Object-Oriented Application Frameworks

Mohamed Fayad
Douglas C. Schmidt

The following is the guest editorial for the Communications of the ACM, Special Issue on Object-Oriented Application Frameworks, Vol. 40, No. 10, October 1997.

Computing power and network bandwidth have increased dramatically over the past decade. However, the design and implementation of complex software remains expensive and error-prone. Much of the cost and effort stems from the continuous re-discovery and re-invention of core concepts and components across the software industry. In particular, the growing heterogeneity of hardware architectures and diversity of operating system and communication platforms makes it hard to build correct, portable, efficient, and inexpensive applications from scratch.

Object-oriented (OO) application frameworks are a promising technology for reifying proven software designs and implementations in order to reduce the cost and improve the quality of software. A framework is a reusable, ``semi-complete'' application that can be specialized to produce custom applications [Johnson:88]. In contrast to earlier OO reuse techniques based on class libraries, frameworks are targeted for particular business units (such as data processing or cellular communications) and application domains (such as user interfaces or real-time avionics). Frameworks like MacApp, ET++, Interviews, ACE, Microsoft's MFC and DCOM, JavaSoft's RMI, and implementations of OMG's CORBA play an increasingly important role in contemporary software development.

The primary benefits of OO application frameworks stem from the modularity, reusability, extensibility, and inversion of control they provide to developers, as described below:

Developers in certain domains have successfully applied OO application frameworks for many years. Early object-oriented frameworks (such as MacApp and Interviews) originated in the domain of graphical user interfaces (GUIs). The Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC) is a contemporary GUI framework that has become the de facto industry standard for creating graphical applications on PC platforms. Although MFC has limitations (such as lack of portability to non-PC platforms), its wide-spread adoption demonstrates the productivity benefits of reusing common frameworks to develop graphical business applications.

Application developers in more complex domains (such as telecommunications, distributed medical imaging, and real-time avionics) have traditionally lacked standard ``off-the-shelf'' frameworks. As a result, developers in these domains largely build, validate, and maintain software systems from scratch. In an era of deregulation and stiff global competition, however, it has become prohibitively costly and time consuming to develop applications entirely in-house from the ground up.

Fortunately, the next generation of OO application frameworks are targeting complex business and application domains. At the heart of this effort are Object Request Broker (ORB) frameworks, which facilitate communication between local and remote objects. ORB frameworks eliminate many tedious, error-prone, and non-portable aspects of creating and managing distributed applications and reusable service components. This enables programmers to develop and deploy complex applications rapidly and robustly, rather than wrestling endlessly with low-level infrastructure concerns. Widely used ORB frameworks include CORBA, DCOM, and Java RMI.

Although the benefits and design principles underlying frameworks are largely independent of domain to which they are applied, we've found it useful to classify frameworks by their scope, as follows:

Regardless of their scope, frameworks can also be classified by the techniques used to extend them, which range along a continuum from whitebox frameworks to blackbox frameworks. Whitebox frameworks rely heavily on OO language features like inheritance and dynamic binding to achieve extensibilty. Existing functionality is reused and extended by (1) inheriting from framework base classes and (2) overriding pre-defined hook methods using patterns like Template Method [Gamma:95]. Blackbox frameworks support extensibility by defining interfaces for components that can be plugged into the framework via object composition. Existing functionality is reused by (1) defining components that conform to a particular interface and (2) integrating these components into the framework using patterns like Strategy [Gamma:95] and Functor.

Whitebox frameworks require application developers to have intimate knowledge of the frameworks' internal structure. Although whitebox frameworks are widely used, they tend to produce systems that are tightly coupled to the specific details of the framework's inheritance hierarchies. In contrast, blackbox frameworks are structured using object composition and delegation more than inheritance. As a result, blackbox frameworks are generally easier to use and extend than whitebox frameworks. However, blackbox frameworks are more difficult to develop since they require framework developers to define interfaces and hooks that anticipate a wider range of potential use-cases [Johnson:95].

Frameworks are closely related to other approaches to reuse, including:

When used in conjunction with patterns, class libraries, and components, OO application frameworks can significantly increase software quality and reduce development effort. However, a number of challenges must be addressed in order to employ frameworks effectively. Companies attempting to build or use large-scale reusable framework often fail unless they recognize and resolve challenges such as development effort, learning curve, integratability, maintainability, validation and defect removal, efficiency, and lack of standards, which are outlined below:

Over the next several years, we expect the following framework-related topics will receive considerable attention by researchers and developers:

The articles in this theme issue describe how OO application frameworks provide a powerful vehicle for reuse, as well as a way to capture the essence of successful patterns, architectures, components, policies, services, and programming mechanisms. The feature articles lead off with ``Framework Development for Large Systems'' by Dirk Baumer, Guido Gryczan, Rolf Knoll, Carola Lilienthal, Dirk Riehle, and Heinz Zullighoven. These authors draw on their experience developing large-scale industrial banking projects to present concepts and techniques for domain partitioning, framework layering and framework construction. The second feature article on "Evolving Custom-Made Applications into Domain-Specific Frameworks" by Wim Codenie, Koen De Hondt, Patrick Steyaert, Arlette Vercammen discusses solutions to common framework development challenges such as avoiding the proliferation of versions, estimating effort, and alleviating the tendency towards ``architectural drift.''

The Theme section also contains several short articles, starting with "Frameworks = (Patterns + Components)/2" by Ralph Johnson, which compares and contrasts frameworks with other object-oriented reuse techniques such as patterns and components. The second short article is "An Adaptive Framework for Developing Multimedia Software Components" by Edward Posnak, Greg Lavender, and Harrick Vin describes a framework that simplifies the development of dynamically adaptive multimedia software components by promoting the reuse of code, design patterns, and domain expertise. The next short article is "Frameworks Design by Systematic Generalization with Hot Spots and Patterns" by Hans Albrecht Schmid, which presents a systematic method for designing frameworks based on identifying "hot spots," which capture key sources of variation in an application domain. Serge Demeyer, Theo Meijler, Oscar Nierstrasz, and Patrick Steyaert also focus on hot spots in their article on "Design Guidelines for Tailorable Frameworks," which presents design guidelines to develop frameworks for open systems.

Several case studies are also covered in the theme issues, including "The Framework Life Span: a Case Study for Flexible Manufacturing Systems" by A. Aarsten, Davide Brugali, and G. Menga, which highlights the relationships between application frameworks, patterns, and pattern languages in the domain of manufacturing systems. Likewise, the SEMATECH CIM Framework, by David Doscher and Robert Hodges describes the structure of a framework for computer integrated manufacturing of semiconductors. In addition, Adele Goldberg, Steve Abell, and David Leibs describe LearningWorks, which is a framework for exploring ideas about computing and software system construction.

Finally, the theme section contains three sidebars: "Achieve Bottom-Line Improvements with Enterprise Frameworks" by Hamu and Fayad, "Framework Integration problems, Causes, and Solutions by M. Mattsson et al., and "Lessons Learned Building Reusable OO Frameworks for Distributed Software" by Schmidt and Fayad.

The articles in this theme issue reinforce our believe that object-oriented application frameworks will be at the core of leading-edge software technology in the twenty-first century. As software systems become increasingly complex, object-oriented application frameworks are becoming increasingly important for industry and academia. The extensive focus on application frameworks in the object-oriented community offers software developers an important vehicle for reuse and a means to capture the essence of successful patterns, architectures, components, and programming mechanisms.

The good news is that framework are becoming mainstream and developers at all levels are increasingly adopting and succeeding with framework technologies. However, OO application frameworks are ultimately only as good as the people who build and use them. Creating robust, efficient, and reusable application frameworks requires development teams with a wide range of skills. We need expert analysts and designers who have mastered patterns, software architectures, and protocols in order to alleviate the inherent and accidental complexities of complex software. Likewise, we need expert middleware developers who can implement these patterns, architectures, and protocols within reusable frameworks. In addition, we need application programmers who have the motivation, skills, and training to learn how to use these frameworks effectively. We encourage you to get involved with others working on frameworks by attending conferences, participating in online mailing lists and newsgroups, and contributing your insights and experience.


We would like to thank the staff of CACM for their help in producing this theme issue. We'd also like to thank Ralph Johnson and Bryan Doerr for suggestions on improving this introduction. In addition, we are grateful to all the reviewers for valuable and useful reviews on all the submissions for this theme section.


[Birrer:93] Eggenschwiler T. Birrer "Frameworks in the Financial Engineering Domain: An Experience Report" ECOOP '93 Proceedings, Lecture Notes in Computer Science nr. 707, Springer-Verlag, 1993.

[Johnson:88] Ralph Johnson and Brian Foote. ``Designing Reusable Classes.'' Journal of Object-Oriented Programming. SIGS, 1, 5 (June/July. 1988), 22-35.

[Campbell-Islam:93] Roy H. Campbell and Nayeem Islam "A Technique for Documenting the Framework of an Object-Oriented System", Computing Systems, Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1993

[Fayad-Hamu:97] Mohamed E. Fayad and David S. Hamu "Object-Oriented Enterprise Frameworks: Make vs. Buy Decisions and Guidelines for Selection", The Communications of ACM, 1997, to appear.

[Gamma:95] Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, "Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Software Architecture", Addison-Wesley, 1995.

[Hamu-Fayad:97] David S. Hamu and Mohamed E. Fayad, "Achieve Bottom-Line Improvements with Enterprise Frameworks," The Communications of ACM, October 1997.

[Johnson:95] Herman Hueni and Ralph Johnson and Robert Engel, ``A Framework for Network Protocol Software,'' Proceedings of OOPSLA, Austin, Texas, October 1995.

[Pree:94] Wolfgang Pree, Design Patterns for Object-Oriented Software Development, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1994.

[Schmidt:97] Douglas C. Schmidt, ``Applying Design Patterns and Frameworks to Develop Object-Oriented Communication Software,'' Handbook of Programming Languages}, Volume I, edited by Peter Salus, MacMillan Computer Publishing, 1997.

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