UGS 2.0 to Netbeans Platform first impressions

For the past year Universal G-code Sender has suffered pretty severe feature creep. Lots of people had lots of good ideas, but it made the front end code confusing and hard to extend. In large part this is just because it's hard to compartmentalize a complex GUI. GRBL has had a lot of interesting features added in the past year which are begging to be leveraged, but UGS wasn't in a position to use them. With all this in mind I started trying to come up with a solution.

The first step was to decouple the "model" object from the GUI. Inspiration for this started nearly a year ago when Bob Jones implemented a web interface for UGS. Bob made a thin API layer which exposed a few simple functions and allowed him to build a completely separate web-based user interface. This pattern is known as Model-View-Presenter, and allows for multiple front ends which use the same back end code. It enhances test-ability of the business logic and helps facilitate a flexible front end. It didn't take more than a few hours to flesh out the rest of the functions this API needed so that the thin API exposed all of the back end features needed for the classic UGS GUI. After that it was a matter of re-implementing the Swing GUI to utilize the new API.

With the foundation laid it was time to consider what to build on top of it. Rugbymauri on github clued me into an idea that more experienced GUI developers have probably known for a long time: plugin based applications. Then he took it a step further and told me about the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (Eclipse RCP) and the Netbeans Platform. After some initial investigation I decided to pursue Netbeans Platform.

It took about a week for me to completely settle on the idea of a plugin based architecture. In the end, it was a perfect fit for UGS. The back end application already had features for sending status updates to any number of front end listeners. This has been used by the Visualizer from day one, it is a completely separate GUI component and it listens to the same back end events as the main GUI. Something like the Netbeans Platform would take this a step further and facilitate the creation of these modules - whereas in the classic UGS interface all these windows are managed in a monolithic "MainWindow" class.

Moving forward the concept of modules allows me to think about other features in a way that wont cause the code to feel bloated. For instance - how would a Gcode editor that can highlight some number of lines and have it displayed in the 3D visualizer? In the classic interface this would be a huge undertaking that would massively complicate the "MainWindow". On the other hand with a modular design there just needs to be a new "Editor" module, the Netbeans Platform handles sharing of the gcode file and provides APIs for binding selection events between the Editor and Visualizer. What would have been a week of effort could now be done in an afternoon or two. By the way, the Netbeans Platform also comes with all the modules created for the Netbeans IDE, so it already has GUI components for a code editor with breakpoints (Breakpoints? Maybe another afternoon).

There are a few areas that I'm not sold on yet, for instance UGS already has several observer API's and I'm not sure if I'll convert them to use corresponding Netbeans Platform features. Also the library wrapper modules are a little kludgy, especially if your project is built using a separate library jar like UGS is. Every time I rebuild my library jar I need to update the library wrapper module. The workaround I settled on was to modify my library's build script to dump the jar inside the library wrapper module, a side effect to which is that if I do a clean on that project it breaks the library wrapper.

The UGS Platform, UGS's 2.0 release, is currently in a proof of concept state. All the major integration has been done, now its a matter of creating all the different modules that exist in the Classic GUI. After that other features features of the Netbeans Platform can be leveraged for things like integrated Preferences and Configuration menu's, and default Window layout schemes.


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