers that let me transparently handle the caching of service-classes without actually having them inside the LPWObject itself. This becomes important when I want to save the results in the session. Ruby can't marshal classes which have singleton methods, and WSDL2Ruby depends heavily on singleton methods for the service client.
The first problem with getting Ruby and Java to work over Soap was with swedish characters. When I added something like "Gävlegatan 74" to an attribute and then tried to send this over soap, Soap4R transformed the attribute type into Base64 instead of xsd:String. Suffice to say, Axis didn't really like this. The solution was to add $KCODE="UTF8" to environment.rb. This let's Soap4R believe that åäöÅÄÖ is part of regular strings.
The next problem came when I tried to save some of the value objects into the session. After looking for a long while, I found that if the value object had an attribute called "not", WSDL2Ruby didn't generate an
for this until at runtime, which creates singleton methods on the value object. The solution was to add these accessors by myself. I'm not sure why wsdl2ruby does it like this, but probably there is some weird interaction with the not keyword in Ruby.
The final problem - which I'm not sure if I should blame Axis or Soap4R for - came when one of the value objects contained a byte array with a PDF-file. For some reason Axis sends the regular response XML looking fine, but before and after there are some garbled data. It looks like Axis actually sends the byte data as an attachment too, not just inside the byte array. Soap4R didn't handle this at all, and I got an "illegal token" from the XML parser. The solution to this problem is the worst one, and I should really send a bug report about this, but I haven't had the time yet. Anyway, to fix it, I monkeypatched SOAP::HTTPStreamHandler, and aliased the method send. Inside my new send method I first called the old one, then use a regexp to extract only the xml-parts of the response and reset the receive_string to this. It fixes my problem and works fairly well, but it isn't pretty.
So, in conclusion, Soap4R and Axis seem to work good together, except for a few corner cases. I'm really happy about a project that could've taken 10 times longer to complete, though.