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I'm project manager of a software development team at www.researchspace.com. I've been developing bioinformatics software for the last 9 years or so, and I'm hoping to share some of the experience and knowledge I've gained with Eclipse RCP, Java web app development and software development in general on these blogs.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Eclipse RCP Headless build experiences

As an Eclipse RCP developer for the past  4 years  the worst experiences we've had by far have always been with the headless build, especially when upgrading. While APIs for UI components remain wonderfully stable across the 3.x series, the headless build and update site change quite markedly from one release to the next and we find it takes several  days work to get the build to work for the new Eclipse. In fact we've been avoiding upgrading from 3.4->3.5 until now precisely because our small team has been reluctant to break our build whilst we've had several deadlines to meet.  

So finally, emboldened by attendance at EclipseCon2010 ( in particular, Kai Toedter's excellent tutorial) we've bit the bullet and upgraded...and it wasn't too bad at all! So here is a high level set of some ' rules for dummies' to get a headless build working for a standard RCP app, along with some gotchas to watch out for.

Rule 1)
 Make sure your product is based on features, not plugins. This will enable updating, and greatly  facilitate a headless build.

Rule 2) Don't even think about trying a headless build until you've got the standard product export from the PDE UI working!

Rule 3) ... and don't try the standard product export until you can run the 'Launch a product' in the IDE from the product overview page. One problem we had with updating was that Eclipse plugins changed somewhat. So we added (as dependent features in our product config) the RCP feature, the Help feature, plus our own application features. Then to find out what plugins were missing we did the following steps:
  1. Click 'synchronize with defining plugin' on the product overview page.
  2. Click 'Launch product', which typically fails to begin with.
  3. Now open the launch configuration for the launch you just did, and click 'Validate plugins'
  4. By scanning the list of missing dependencies you can add these to your product build. We have  an' Eclipse base' feature which contains all the plugins which our app needs but which are not defined in the RCP or Help features. For example we define  a search page that depends on the ltk.refactoring plugins, so we add these ltk plugins to our 'base' feature.
  5. Add these to your 'base feature' (or just your own feature) until the launch configuration works. You are now ready to try the export from the PDE UI with a reasonable chance of success.
Rule 4) Make sure the version of RCP delta pack you use corresponds exactly with your Eclipse install! We careless used an older version of the delta pack which breaks the headless build but the PDE build in the UI seemed to work fine.

Rule 5) If you are migrating form 3.4 to 3.5, remove all of the 'update' plugins from your feature - these are now  replaced by p2 plugins. You may need to remove some menu contributions from your app as this is now all accomplished by the p2.user.ui feature - just make sure you have a top level 'Help' menu in your app.

Rule 6) When creating a build target of Eclipse plugins + RCP delta pack, we were tempted to remove certain features & plugins which we knew our app didn't need (e.g., jdt plugins) in order to reduce its size. Don't do this!! Just download a fresh eclipse, use update sites to install any other plugins you need, and copy in the delta pack features and plugins. This is then your 'target' Eclipse install against which you build your app.

Rule 7) Use a template build.properties file that you know works if you can find one - Kai Toedter's excellent mp3 demo build.properties works pretty much out of the box for 3.5.2 based apps - you just need to change the file locations to those on your system and it just works! 

Whilst this isn't a complete tutorial, hopefully this may be of use to someone who's been banging your head against their screen for the last few days. Indeed perhaps the days of nightmarish headless builds are coming to an end now that p2 is working nicely... at least until e4 comes along!

Thanks for reading!

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