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[Caml-list] Web Development with OCaml
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Date: 2001-07-13 (05:36)
From: William Chesters <williamc@p...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] Web Development with OCaml
   I once had ideas for an ocaml-based webapp framework, which ended
up as Melati http://melati.org --- in Java (servlets), for the usual
reasons :(.

   Melati is not quite as tidy or as fast as it would have been in
ocaml, but we think it has some good ideas, and it has been used for
enough commercial projects to prove them sound and practical.  All of
them would work very nicely in ocaml, because that's what they were
really inspired by!

   Incidentally I can't see any reason why one shouldn't connect an
ocaml servlet runner to Apache/Tomcat: the protocol is well defined
and not Java-specific.

   The key points are: object database with access protection,
type-sensitive templating system, and generic admin system.

   Apologies that this is rather off topic for caml-list --- maybe
we should take the web development discussion to sourceforge!

   -- An object-oriented database on top of JDBC (SQL).  You specify
a "table hierarchy" using a Java-like schema file, which maps onto a
machine-generated Java class hierarchy plus a set of SQL tables and
indexes to serve as backing store.

   Then accessing your data is as easy as product.getDescription(),
product.setDescription("blah"), or book.getAuthor().getName() with
inter-object references being resolved automatically.
What goes on behind your back is:

      o  Objects---rows, as far as SQL is concerned---are stored on
         the Java side in an LRU cache.  (For some applications,
         this cacheing is enough of a speed win to offset all the
         overhead associated with the OODB and then some.)

      o  You can add your own Java methods to objects, alongside
         the automatically generated accessors.

      o  Each thread is associated with its own SQL transaction.
         Consistency is ensured by object- and where necessary
         table-level locking.

      o  At the end of a transaction, changes you have made to
         objects via set-methods are either written down to SQL
         and committed, or rolled back if an exception was thrown.

      o  Reads and writes of object properties are access-checked.
         The db administrator can protect tables via a user/group/
         capability system, and the programmer can implement
         programmatic checks where necessary.

      o  Each thread is considered to be running on behalf of a
         user (or more generally has an "access token" granting
         certain capabilities).  The standard Melati servlet
         base class sets up the user from a cookie or from
         HTTP basic authentication; the login process is
         triggered transparently to the programmer by access
         exceptions which arise when data is not accessible to
         the "guest" user.

The object database provides the ideal platform on which to rest your
application logic and dynamic content generation: you have a much less
verbose, less fussy, more abstract, more programmable, and safer
interface to your data.

   You do not have to worry about SQL connections, result sets,
transactions, access checking, login, or _anything_.  It is all
completely transparent, so the data really just look like standard
Java objects to the application logic and content generator.  Indeed
the SQL backend could be replaced entirely by something else, except
that we provide access to literal SQL queries (returning object
streams or just fields) for those times when they are very handy.

   camlp4 is perfect for compiling the schema, ocaml objects are
the perfect model for such an OODB, and the details of things like
building up and verifying the SQL database at startup time would be
much easier to handle in ocaml than Java.

   Furthermore, such a thing might be nice to have for all kinds of
non-web ocaml applications.

   -- A "templating engine" for rendering content pages.  We almost
always use webmacro or velocity with Melati.  All that is required is
to map constructs like

     <P>From: $message.author.name</P>


     output_string o "<P>From: ";
     output_string o message#author#name;
     output_string o "</P>"

plus conditional and iteration constructs.  This is laughably trivial
using camlp4 and ocaml classes: it would be easy to achieve much
better efficiency and type-safety than webmacro, without sacrificing

   One thing we have found extremely useful is the facility to say
in a template


and have that expand to an appropriate HTML input box, or dropdown, or
whatever as appropriate, depending on the type of the field.
We use the object database's type system, which is an enriched version
of SQL's type system, to name sub-templates (or "templets"), such
as this one for integer values:

    ## File org.melati.poem.IntegerPoemType.wm : the templet used
    ## for rendering fields of Integer type.

    <INPUT NAME="field_$ml.rendered($field.Name)" SIZE=$field.Width

    ## Add hooks to validate values entered in the field using
    ## our client-side Javascript library

    <SCRIPT LANGUAGE=JavaScript1.2>

Administrators can tweak the way individual fields are rendered by
setting parameters such as field width through the admin interface,
and if necessary can override the type-default templet for a field
with something completely different.

   -- A web-based data browsing, data entry and admin system.  As soon
as you start up your Melati application, you can call up forms for
searching, data entry etc.  This is also where the admin can do user
management and access control.  See for instance


   Anyway, there it is.  As you can probably tell, I would love
to discuss our experiences with Melati, and more details of scheme we
have worked out, if it helps something similar come to life in my
favourite language!  There is much more to say and our code is
probably readable enough to serve as a source of inspiration.
Unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to do actual coding.

   Note by the way that Melati is structured as a set of auxiliary
libraries, not an overarching "environment" which smothers you and
constrains your freedom.  Your web app is structured as a standard
Java servlet, i.e. a fairly normal program, or it could even be CGI or
anything else.  But it still gets to leverage Melati's productivity- and
quality-enhancing facilities.

   The sources are at http://melati.org/cgi-bin/cvsweb.cgi/org/melati .
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