Recently, as part of work on Knoweth (an Anki-esque spaced-repetition flashcard reviewer; see my friend’s blog for more information), I have been experimenting with some lesser-used web technology: TeaVM, an ahead-of-time compiler that converts Java bytecode to JavaScript or WebAssembly.

This technology, to put it mildly, is ridiculously impressive. To be clear, this isn’t “I compiled the entire Java Virtual Machine to WebAssembly; please wait for my hundred-megabyte download” (although that also exists); this compiles your Java code straight to JS, only including the minimum standard library required. System.out.println? More like console.log. Some more features:

  • It reimplements a good subset of the Java standard library so it can be compiled to JavaScript
  • Through Flavour, it has a full-on single-page-application/HTML templating framework, supporting REST, routing, and custom components
  • It has a libgdx backend to run libgdx applications on the browser
  • It’s ridiculously lean

So considering the sizable proportion of developers who hate JavaScript with a burning passion (for entirely understandable reasons), can TeaVM offer a compelling alternative?

Trying it Out

[UPDATE 2019-08-10: This post has been lightly revised due to the comments of konsoletyper, TeaVM’s developer. One thing not mentioned in this post is how willing the developer is to provide help ;).]

Let’s try it out:

$ mvn compile
...
[INFO] ------------------------------------------------------------------------
[INFO] BUILD FAILURE
[INFO] ------------------------------------------------------------------------
[INFO] Total time: 5.393 s
[INFO] Finished at: 2019-08-04T19:12:03-04:00
[INFO] Final Memory: 23M/39M
[INFO] ------------------------------------------------------------------------
[ERROR] Failed to execute goal org.teavm:teavm-maven-plugin:0.5.1:compile (default-cli) on project knoweth: Unexpected error occured: ConcurrentModificationException -> [Help 1]
[ERROR] 
[ERROR] To see the full stack trace of the errors, re-run Maven with the -e switch.
[ERROR] Re-run Maven using the -X switch to enable full debug logging.
[ERROR] 

(Elided are hours of me trying to figure out how Maven works, since I’ve never used it before. I won’t count that against TeaVM. If you’re stuck, my understanding is that teavm’s maven plugin runs by default in the package phase? So running mvn compile actually won’t run it by default.)

I’ll save you the Googling and just say that TeaVM 0.5.1 (the latest stable release) is incompatible with Java 11, which I am using. The solution is to use their development 0.6.0-dev-* versions from bintray. Fine - it would have been nice if TeaVM had a stable release for Java 11 (and it should be better documented), but it works.

REST Client Issues

Here is some code that will call a /login endpoint with a JSON body of { "username": "bob", "password": "bob" }:

@Path("")
public interface UserService {
    @Path("login")
    @POST
    void login(LoginBody body);
}

...
public UserView() {
    UserService r = RESTClient.factory(UserService.class).createResource("");
    BackgroundWorker worker = new BackgroundWorker();
    worker.run(() -> {
        try {
            // Should make a POST request to /login with JSON body
            r.login(new LoginBody("bob", "bob"));
        } catch (Exception e) {
            e.printStackTrace();
        }
    });
}

Issue #1 is that you need to make the login request from a BackgroundWorker. In this specific case, you need to make this request from an asynchronous context. In this example, it uses a BackgroundWorker, a class that Flavour uses to run background methods and update bound templates afterward, leveraging TeaVM’s async support. (That’s right: TeaVM added green threads to Java. In JavaScript.) This is not documented on their REST client docs (although it is on their advanced UI components page and is explained more on their coroutines page); I only figured it out by coming across a chance Google Groups post.

The second issue is this one:

fetch request fails with Java exception thrown

An error whose undescriptiveness rivals babel-transpiled asynchronous JavaScript code. (Correction: Babel code is actually worse, since it doesn’t preserve the stack trace, while TeaVM does so.) The core issue is actually not a Java exception; rather, it’s a JavaScript error from within standard library RequestImpl code, hence why it provides no description of what the error is. The REST client attempts, in 0.6.0-dev-816, to call a JS function that does not exist (otfri_RequestImpl_send0), and it fails with the JavaScript error otfri_RequestImpl_send0 is not defined. The only way I’ve been able to fix this is to roll back to Java 8 + TeaVM 0.5.1, which fixes the problem. The underlying problem is that you can’t use unstable TeaVM (0.6.0) with stable Flavour (0.1.0); upgrade Flavour to 0.2.0-dev. (Issue reference: #407.)

As a whole, there also doesn’t appear to be a way to make low-level HTTP requests (e.g. setting headers) other than by writing JavaScript bindings in Java (which is also woefully underdocumented.)

In Summary

You may have seen a theme here. TeaVM is incredibe technology, but it is unfortunately extremely underdocumented, likely due to having less real-world usage than most frameworks. You will find almost nothing on StackOverflow or blog posts about it; your best recourse is typically reading the source code.

I would still recommend you try it out, though! And perhaps file a few issues, or write some documentation. When it works, it is amazing to use.

(Disclaimer: this is a first look. If any experienced TeaVM users would like to chime in with corrections or advice, please do so in the comments!)