Eclipse Orion: A Web Experience for Software Development

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Eclipse Orion: A Web Experience for Software Development

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Since it was unveiled earlier this year, Orion has received a lot of focus. Currently under the E4 incubator, Orion will provide the possibility to develop through your web browser. Providing a browser based IDE isn't a new thing within the Eclipse eco-system: early versions of e4 had prototypes of such functionality. However, this is a new implementation, contributed by IBM. The project mission statement can be condensed into:

"we will move software development to the web as a web experience, not by cloning the desktop IDE experience."

I caught up with Boris Bokowski, one the of the driving forces behind the project, to find out more.


DZone: Hi Boris, the buzz around Eclipse Orion has been huge. Can you explain what Orion actually is?

Boris Bokowski: Orion is two things in one: it is a concrete code contribution to Eclipse, but it is also a vision. This long-term vision is to make it natural for software development activities to happen on the web, using a web browser. Orion makes it possible to edit code, navigate folders and files, do full-text searches, run unit tests etc. from within web pages that live in separate browser tabs. These web pages can be linked with each other using hyperlinks, but also to other places on the web that can be reached through hyperlinks: bugs in bug trackers, builds happening on a server that can be monitored through a web page, etc. I like to think of the vision, and the API and specifications that enable this vision, as the important thing. The code contribution is a humble start, an initial step towards realizing the vision.

DZone: Could you give a little history of the project? When did it start?

Boris Bokowski: It started a few months ago when we started to work on the editor component and then later on the features around it. I am not sure if you remember this, but we've demoed a web-based Eclipse back at EclipseCon 2008. None of that demo code has been reused - we've started fresh, using only JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. Our thinking has evolved quite a bit - we are no longer trying to translate the existing desktop IDE into a web browser.

DZone:  How does Orion relate to e4? Will it be part of that release?

Boris Bokowski:  The initial code contribution went into e4, our incubator project. Within the next couple of months, we would like to move the code into its own separate project at Eclipse, together with other contributors. It would be too early to talk about releases, and there are no plans to make Orion part of any existing desktop Eclipse release at this point.

DZone: There have been a few attempts to create an IDE on the web in the past. What makes Orion different?

Boris Bokowski:  The main difference is that Orion does not try to recreate a classic IDE in a web page. By using the browsers' facilities to manage multiple web pages and tabs, the end result is much more open for any kind of content that can be accessed through a web browser. I frequently have a number of Orion editors open in separate tabs, along with other tabs with snippets and documentation on HTML and JavaScript, one tab for running unit test, etc. By design, there is no strict differentiation between what is part of the IDE and what is just another web page that I happened to have a link to.

DZone: How difficult was writing the entire client in Javascript? Are you using any particular libraries to make it easier?

Boris Bokowski: Writing the client in JavaScript wasn't particularly difficult, apart from the usual growing pains that come from embracing a completely new platform. At this point, we are still learning quite a bit and expect lots of things to change. Because of the code separation between the different pages, we could be using different libraries on each page, but in practice, we are currently using Dojo when we need APIs that work across the different browsers.

DZone: For those who haven't received an invite yet, when can they expect to be able to have a go?

Boris Bokowski:  So far we've been very conservative with how many people we are inviting. Since our focus has been more on the client side than the server side, we are not sure how well our simple demo server will scale, but first load testing experiments were encouraging. If anyone feels left out, you can always download a pre-built version and try it on your own machine.

DZone: With the source code available, would it be easy for someone to just host their own instance of Orion?

Boris Bokowski: You should be able to download and start a recent build on Linux, Mac, or Windows within five minutes, assuming you have a Java VM already installed. This will give you an instance of Orion running on localhost. Our download page is at http://download.eclipse.org/e4/orion/. If you want to host an instance for use by others, you should have a look at a wiki page we created for this audience: http://wiki.eclipse.org/Orion/Server_admin_guide

DZone: What are the future plans for Orion?

Boris Bokowski: The short term plan is to start a formal project for Orion at eclipse.org, together with other contributors. We will be holding a planning meeting on March 17th and 18th, in Palo Alto, California, and the list of people who signed up is starting to look interesting. The long term plan will be made at the planning meeting. Then there is our development focus over the next few months - we are working on features that make the self-hosting experience better, as well as features that show how other existing web-based tools and services can be integrated with or accessed from Orion.


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