Sunday, October 15, 2006

Plea of a Together Orphan

Despite all the criticism surrounding it at JAOO, I am still working with UML sometimes (not that often, I am currently stuck between Excel, MsProject and – if I am lucky – PowerPoint). When asked about which UML tool to use, I used to answer “Together is the best choice, if you can afford it”. But in the last couple of years I simply tried to evade the answer.
In the recent past, Together proved itself the best for mainly 3 reasons:
  1. Full roundtrip – despite some “not pure UML” tricks roundtrip really worked, so you could really keep in sync the model and the implementation code. You needed an OOP aware modeller to get all the benefits from it, but that’s what I used to be. Rose’s reverse engineering procedure really seemed terrible compared to this.

  2. Code inspection features – the audit section was pretty interesting and made together a great tool for inspecting an unknown big project. As a consultant I used it proficiently every time I had to explore somebody else’s code (I am not a zealot in applying all of the rules, but you get quite a good outlook of the coding practices, or malpractices, the team used to adopt) in a CSI fashion.

  3. Keyboard shortcuts – after a while, it really took me seconds to come out with a small domain model, almost without using the mouse. Adding classes, attributes, methods and interfaces was all done via keystrokes. Given that the classes’ source code was actually created at the same time, creating domain classes was faster than with an IDE. I ended up using it as a whiteboard, while discussing the model with the colleagues, cause it was faster than the whiteboard.
Clearly there were things that you couldn’t really do, even if they were available, like designing a GUI (Swing or Web), debugging, and so on. There were also a lot of annoying small bugs in generating PDF documentation, cutting and pasting images and so on.

Standing the test of time
Unfortunately, things never remain the same – panta rei – so did CASE tools as well. Well, Rose didn’t change that much in a few years, showing the same inconsistencies in the user interfaces over and over again. Together, meanwhile, blew it completely. They started a new version from scratch on the Eclipse platform. This was not a bad idea per se, given the weight of the original user interface, but they dropped all the keyboard shortcuts, and even if the GUI looks a bit nicer, it takes more and more time to come up with a model, cause you’re always selecting-dragging-dropping, exactly the things that made a lot of developers hate CASE tools in first place. Auditing tools are not such an advantage anymore, when you can include Checkstyle or PMD checks both in the IDE and in the build script, so you end up only with the roundtrip… but at the same price (

The only tool that really took modellers’ productivity seriously so far is Magic Draw UML, which added some nice features to the user interface that actually made drawing a model pretty faster. Still I can’t help myself… I don’t like it, it looks like a toy to me. It’s just a look and feel stuff… The guys at Visual Paradigm tried to replicate the solution, but they got it from the wrong side, and everything there looks counterintuitive, but shiny (they have plenty of colours and gradients, I guess it’s UML in Colors 2.0). Sparx’s Enterprise Architect looks promising, with an interesting price, but it’s not yet what I would like to have.

Back to basics
Given the new landscape, I’ll have to find another tool… I don’t need (and honestly I hate it) any code generation tool. I need only a fast modelling tool, so I am switching back to the whiteboard, and I’ll be using a camera to take pictures of it. Hope it’ll be readable.

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