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Cover Story: A Practical Solution to Internationalization of a J2EE Web App

Making Web Applications Multilingual

As the Internet crawls to even more remote corners of the globe, the internationalization of Web applications exposes a plethora of challenges. As a real-world example, if an airline starts reaching far more remote destinations across international frontiers, a Web application representing the airline's ecommerce will face numerous challenges in terms of internationalizing the ecommerce itself.

These challenges result from many causes. For instance, one basic thing that differs from one country to another is the spoken language. Among countries where the same language is spoken, the colloquiality of the language differs. For example, in some parts of the world, the word "baggage" is widely used to represent personal belongings such as suitcases of a traveler. In some other parts of the world, the same is referred to as "luggage." In terms of ecommerce, there are numerous variations from country to country such as different currencies, different tax laws, different forms of payment, and - most important - different business rules governing the application.

Essentially, there are two parts to the internationalization of a Web application. The first part is internationalization of the application code. This involves preparing the code so that it can adapt itself to new languages and regions. In practice, this preparation involves the separation of text, labels, display messages, and any other data that is sensitive to language and region of the world. This type of adaptation of code enables generalization of the product in such a way that it can handle new languages and countries without any re-design. The second part is localization of the application. This involves actual adaptation of the internationalized code to a specific language or region (aka locale). In practice, localization involves creation of translated text, labels, and messages, and the addition of any other application data that is specific to a certain locale.

Internationalization is a common problem that typically gets a blind eye turned toward it during design and development. Internationalization design must be up-front work in the development life cycle and not an afterthought. It is rightly said, "a stitch in time saves nine." It may not be too easy to design for internationalization up front; however, it will be far more difficult to incorporate internationalization at a later stage when the application has already been developed. Up-front planning for application internationalization can save significant amounts of time and money. There could be myriad ways of addressing this problem; however the following approaches are widely used:

  • Creating internationalized pages that retrieve locale-dependent content using custom tags. This approach is typically employed if all of the pages consistently follow the same structure and look and feel across different locales. This approach also provides for easy maintenance and future enhancements across all of the locales. This approach may also employ a single source for business logic components that process the logic based on the locale.
  • Creating separate locale-specific pages. This approach is typically employed if the structure and the look and feel of the pages differ significantly across locales. In this case, there may be separate business logic components for each locale.
  • Using portal technology. Vendors such as BEA provide support for portal technology. For example, BEA WebLogic Application Server has excellent support for developing internationalized portals in the form of a set of custom tags that can be incorporated within the portal pages. Portal technology is widely used and is definitely an excellent candidate for implementing internationalized Web applications.
This article will delve into a real-time application against the backdrop of a Web-based airline-booking engine that has internationalization requirements complemented by a content management system. The implementation approach is aligned with the first option described above, where a single set of JSP pages are developed that work with locale-dependent content. The presentation tier of the application was built using existing frameworks such as Struts and JSTL custom tags. Both the Struts framework and JSTL custom tags offer internationalization support by providing mechanisms that are built upon the standard Java internationalization classes such as Locale, Resource Bundles, etc. The article will discuss in detail the technicalities involved in extending these frameworks to internationalize the Web presentation by incorporating means to retrieve localized content dynamically from the underlying content management system.

The Fundamental Concepts
Before we delve much into the implementation details, it is worth browsing through some key concepts. Terms such as "character," "character sets," "character codes," "character encoding," and so on are often heard when people talk about internationalization.

A character is the smallest component of a written language that has a specific name and some semantic value. Each character can have more than one graphical representation. For example, character "A" can be graphically represented as "A," "A," or "A." Independent of the graphical representation, the meaning of the character remains the same. Each such graphical representation is called as a glyph. A set of glyphs is called a font. So a character will have a different glyph in different fonts. A character set comprises of a group of related characters that can be used for some purpose. All the characters on an "English" key board can be grouped into a character set because they provide ability to develop meaningful and informative documents in "English."

Computers do not understand characters automatically but rather need a coded set of characters to process the data. In a coded character set, each character is assigned with an integer value commonly referred to as code point. American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) is a good example of a coded character set. ASCII is a small coded character set that comprises 127 characters. There are other coded character sets such as ISO-8859-1 and Unicode. Essentially, the code point of a character in the coded character set is used to identify the right glyph to display on the computer screen.

Character set encoding is yet another term that is widely used. A character set encoding scheme is a set of rules for mapping byte sequences (aka octets) to character code values and vice versa. Coded character sets such as ISO-8859-1, UTF-8, and UTF-16 have their own encoding schemes. For example, different schemes encode the character "ß" into byte sequences as shown in Table 1.

The terms "coded character set" and "coded character set encoding" have different meanings and should not be used interchangeably. To avoid this confusion, the short name "charset" is usually used to represent coded character set encoding. Table 2 shows some of the charsets that support different languages.

Table 2 leads to a big question: what character set should be used to support multiple different languages in an internationalized application? For example, the ISO-8859-1 character set will not support Chinese characters that are actually supported by the GB2312 character set. Obviously, there should be a common character set that can encode all of the characters in different languages of the world. Unicode is one such coded character set that promises to provide a unique code point for every character in every language. Java uses Unicode to encode characters. JRE 1.4 supports Unicode 3.0. Unicode is a large character set composed of almost 65,000 characters covering almost all world languages. Unicode encodes characters in 2 bytes, i.e., Unicode is 16-bit encoding with a range of code points from U+0000 to U+FFFF, represented in Unicode hexadecimals.

There is one more character set, known as the Universal Character Set (UCS), which can support all language characters and symbols. However, UCS uses a 31-bit encoding scheme that is not supported by most of the computer applications, whereas 16-bit encoding is widely supported. To address this issue, new transformed encoding schemes have been created based on Unicode and UCS. One of them is UTF-8 (UCS Transformation Format). UTF-8 transforms UCS characters into 1, 2, 3, or 4 byte encodings. UTF-8 preserves ASCII codes and encodes an ASCII character as a single byte. In essence, UTF-8 uses multi-byte encoding to represent characters in 1-4 bytes (octets).

The UTF-8 support for a wide range of characters and the efficient way of encoding makes it the de facto character set that should be used for displaying multiple languages. The application described in this article uses UTF-8 everywhere there is a need to encode content in different languages.

The Internationalization Requirements for the Example Application
The application described in the article is a Web-based airline-booking engine that has points of sale (POS) in different countries. The requirement was to support a number of POS countries (24 all together) such as the US, Germany, the UK, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Canada, China, Uruguay, etc., with room to expand to other countries of the world. For each POS country, the requirement was to provide a list of preconfigured languages specific to each POS in such a way that a user could select a particular language from the list in order to display content in that language. The requirement was to support a number of languages (10 all together) such as English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, etc., with room to accommodate any other language in the future. By default, when a user lands on the application in a particular POS country, the content is expected to be displayed in the native language of that POS country.

More Stories By Murali Kashaboina

Murali Kashaboina leads Enterprise Architecture at United Airlines, Inc. He has 15+ years of enterprise software development experience utilizing a broad range of technologies, including JEE, CORBA, Tuxedo, and Web services. Murali previously published articles in WLDJ and SilverStream Developer Center. He has master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton, Ohio.

More Stories By Bin Liu

Bin Liu is a lead software engineer at United Airlines. Bin has more than seven years of experience developing distributed applications using J2EE technologies, WebLogic, Tuxedo, C++, and Web services. Bin has previously published articles in WLDJ.

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