Explicit types – and when to use them

Many modern programming languages offer a way declare variables without an explicit type if the type can be inferred, either dynamically or statically. Many also allow for variables to be explicitly defined with a type. For example, Scala and C# let you omit the explicit variable type via the var keyword, but both also allow defining variables with explicit types. I’m coming from the C++ world, where “auto” is available for this purpose since the relatively recent C++11. However, people are still debating whether you should actually use it.


Herb Sutter popularised the almost-always-auto style. He advocates that using more type inference is good because it is roughly equivalent to programming against interfaces instead of implementations. He says that “Overcommitting to explicit types makes code less generic and more interdependent, and therefore more brittle and limited.” However, he also mentions that you might sometimes want to use explicit types.

Now what exactly is overcommiting here? When is the right time to use explicit types?


Opponents to implicit typing, many of them experienced veterans, often state that they want the actual type visible in the source code. They don’t want to rely on type inference being right. They want the code to explicitly state what’s going on.

At first, I figured that was just conservatism in the face of a new “scary” feature that they did not fully understand. After all, IDEs can usually infer the type on-the-fly and you can hover on a variable to let it show you the type.

For C++, the function signature is a natural boundary where you often insert explicit types, unless you want to commit to the compile time and physical dependency cost that comes with templates. Other languages, such as Groovy, do not have this trade-off and let you skip explicit types almost everywhere. After working with Groovy/Grails for a while, where the dominant style seems to be to omit types whereever possible, it dawned on me that the opponents of implicit typing have a point. Not only does the IDE often fail to show me the inferred type (even though it still works way more often than I would have anticipated), but I also found it harder to follow and modify code that did not mention explicit types. Seemingly contrary to Herb Sutter’s argument, that code felt more brittle than I had liked.


As usual, the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. I propose the following rule for when to use explicit types:

  • Explicit typing for domain-types
  • Implicit typing everywhere else

Code using types from the problem domain should be as specific as possible. There’s no need for it to be generic – it’s actually counter-productive, as otherwise the code model would be inconsistent with model of the problem domain. This is also the most important aspect to grok when reading code, so it should be explicit. The type is as important as the action on it.

On the other hand, for pure-fabrication types that do not respresent a concept in the domain, the action is important, while the type is merely a means to achieve this action. Typically, most of the elements from a language’s standard library fall into this category. All your containers, iterators, callables. Their types are merely implementation details: an associative container could be an array, or a hash-map or a tree structure. Exchanging it rarely changes the meaning of the code in the problem domain – it just changes its performance characteristics.

Containers will occasionally contain domain-types in their type. What do you do about those? I think they belong in the “everywhere else” catergory, but you should be take extra care to name the contained type when working with it – for example when declaring the variable of the for-each loop on it, or when inserting something into it. This way, the “collection of domain-type” aspect will become clear, but the specific container implementation will stay implicit – like it should.

What do you think? Is this a useful proposition for your code?

How to speed up your ORM queries of n x m associations

What causes a speedup like this? (all numbers are in ms)

Disclaimer: the absolute benchmark numbers are for illustration purposes, the relationship and the speedup between the different approaches are important (just for the curious: I measured 500 entries per table in a PostgreSQL database with both Rails 4.1.0 and Grails 2.3.8 running on Java 7 on a recent MBP running OSX 10.8)

Say you have the model classes Book and (Book)Writer which are connected via a n x m table named Authorship:

A typical query would be to list all books with its authors like:

Fowler, Martin: Refactoring

A straight forward way is to query all authorships:

In Rails:

# 1500 ms
Authorship.all.map {|authorship| "#{authorship.writer.lastname}, #{authorship.writer.firstname}: #{authorship.book.title}"}

In Grails:

// 585 ms
Authorship.list().collect {"${it.writer.lastname}, ${it.writer.firstname}: ${it.book.title}"}

This is unsurprisingly not very fast. The problem with this approach is that it causes the famous n+1 select problem. The first option we have is to use eager fetching. In Rails we can use ‘includes’ or ‘joins’. ‘Includes’ loads the associated objects via additional queries, one for authorship, one for writer and one for book.

# 2300 ms
Authorship.includes(:book, :writer).all

‘Joins’ uses SQL inner joins to load the associated objects.

# 1000 ms
Authorship.joins(:book, :writer).all
# returns only the first element
Authorship.joins(:book, :writer).includes(:book, :writer).all

Additional queries with ‘includes’ in our case slows down the whole request but with joins we can more than halve our time. The combination of both directives causes Rails to return just one record and is therefore ruled out.

In Grails using ‘belongsTo’ on the associations speeds up the request considerably.

class Authorship {
    static belongsTo = [book:Book, writer:BookWriter]

    Book book
    BookWriter writer

// 430 ms

Also we can implement eager loading with specifying ‘lazy: false’ in our mapping which boosts a mild performance increase.

class Authorship {
    static mapping = {
        book lazy: false
        writer lazy: false

// 416 ms

Can we do better? The normal approach is to use ‘has_many’ associations and query from one side of the n x m association. Since we use more properties from the writer we start from here.

class Writer < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :authors
  has_many :books, through: :authors

Testing the different combinations of ‘includes’ and ‘joins’ yields interesting results.

# 1525 ms

# 2300 ms

# 196 ms

With both options our request is now faster than ever (196 ms), a speedup of 7.
What about Grails? Adding ‘hasMany’ and the authorship table as a join table is easy.

class BookWriter {
    static mapping = {
        books joinTable:[name: 'authorships', key: 'writer_id']

    static hasMany = [books:Book]
// 313 ms, adding lazy: false results in 295 ms
BookWriter.list().collect {"${it.lastname}, ${it.firstname}: ${it.books*.title}"}

The result is rather disappointing. Only a mild speedup (2x) and even slower than Rails.

Is this the most we can get out of our queries?
Looking at the benchmark results and the detailed numbers Rails shows us hints that the query per se is not the problem anymore but the deserialization. What if we try to limit our created object graph and use a model class backed by a database view? We can create a view containing all the attributes we need even with associations to the books and writers.

create view author_views as (SELECT "authorships"."writer_id" AS writer_id, "authorships"."book_id" AS book_id, "books"."title" AS book_title, "writers"."firstname" AS writer_firstname, "writers"."lastname" AS writer_lastname FROM "authorships" INNER JOIN "books" ON "books"."id" = "authorships"."book_id" INNER JOIN "writers" ON "writers"."id" = "authorships"."writer_id")

Let’s take a look at our request time:

# 15 ms
 AuthorView.select(:writer_lastname, :writer_firstname, :book_title).all.map { |author| "#{author.writer_lastname}, #{author.writer_firstname}: #{author.book_title}" }
// 13 ms
AuthorView.list().collect {"${it.writerLastname}, ${it.writerFirstname}: ${it.bookTitle}"}

13 ms and 15 ms. This surprised me a lot. Seeing this in comparison shows how much this impacts performance of our request.

The lesson here is that sometimes the performance can be improved outside of our code and that mapping database results to objects is a costly operation.

Grails Update from 2.2 to 2.3

An update in the minor version does not seem like a big step but this is one brought a lot of changes, so here a step by step guide which highlights some pitfalls.

First update the version of Grails in your application properties:


The tomcat and hibernate plugins now have versions of their respective frameworks and not the version number of Grails:


Grails 2.3 has a new databinding mechanism. To use the old one, especially if you use custom property editors you have to add this option to your Config.groovy:

grails.databinding.useSpringBinder = true

But even with the old databinding something changed. The field id is not bound in command objects you need to bind id explicitly:

def action = { MyCommand command ->
  command.id = params['id']?.toLong()

Besides the databinding mechanism also the dependency resolving changed. But you can use the old ivy mechanism by including this in BuildConfig.groovy:


Nonetheless all dependencies must be declared in application.properties or BuildConfig.groovy. If you have a lib directory with local jars in your application you need to add this to your repositories as a local directory:

grails.project.dependency.resolution = {
    repositories {
        flatDir name:'myRepo', dirs:'lib'

When you have all dependencies declared your application should start.


Grails 2.3 features a new test mode: forking. This causes some problems and is better to be deactivated in BuildConfig.groovy:

grails.project.fork = [
        test: false,

With the new version only JUnit4 style tests are supported. This means that you don’t extend GroovyTestCase or GrailsUnitTestCase. All rules must be public and non static. All tests methods need to be annotated with @Test. Set up methods are annotated with @Before and must be public. The tearDown methods must also be annotated with @After and be public. A bug in Grails prevents you from naming the set up and tear down methods freely: the names must be setUp and tearDown. All test methods must be public void, the old def declaration is not supported anymore. Now without extending GroovyTestCase you lose the assertion methods and need to add a static import:

import static groovy.util.GroovyTestCase.*

Unit Tests

All tests should be annotated with @TestMixin([GrailsUnitTestMixin]). If you need to mock domain classes you change mockDomain to @Mock:

class MyTest {
	public void testThis() {
      mockDomain(MyDomainClass, [mdc])
class MyTest {
	public void testThis() {

Configuration is now already mocked and your properties can be added easily:


Integration tests

As mentioned before setUp method naming has a bug: you have to name them setUp otherwise the changes to your database aren’t rollbacked.

Acceptance Tests with Selenium

You need to patch the Remote Control Plugin because of a ClassNotFoundException. Add an additional constructor to RemoteControl.groovy to support setting the classloader:

RemoteControl(ClassLoader loader) {
  super(new HttpTransport(getFunctionalTestReceiverAddress(), loader), loader)

In your tests you call this new constructor with the classloader of your class:

new RemoteControl(getClass().classLoader)

Using a Groovy Mixin in your application does not work in your tests and need to be replaced with grails.util.Mixin. But this only works in one way: the target class can access the mixin but the mixin not the target class. For this to work you need to let your mixin implement MixinTargetAware and declare a field named target:

class MyMixin implements MixinTargetAware {
	def target

Subtle changes and pitfalls

If you have a classname with a Controller suffix and a corresponding test but which isn’t a Grails controller Grails nevertheless tries to mock the class in your unit tests. If you rename the test to something without controller everything works fine.

In our pre 2.3 project we had some select tags in our views and used fieldValue for the selection:

<g:select value="${fieldValue(bean: object, field: 'value')}">

But now the select tag uses equals which fails if the values aren’t Strings. Just use the unescaped value:

<g:select value="${object?.value}">

I hope this guide and hints help others to avoid the headaches when upgrading your Grails application.

Scaling your web app: Cache me if you can

One of the biggest problems of caches is how and when do I invalidate my cache content? When you read outdated data from the cache you are toast.
For example we have a list of children elements inside a parent. Normally you would cache the children under the parent’s id:

cache[parent.id] = children

But how do you know if your cache content is still valid? When one child or the list of children changes you write the new content into the cache

cache[parent.id] = newChildren

But when do you update the cache? If you place the update code where the list of children is modified the cache is updated before transaction has ended. You break the isolation. Another point would be after the transaction has been committed but then you have to track all changes. There is a better way: use a timestamp from the database which is also visible to other transactions when it is committed. It should also be in the parent object because you need this object for the cache key nonetheless. You could use lastUpdated or another timestamp for this which is updated when the children collection changes. The cache key is now:

cache[parent.id + '_' + parent.lastUpdated]

Now other transactions read the parent object and get the old timestamp and so the old cache content before the transaction is committed. The transaction itself gets the new content. In Grails if you change the collection lastUpdated is automatically updated and in Rails with belongs_to and touch even a change in a child updates the lastUpdate of the parent – no manual invalidation needed.

Excourse: using memcached with Grails

If you want to use memcached from the JVM there is a good library which wraps common calls: spymemcached. If you want to use spymemcached from Grails you drop the jar into your lib folder and wrap it in a Service:

class MemcachedService implements InitializingBean {
  static final Object NULL = "NULL"
  def MemcachedClient memcachedClient

  def void afterPropertiesSet() {
    memcachedClient = new MemcachedClient(
      new ConnectionFactoryBuilder().setTranscoder(new CustomSerializingTranscoder()).build(),

  def connected() {
    return !memcachedClient.availableServers.isEmpty()

  def get(String key) {
    return memcachedClient.get(key)

  def set(String key, Object value) {
    memcachedClient.set(key, 600, value)

  def clear() {

Spymemcached serializes your cache content so you need to make all your cached classes implement Serializable. Since Grails uses its own class loaders we had problems with deserializing and used a custom serializing transcoder to get the right class loader (taken from this issue):

public class CustomSerializingTranscoder extends SerializingTranscoder {

  protected Object deserialize(byte[] bytes) {
    final ClassLoader currentClassLoader = Thread.currentThread().getContextClassLoader();
    ObjectInputStream in = null;
    try {
      ByteArrayInputStream bs = new ByteArrayInputStream(bytes);
      in = new ObjectInputStream(bs) {
        protected Class<ObjectStreamClass> resolveClass(ObjectStreamClass objectStreamClass) throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
          try {
            return (Class<ObjectStreamClass>) currentClassLoader.loadClass(objectStreamClass.getName());
          } catch (Exception e) {
            return (Class<ObjectStreamClass>) super.resolveClass(objectStreamClass);
      return in.readObject();
    } catch (Exception e) {
      throw new RuntimeException(e);
    } finally {

  private static void closeStream(Closeable c) {
    if (c != null) {
      try {
      } catch (IOException e) {

With the connected method you can check if any memcached instances are available. Which is better than calling a method and waiting for the timeout.

def connected() {
  return !memcachedClient.availableServers.isEmpty()

Now you can inject your Service where you need to and cache along.

Cache the outermost layer

If you use Hibernate you get database based caching almost for free, so why bother using another cache? In one application we used Hibernate to fetch a large chunk of data from the database and even with caches it took 100 ms. Measuring the code showed that the processing of the data (conversion for the client) took by far the biggest chunk. Caching the processed data lead to 2 ms for the whole request. So one take away is here that caching the result of (user indepedent) calculations and conversions can speed up your request even further. When you got static resources you could also use HTTP directives.

Grails / GORM performance tuning tips

First things first: never optimize without measuring. Even more so with Grails there are many layers involved when running code: the code itself, the compiler optimized version, the Grails library stack, hotspot, the Java VM, the operating system, the C libraries, the CPU… With this many layers and even more possibilities you shouldn’t guess where you can improve the performance.

Measuring the performance

So how do you measure code? If you have a profiler like JProfiler you can use it to measure different aspects of your code like CPU utilization, hotspots, JDBC query performance, Hibernate, etc. But even without a decent profiler some custom code snippets can go a long way. Sometimes we use dedicated methods for measuring the runtime:

class Measurement {
  public static void runs(String opertationName, Closure toMeasure) {
    long start = System.nanoTime()
    long end = System.nanoTime()
    println("Operation ${operationName} took ${(end - start) / 1E6} ms")

or you can even show the growth in the Hibernate persistence context:

class Measurement {
  public static void grown(String opertationName, Closure toMeasure) {
    PersistenceContext pc = sessionFactory.currentSession.persistenceContext
    Map before = numberOfInstancesPerClass(pc)
    Map after = numberOfInstancesPerClass(pc)
    println "The operation ${operationName} has grown the persistence context: ${differenceOf(after, before)}"

Improving the performance

So when you found your bad performing code, what can you do about it? Every situation and every code is different but here are some pitfalls that can cost performance and tips you can try to improve performance:

GORM hotspots

Performance problems with GORM can be in different areas. A good rule of thumb is to reduce the number of queries hitting the database. This can be achieved by combining results with outer join, eager fetching associations or improving caching. Another hotspot can be long running operations which you can improve via creating indices on the database but first analyze the query with database specific tools like ANALYZE.
Also a typical problem can be a large persistence context. Why is this a problem? The default flush mode in Hibernate and hence GORM is auto which means before any query the persistence context is flushed. Flushing means Hibernate checks every property of every instance if it has changed. The larger the persistence context the more work to do. One option would be to clear the session periodically after a flush but this could decrease the performance because once loaded and therefore cached instances need to be reloaded from the database.
Another option is to identify the parts of your code which only need read access on the instances. Here you can use a stateless session or in Grails you can use the Spring annotation @Transactional(readOnly = true). It can be beneficial for the performance to separate read only and write access to the database. You could also experiment with the flush mode but beware that this can lead to wrong query results.

The thin line: where to stop?

If you measure and improve you can get big and small improvements. The problem is to decide which of these small ones change the code in a good or minimal way. It is a trade off between performance and code design as some performance improvements can worsen the code quality. Another cup of tea left untouched in this discussion is scalability. Whereas performance concentrates of the actual data and the current situation, scalability looks on the performance of the system when the data increases. Some performance improvements can worsen scalability. As with performance: measure, measure, measure.

Grails and the query cache

Look at the following code:

class Node {
  Node parent
  String name
  Tree tree

Tree tree = new Tree()
Node root = new Node(name: 'Root', tree: tree)
new Node(name: 'Child', parent: root, tree: tree).save()

What happens when I query all nodes by tree?

List allNodesOfTree = Node.findAllByTree(tree, [cache: true])

Of course you get 2 nodes, but what is the result of:


It should be true but it isn’t all the time. If you didn’t implement equals and hashCode you get an instance equals that is the same as ==.
Hibernate guarantees that you get the same instance out of a session for the same domain object. (Node.get(rootId) == Node.get(rootId))

But the query cache plays a crucial role here, it saves the ids of the result and calls Node.load(id). There is an important difference between Node.get and Node.load. Node.get always returns an instance of Node which is a real node not a proxy. For this it queries the session context and hits the database when necessary. Node.load on the other hand never hits the database. It returns a proxy and only when the session contains the domain object it returns a real domain object.

So allNodesOfTree returns

  • two proxies when no element is in the session
  • a proxy and a real object when you call Node.get(childId) beforehand
  • two real objects when you call get on both elements first

Deactivating the query cache globally or for this query only, returns two real objects.

Upgrading your app to Grails 2.0.0? Better wait for 2.0.1

Grails 2.0.0 is a major step forward for this popular and productive, JVM-based web framework. It has many great new features that make you want to migrate existing projects to this new version.

So I branched our project and started the migration process. Everything went smoothly and I had only to fix some minor compilation problems to get our application running again. Soon the first runtime errors occured and approximately 30 out of over 70 acceptance tests failed. Some analysis showed three major issue categories causing the failures:

  1. Saving domain objects with belongsTo() associations may fail with a NULL not allowed for column "AUTHOR_ID"; SQL statement: insert into book (id, version, author_id, name) values (null, ?, ?, ?) [90006-147] message due to grails issue GRAILS-8337. Setting the other direction of the association manually can act as a workaround:
    book.author.book = book
  2. When using the MarkupBuilder with the img tag in your TabLibs, your images may disappear. This is due to a new img closure defined in ApplicationTagLib. The correct fix is using

    in your MarkupBuilder closures. See GRAILS-8660 for more information.

  3. Handling of null and the Groovy NullObject seems to be broken in some places. So we got org.codehaus.groovy.runtime.typehandling.GroovyCastException: Cannot cast object 'null' with class 'org.codehaus.groovy.runtime.NullObject' to class 'Note' using groovy collections’ find() and casting the result with as:
     Note myNote = notes?.find {it.title == aTitle} as Note

    Removing type information and the cast may act as a workaround. Unfortunately, we are not able to reproduce this issue in plain groovy and did not have time to extract a small grails example exhibiting the problem.

These bugs and some other changes may make you reconsider the migration of some bigger project at this point in time. Some of them are resolved already so 2.0.1 may be the release to wait for if you are planning a migration. We will keep an open eye on the next releases and try to switch to 2.0.x when our biggest show stoppers are resolved.

Even though I would advise against migrating bigger existing applications to Grails 2.0.0 I would start new projects on this – otherwise great – new platform release.