Scala, come out and Play

Last week I started work on a Play 2.1 Scala project, which is a nice departure from Spring and Hibernate, so it’s a good time to share some first thoughts on the differences between the old traditional Java webapp, Grails, Rails and Play 2.1 with Scala.

First off, installing Play is easy as pie. Most modern frameworks can create a skeleton app quite easily, however the integration with sbt feels a bit awkward but is still much better than good ol’ Maven. Re-compiling scala files can seem to take awhile, but running tests are nice and quick in IntelliJ.

IntelliJ is a great choice for Scala/Play projects, as v12.1 has excellent auto-completion, syntax highlighting and click-through method links and good test integration. The contextual help is quite good at telling you what’s wrong – this seems to be a strength of the Scala compiler. However, for whatever reason we spent some time trying to get IntelliJ to register our Play app as such when importing the project. Possibly because the /app folder wasn’t off the root of the repository, (we have it in /play/app) but even after running play idea to generate the necessary project files, IntelliJ refused to import it as a Play app.

After upgrading the Play plugin, installing a Scala plugin and ensuring Scala, Play and Java were all in the path and had appropriate %_HOME directories set, it still wouldn’t give in. Creating a new Play app from IntelliJ seemed to bootstrap it with the necessary vision it needed, and after doing this, it imported our existing app no worries.

Be careful as lots of documentation on the web is disinformation, since Play 1.0 is different, and Play 2.1 have made some refinements from previous revisions. Also the fact that we are using Specs2 means you have to sanity check all blog posts and stackoverflows before assuming they are correct for you.

Testing in Scala is beautiful and clean, feels natural and all the crazy syntax of Mockito in Java seems to have been repaired. Specs2 reminds me more of RSpec or Jasmine Specs, which make it easier to read and group similiar tests.

Scala as a language feels quite wierd. Ruby and underscore.js already have nice functional methods like reduce, map, filter which are pretty straight-forward. Things I like are the Option class and the case matching aspects. Like any new framework (and language) you can get stumped and need a good reference on how to do things the idiomatic way.

Scala templates have been carefully designed with a set of opinions and good conventions (such as auto-escaping and immutable parameters, and the ability to create templates and helpers which have multiple closures as parameters changes the way you can call templates.

As an example:

To get all the goodness I am used to in other projects, I created a @toggle macro, which takes in a single String parameter, followed by 2 closures (one to render when enabled and, you guess it, the other to render when disabled).

Place the following in the directory views/helpers/toggle.scala.html as a helper template:

@(toggle: String)(enabledContent: Any)(disabledContent: Any)

@import play.api._

@defining(Play.current.configuration.getBoolean("toggles." + toggle)) { toggleValue =>

  @toggleValue match {
    case Some(toggleEnabled) => {

      @if(toggleEnabled) {
      } else {

    case None => {
      <h1> Error invalid toggle specified: @toggle</h1>

Then simply set a value in conf/application.conf ie.


Where you want to switch the behaviour (in a Scala template), do the following:

  @toggle("search_box") { 
    <label>Search:<input type="text" id="search"></label>
  } {
    <div>Search is currently disabled</div>

Additionally, Play allows you to toggle the value in the application.conf file dynamically, no restart needed =)


Tips to increase your dev-fu (java devs mainly):


  • switch to IntelliJ / RubyMine – fast searching (maybe notepad++ / grep / sublime is faster?) and if you are doing CSS / Javascript development I find it’s the most productive IDE for me.
  • spend 10 minutes every day asking yourself how to improve your IDE / environment… what do you spend the most time doing each day that is repetitive?
  • learn REGEX. It’s everywhere… if you have to replace/modify more than 2-3 LOC, use a find/replace. If that doesn’t fit, REGEX is your friend. Also learn SED once you’ve learned Linux 🙂
  • printout that keymap of your IDE… circle shortcuts you wanna learn then make a concious effort to learn them.  Test yourself the next day / week by trying to recall it with your muscle memory. Practising on different computers / keyboards reinforces it… especially mac vs. non-mac keyboards 🙂
  • Pair!!! I have learned the most shortcuts / configuration options from pairing or looking at others IDEs and asking questions.
  • Consider Chrome your browser of choice.  I was Firefox for a long time, but Chrome seems quicker and i’m more productive on it now.
  • if you are a frontend dev, research a bit on browser plugins for helpful tools like screen resizing, URL testing, JSON parsing, CSS reloading etc.
  • learn Linux, learn the shell and the command line…
  • learn Git (if you haven’t already), setup a few repos, patch some code on – it’s good for the soul 🙂