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ASP.NET MVC Compared to JSF

Updated on 2009/06/12 & 2009/06/13.

Today I'm going to do a little no-holds-barred comparison of ASP.NET MVC and JavaServer Faces (JSF) based on my impressions when working with the both of them. I worked with ASP.NET MVC in my Enterprise .NET university subject and with JSF in my Enterprise Java subject. Please note that this is in no way a scientific comparison of the two technologies and is simply my view of the matter based on my experiences.

ASP.NET MVC is the new extension to ASP.NET that allows you to write web pages using the Model View Controller pattern. Compared to the old ASP.NET Forms way of doing things, it's a breath of fresh air. JSF is one of the many Java-based web application frameworks that are available. It's basically an extension to JSP (JavaServer Pages), which is a page templating language similar to the way ASP.NET Forms works (except without the code-behind; so it's more like original ASP in that respect).

JSF Disadvantages

It is probably easiest if I start with what is wrong with JSF and what makes it a total pain in the arse to use (you can tell already which slant this post will take! :D)


In years past, the world went XML-crazy (this has lessened in recent years). Everybody was jumping aboard the XML train and putting everything they could into XML. The Faces-Config.xml is a result of this (in my opinion, anyway). It is basically one massive XML file where you define where every link on (almost) every page goes to. You also declare your "managed backing beans", which are just classes that the framework instantiates and manages the lifecycle (application, session, or per-request) of. In addition, you can declare extensions to JSF like custom validators, among other things.

All of this goes into the one XML file. As you can probably see, it soon becomes huge and unwieldy. Also, when working in a team, everybody is always editing this file and as such nasty merge conflicts often occur.

Page Navigation

In JSF, you need to define where all your links go in your faces-config.xml. You can do stuff like wildcards (which lets you describe where a link from any page goes) to help ease this pain, but it still sucks.

Not only that, but every page link in JSF is a POST->Redirect, GET->Response. Yes, that's right, every click is a form submit and redirect. Even from a normal page to the next. If you don't perform the redirect, JSF will still show you the next page, but it shows it under the previous page's URL (kind of like an ASP.NET Server.Transfer).

No Page Templating Support

It seems like a simple thing, but JSF just doesn't have any page templating support (called Master Pages in ASP.NET). This makes keeping a site layout consistent a real pain. We ended up resorting to using Dreamweaver Templates (basically just advanced copy & paste) to keep our site layout consistent. Yuck.

Awkward Communication Between Pages and Between Objects

In JSF, it is awkward and difficult to communicate data between pages. JSF doesn't really support URL query string parameters (since every link is a POST), so you end up having to create an object that sticks around for the user's session and then putting the data that you want on the next page in that, ready for the next page to get. Yuck. There are other approaches, but none of them are really very easy to do.

Communication between "managed backing beans" is awkward. You end up having to manually compile a JSP Expression Language statement to get at other backing beans. Check out this page to see all the awkward contortions you need to do to achieve anything.

ASP.NET MVC vs. JSF Disadvantages

So enough JSF bashing. It's all very well to beat on JSF, but can ASP.NET MVC do all those things that JSF can't do well? The answer is yes, yes it can.

Little XML Configuration

Other than the web.xml file, where you initialise a lot of ASP.NET MVC settings (like integration with IIS, Membership, Roles, Database connection strings, etc), ASP.NET MVC doesn't use any XML. The things that you do have to do in the web.xml are likely things you'll set up once and never touch again, and so are unlikely to cause messy merge conflicts in revision control. Even user authorisation for page access is not done in XML (unlike JSF, and for that matter, ASP.NET Forms); it's done with attributes in the code.

RESTful URLs and Page Navigation

ASP.NET MVC has a powerful URL routing engine that allows (and encourages) you to use RESTful URLs. When you create page links, ASP.NET MVC automatically creates the correct the URL to the particular action (on a controller) that you want to perform by doing a reverse lookup in the routing table. No double page requests here, and if you change what your URLs look like you don't need to update all your links, you just change the routing table.

Master Pages

ASP.NET MVC inherits the concept of Master Pages from ASP.NET Forms. Master pages let you easily define what every page has in common, then for each page, define only what varies. It's a powerful templating technology.

Easy Communication Between Pages

Communication between pages is easy in ASP.NET MVC since it fully supports getting data from both POST and GET (URL query string parameters). It also provides a neat "TempData" store that you can place things in that will be passed on to the next page loaded, and then are automatically destroyed. This is extremely useful for passing a message onto the next page for it to display an "operation performed" message after a form submit.

JSF Advantages

As much as I dislike JSF, it does have a few things going for it that ASP.NET MVC just doesn't have.

Multi-platform Support

One of the biggest criticisms of any .NET technology is that it only runs on Windows. And while I may be a big fan of Windows, when it comes to servers, other operating systems can be viable alternatives. JSF gives you the flexibility to choose what operating system you want to run your web application on.

Multiple Implementations and Multiple Web Application Server Support

JSF is a standard, so there are many different implementations of the standard. This means that you can pick and choose which particular implementation best suits your needs (in terms of performance, etc). This encourages competition and ultimately leads to better software.

JSF can run in many different application servers, which gives you the choice of which you'd like to use. Feeling cheap? Use Glassfish, Sun's free application server. Feeling rich and in need of features? Use IBM WebSphere. Feeling the need for speed and no need for those all enterprise technologies like EJBs? Crack out Tomcat.

The Java Ecosystem

Like it or not, Java has a massive following and open-source ecosystem. If you need something, it's probably been done before and is open-source and therefore you can get it for free (probably... if you're closed-source you need to watch out for GPLed software).


JSF is free, Java is free, and you can run it all on free operating systems and application servers, you can get a JSF web application up and running for nothing (excluding programming labour, of course).

ASP.NET MVC vs. JSF Advantages

So how does ASP.NET MVC weigh up against the pros of JSF? Not too well.

Only Runs on Windows

ASP.NET MVC will only run on Windows, since it runs on the .NET Framework. You could argue that Mono exists for Linux, but the Mono .NET implementation is always behind Microsoft's implementation, so you can never get the latest technology (and ASP.NET MVC is very recent).

Only Runs in One Application Server

ASP.NET MVC runs in only one application server: IIS. If IIS doesn't do what you want, or doesn't perform like you need it to, too bad, you've got no choice but to use it.

Update: A friend told me about how you can actually run ASP.NET in Apache. However, that plugin (mod_aspdot) was retired from Apache due to lack of support. Its successor, mod_mono, allows you to run ASP.NET in Apache using Mono. However, at the time of writing I see multiple tests failing on their test page. I don't know how severe these bugs are, but it's certainly not the level of support you receive from Microsoft in IIS.

Decent Ecosystem

Most people probably would have assumed I would bash the .NET ecosystem for not being very open source and that is true, up to a point. However, in recent times the .NET ecosystem has been becoming more and more open-source. ASP.NET MVC itself is open source! All this said and done, Java is still far more open-source and free than .NET.

Not Really Free

Although you can download the .NET SDK for free, you really do need to purchase Visual Studio to be effective while developing for it. You'll also need to pay for Windows on which to run your web server.

ASP.NET MVC Other Advantages

Other than all the sweet stuff I mentioned above, what else does ASP.NET MVC have to offer?

Clean Code Design

ASP.NET MVC makes it very easy to write neat, clean and well designed code because of its use of the Model View Controller pattern. JSF is supposedly MVC, but I honestly couldn't tell how they were using it. My code in JSF was horrible and awkward. ASP.NET MVC is clearly MVC and benefits a lot from it. You can unit test your controllers easily, and your processing logic is kept well away from your views.

Support for Web 2.0 Technologies

Web 2.0 is a buzzword that represents (in my mind) the use of JavaScript and AJAX to make web pages more rich and dynamic. ASP.NET makes it pretty easy to support these technologies and even comes with fully supported and documented jQuery support. JSF doesn't come with any of this stuff ready and out of the box and due to its awkward page navigation system, makes it difficult to incorporate one of the existing technologies into it. The JSF way is most definitely not the Web 2.0 way.

Visual Studio

Although you have to pay for Visual Studio, it is an excellent IDE to work with ASP.NET MVC in. NetBeans, the IDE I used JSF in, was quite possibly one of the worst IDEs I have ever used. It was awkward to use, slow, unintuitive and buggy. Visual Studio has an inbuilt, lightweight web server that you can run your web applications on while developing. You just build your application and, bam, it's already automatically running. In NetBeans, you have to deploy the application (slow!) to GlassFish and sometimes it will bollocks it up somehow and you'll just get random uncaught exceptions that a clean and build and redeploy will somehow fix. That sort of annoying, time-wasting and confusing stuff just doesn't occur in Visual Studio. You really do get what you pay for.

In conclusion, I feel that ASP.NET MVC is a far better Web Application Framework than JSF. It makes it so easy to code neat and well-designed pages that generate modern Web 2.0-style pages. JSF just ends up getting in your way. While coding ASP.NET MVC, I kept going "oh wow, that's nice!", but while developing JSF I just swore horribly. And that really tells you something.

Update: I've been told that JSF 2.0 (as yet unreleased at the time of writing) fixes many of the problems I've mentioned above. So, it might be worth a re-evaluation once it is released.

Value Type Boxing in C#

There are times when I am surprised because I come across some basic principle or feature in a programming language that I just didn't know about but really should have (see the "Generics and Type-Safety" blog for an example). The most recent example of this was in my Enterprise .NET lecture where they asked us to define what boxing and unboxing was. I'd heard of it in relation to Java, because Java has non-object value types that need to be converted to objects sometimes (the process of "boxing") so they can be used with Java's crappy generics system. But since, in C#, even an int is an object with methods, I assumed that boxing and unboxing was not done in C#.

I was wrong. C# indeed does boxing and unboxing! At first, this didn't make sense. My incomplete understanding of boxing (in relation to Java) was that value types were stored only on the stack (yes, this is a little inaccurate) and when you needed to put them on the heap, you had to box them. In C#, I thought everything was an object, so this process would have been redundant.

Wrong. .NET (and therefore C#) has value types, which are boxed and unboxed transparently by the CLR. Value types in C# derive from the ValueType class which itself derives from Object. Structs in C# are automatically derived from ValueType for you (therefore you cannot do inheritance with structs). Unlike in Java, value types are still objects: they can have methods, fields, properties, events, etc.

Why are value types good? When .NET deals with a value type, it stores the object's data inline in memory. This means when the variable is on the stack, the data is stored directly in stack-space. When the variable is inside a heap object, the data is stored directly inside the heap object. This is different to reference types, where instead of the data being stored inline, a pointer to the data which is somewhere on the heap is stored inline. This means it takes longer to access a reference type than a value type as you have to read the pointer, then read the location the pointer points to.

Boxing kills this performance increase you get when you use value types. When you box (or more accurately, the CLR boxes) a value type, it essentially wraps it in a reference type object that is stored on the heap and then uses a reference to point to it. Your value type is now a reference type. So not only do you need to look up a reference to get to the final data, you have to spend time creating the wrapper object at runtime.

When does boxing happen? The main place to watch out for is when you pass a value type around as Object. A common place this might happen is if you use ArrayList. If you do, it's time to move on. :) .NET 2.0 introduced generics and you should use them. Generics play nice with value types, so try using a List<T> instead.

So what do I mean when I say "generics play nice with value types"? Unlike Java, whose generics system sucks (it does type erasure, which is half-arsed generics), .NET understands generics at runtime. This means when you define, for example, a List<int>, .NET realises that int is a value type and then will allocate ints inline inside the List as per the "inline storage" explanation above. This is lots better than Java or ArrayList's behaviour, where each element in the array is a pointer to a location on the heap and because the value type that had been added has been boxed.

In hindsight, especially when I think about it all from a C++ perspective, I should have known C# did value type boxing. How could it have value types and not? But I guess I just didn't join the dots.

Generics and Type-Safety

I ran into a little issue at work to do with generics, inheritance and type-safety. Normally, I am an absolute supporter of type-safety in programming languages; I have always found that type safety catches bugs at compile-time rather than at run-time, which is always a good thing. However, in this particular instance (which I have never encountered before), type-safety plain got in my way.

Imagine you have a class Fruit, from which you derive a number of child classes such as Apple and Banana. There are methods that return Collection<Apple> and Collection<Banana>. Here's a code example (Java), can you see anything wrong with it (excluding the horrible wantApples/wantBananas code... I'm trying to keep the example small!)?

Collection<Fruit> fruit;

if (wantApples)
    fruit = getCollectionOfApple();
else if (wantBananas)
    fruit = getCollectionOfBanana();
    throw new BabyOutOfPramException();

for (Fruit aFruit : fruit);

Look OK? It's not. The error is that you cannot hold a Collection<Apple> or Collection<Banana> as a Collection<Fruit>! Why not, eh? Both Bananas and Apples are subclasses of Fruit, so why isn't a Collection of Banana a Collection of Fruit? All Bananas in the Collection are Fruit!

At first I blamed this on Java's crappy implementation of generics. In Java, generics are a compiler feature and not natively supported in the JVM. This is the concept of "type-erasure", where all generic type information is erased during a compile. All your Collections of type T are actually just Collections of no type. The most frustrating place where this bites you is when you want to do this:

interface MyInterface
    private void myMethod(Collection<String> strings);
    private void myMethod(Collection<Integer> numbers);

Java will not allow that, as the two methods are indistinguishable after a compile, thanks to type-erasure. Those methods actually are:

interface MyInterface
    private void myMethod(Collection strings);
    private void myMethod(Collection numbers);

and you get a redefinition error. Of course, .NET since v2.0 has treated generics as a first-class construct inside the CLR. So the equivalent to the above example in C# would work fine since a Collection<String> is not the same as a Collection<Integer>.

Anyway, enough ranting about Java. I insisted to my co-worker that I was sure C# with its non-crappy generics would have allowed us to assign a Collection<Apple> to a Collection<Fruit>. However, I was totally wrong. A quick Google search told me that you absolutely cannot allow a Collection<Apple> to be assigned to a Collection<Fruit> or it will break programming. This is why:

Collection<Fruit> fruit;
Collection<Apple> apples = new ArrayList<Apple>();
fruit = apples; //Assume this line works OK
fruit.add(new Banana());

for (Apple apple : apples);

Can you see the problem? By storing a Collection<Apple> as a Collection<Fruit> we suddenly make it OK to add any type of Fruit to the Collection, such as the Banana on line 4. Then, when we foreach through the apples Collection (which now contains a Banana, thanks to line 4) we would get a ClassCastException because, holy crap, a Banana is not an Apple! We just broke programming.

So how can we make this work? In Java, we can use wildcards:

Collection<? extends Fruit> fruit;

if (wantApples)
    fruit = getCollectionOfApple();
else if (wantBananas)
    fruit = getCollectionOfBanana();
    throw new BabyOutOfPramException();

for (Fruit aFruit : fruit);

Disappointingly, C# does not support the concept of wildcards. The best I could do was this:

private void MyMethod()
    if (_WantApples)
    else if (_WantBananas)
        throw new BabyOutOfPramException();

private void EatFruit<T>(IEnumerable<T> fruit) where T : Fruit
    foreach (T aFruit in fruit);

Basically, we're declaring a generic method that takes any type of Fruit, and then the compiler is inferring the type to be used for the EatFruit method by looking at the return type of the two getter methods. This code is not as nice as the Java code.

You must be wondering, however, what if we added this line to the bottom of the above Java code:

fruit.add(new Banana());

What would happen is that Java would issue an error. This is because the generic type "? extends Fruit" actually means "unknown type that extends Fruit". The "unknown type" part is crucial. Because the type is unknown, the add method for Collection<? extends Fruit> actually looks like this:

public boolean add(null o);

Yes! The only thing that the add method can take is null, because a reference to anything can always be set to null. So even though we don't know the type, we know that no matter what type it is, it can always be null. Therefore, trying to pass a Banana into add() would fail.

The foreach loop works okay because the iterator that works inside the foreach loop must always return something that is at least a Fruit thanks to the "extends Fruit" part of the type definition. So it's okay to set a Fruit reference using a method that returns "? extends Fruit" because the thing that is returned must be at least a Fruit.

Although obviously wrong now, the assignment of Collection<Apple> to Collection<Fruit> seemed to make sense when I first encountered it. This has enlightened me to the fact that there are nooks and crannies in both C# and Java that I have yet to explore.