Preparing Your Building Blocks For Learn SaaS and Newer Learn Versions

Author: Scott Hurrey
Categories: [‘Building Blocks’, ‘Tutorials’]
Tags: [‘building blocks’, ‘blackboard learn’, ‘saas’, ‘learn’, ‘b2’, ‘building block’, ‘prepare’, ‘requirements’, ‘developer’]


Blackboard Building Blocks have long been a staple in the Blackboard Learn platform. These Java Web Apps allow you to customize the workflow and experience that you and your faculty use to interact with the system.

We realize that this is an important part of the Learn ecosystem, and so Blackboard Learn SaaS with the Original Experience will continue to support your Building Blocks going forward*****. That said, the architecture of the SaaS-delivered platform is dramatically different than that of the self- and managed-hosted servers you are used to. As a result, your Building Block will likely need to be modified to run in the new Blackboard.

The following sections list requirements that must be met for a B2 to function in a SaaS environment. For example, your B2 must be compiled with Java 8, the database may be Postgres so the best practice is to use Schema.xml, the shared content must be accessed as described below, etc. Many of these are also requirements for a B2 to function on Learn Q2 2016 (3000.x.x) and Q4 2016 (3100.x.x). The best practice is to code to meet all of these requirements, then your B2 will function on SaaS, Managed Hosted, and Self Hosted systems.

*Note: Building Blocks cannot surface content in an Ultra course, ever. B2s meant designed to work with Original Experience courses can continue to work in SaaS, provided they meet the requirements documented here. Ultra Courses surface content from the Content Market - which are built on Partner Cloud, or the LTI standard & Blackboard Learn REST APIs.

APIs

Only use the published APIs. If it’s not published, it’s private. Our product development team is cleaning up and refactoring a lot of code. If you’re using private APIs, there is a good chance they will stop working. So, remove all use of private APIs. For example we’ve discovered that B2s that depend on DocumentManagerEx now fail in newer versions of Learn. DocumentManagerEx is private. Don’t use it. Eliminate the use of all private APIs.

Database

In SaaS, the database schema name will no longer be BBLEARN or bb_bb60. Your B2 code must determine the actual schema name if it has any dependency on the value. See Bye Bye BBLEARN & bb_bb60

Also, in SaaS, the database is Postgres. If you’ve been testing your code on the Developer Virtual Machine, this isn’t that big of a deal. Schema.xml will continue to be supported as it is today. If you are providing SQL statements in the form of stored procedures, post_schema_updates, etc, you will just need to be sure to supply those files in postgres form, as well. These files will take the suffix, db-pgsql. If a self or managed-hosted client is migrating your B2 to SaaS via a “full database migration” be certain to read SaaS Migrations - Sequences and Tables.

In addition, its important to note that Exceptions encountered during postgres transactions stop all processing. You must code to handle this occurrence. One approach is to create a save point before you start the transaction and roll back to that save point upon exception. Here’s a small sample demonstrating this.

// Much of the error handling stripped for space

public static T withSavePoint(Callable c, Connection con) throws SQLException
{
  Savepoint savepoint = null;

  try {
    if ( null != con && !con.getAutoCommit() ) {
      savepoint = con.setSavepoint();
    }

    return c.call();
  } catch ( SQLException e ) {
    if ( con != null && savepoint != null ) {
      con.rollback( savepoint );
    }
    throw e;
  }
}

Postgres handles timestamps differently. There are two types of timestamps: localtimestamp and clock_timestamp::timestamp. The localtimestamp returns the time at the start of the transaction. The clock_timestamp()::timestamp returns the actual current time. As a result, it is best practice to use clock_timestamp()::timestamp in your Building Block, as this matches the behavior of timestamps in other databases.

Avoid the use of data-templates for management of objects that can be managed through the bb-manifest.xml file. This includes rows in tables like application, navigation_item, and entitlements. The use of data-templates both adds risk to live-upgrades and loses customizations (application status, entitlement-to-role mappings, etc.).

Shared Content Folder

In the Enterprise Blackboard Learn you are accustomed to developing for, the Building Block home lives in the shared content directory. For instance, if I wrote a building block and set my vendor ID to ‘bbdn’ and my plugin handle to ‘my-b2’, my building block and all of its related files would live in blackboard/content/vi/BBLEARN/plugins/bbdn-my-b2, and this directory would exist once, in only one place, so changes were persisted to all application servers.

In Learn SaaS, there are two building block homes. There is still the shared file system that is shared among the entire group of application servers, but there is also a local cache on each individual server. As a result, the Building Block would still reside in the shared directory, similar to blackboard/content/vi/BBLEARN/plugins/bbdn-my-b2, however the web app would live in the local cache on each server, in a directory similar to blackboard/cache/vi/BBLEARN/plugins/bbdn-my-b2.

As a result of this change, several of the Plugin API methods have been modified to handle the dual-folder deployment. PlugInManager.getPlugInDir() and PlugInManager.getPluginsDirectory() can now only be used to access the read-only files from the exploded war in the cache folder. If you need to access the shared config folder for your Building Block, you can use PlugInUtil.getConfigDirectory(). Calling methods like ServletContent.getRealPath() will point to the cache folder, so be sure that any method you are calling that returns a path or a file is returning what you expect it to.

As an example, with prior versions of Learn you could use the following code to write to a file in your plugin’s folder and create a configuration file:

PlugInManager manager = PlugInManagerFactory.getInstance();
File myDir = manager.getPlugInDir( manager.getPlugIn( "myVendorId","myB2Handle" ) );
File myConfigDir = new File( myDir, "config" );
File myConfigFile = new File( myConfigDir, "config.txt" );

// read/write myConfigFile

You will now need to re-write the above code code to look like the following:

File myConfigDir = PlugInUtil.getConfigDirectory( "myVendorId", "myB2Handle");
File myConfigFile = new File(myConfigDir, “config.txt”);

// read/write myConfigFile

If you just need to read from a file that is included with in your Building Block, you can use the following code snippet to access the cached copy.

PlugInManager manager = PlugInManagerFactory.getInstance();
File myDir = manager.getPlugInDir( manager.getPlugIn( "myVendorId","myB2Handle" ) );
File myStaticDirectory = new File (myDir, "webapp/myStaticStuff");

// read from myStaticDirectory - files as originally present in war file

See the bb-config.properties section in Developer Virtual Machine - DVM for how to configure your DVM to behave like Learn SaaS in regards to the shared content folder.

Eventually, all write access to the shared folder will be phased out, and write access for logging will be limited to the log directory returned by PlugInUtil.getLogDirectory(). Prior to this change, a new way will be documented to achieve the same goal without writing directly to the backend of the server.

Logging Changes

In SaaS, logging is handled a bit differently, as clients will not have back- end access to the system. You can still log to the log directory, but those logs are redirected to Kibana so your Building Block won’t be able to read that log file. There will be access to the logs through the System Admin panel.

In order to see your B2s logs in Kibana-Elasticsearch, the only SaaS interface for log files, your B2 must do the following:

  1. Write the log files to the directory returned by blackboard.platform.plugin.PlugInUtil.getLogDirectory.PlugInUtil (Building Blocks API 3000.1.0)
    1. Typically looks like **/logs/plugins/-/...**
    2. Read the API documentation on how to get write permission.
  2. Use this format, with four columns that are pipe separated:
    2016-03-15 01:00:00 | DEBUG | 41:c.b.c.i.task.UsageReportingTask | Generating Usage Report...
    2016-03-15 01:00:00 | ERROR | 68:o.s.s.support.MethodInvokingRunnable | Invocation of method 'doUsageReport' on target class ...failed
    java.lang.NullPointerException: null
      at com.blackboard.consulting.internships.task.UsageReportingTask.getFirstTimeActivationDateModified(UsageReportingTask.java:68)
    

The b2 logging configuration in the logback.xml file that produces this log format is:

<appender ... >

...

<encoder>

<pattern>%date{yyyy-MM-dd HH:mm:ss} | %-5level | %-45(%L:%logger{40}) |
%m%n%ex{10}</pattern>

</encoder>

...

</appender>

Sample logging code that works in a SaaS environment.

Statelessness

The Learn SaaS cloud architecture is built to the best practices of cloud computing. As such, in SaaS, Learn is stateless. As a result, you can no longer rely on HttpSession persisting across requests. As a result, Building Blocks that synchronize data on sessions will need to be refactored. You can still use BbSession.setGlobalKey() to store data, but you will need to be cognizant of the size of the data, as this is stored in the database.

As an example, if you currently employ code like the following to store an object in the session:

request.getSession().setAttribute( "myKey", "myValue" );
request.getSession().setAttribute( "myObjectKey", myObject );

You will need to refactor to look like this:

ContextManagerFactory.getInstance().getContext().getSession().setGlobalKey("myVendorId.myB2Handle.myKey", "myValue" );

Non-String values need to be serialized to save on the BbSession - refactor to avoid if at all possible.

Java 11

Blackboard Learn SaaS runs on Java 11, as of Learn 3800. As a result, Building Block that are to be installed in the cloud, or on 9.1 Q2 2020 or later, need to be built with Java 11. For more information see 8 steos to prepare for Java 11.

Tomcat 8

Tomcat 8 introduces a few new complexities to the Building Block development process. This move was an opportunity to re-imagine how the Learn application startup performance could be improved. This work has been extremely successful, but requires some refactoring of your code.

JSP Precompilation

It is expected that going forward, all Building Blocks will precompile JSPs. This simple step will assure that your JSP files render properly in Blackboard Learn. All bundled Building Blocks are required to take this step, while currently optional, this could become mandatory in the future.

This blog post describes one way to precompile you Java Server Pages when using Gradle.

bb-context-config.properties

Tomcat 8.5 is substantially more configurable in the way that you can implement jar scanning. This file lives in the WEB-INF directory of your Building Block and provides the following options:

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars

Because you should be precompiling your JSP files, this will normally be left blank. If on-demand JSP compilation is used, this may be set to a Java regular expression of jar file names. You should only include the jar files containing the TLD files needed by the non-compiled JSP files. The patter can include the template variable @CORE_TLD_PATTERN@, which will resolve to a regular expression matching all Blackboard jar files containing TLDs.

Here are a few examples:

  • RECOMMENDED: Building Block uses several Blackboard Tag Libraries
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=@CORE_TLD_PATTERN@
    
  • Default
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=
    
  • Building Block uses Struts and the bbNG Tags
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=bb-
    taglibs.jar|struts-taglib-.*\\.jar
    
  • Building Block uses several Blackboard libraries and Struts
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=@CORE_TLD_PATTERN@|s
    truts-taglib-.*\\.jar
    

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.pluggabilityJars

Set this to a Java regular expression of jar file names that contain web fragments, ServletContainerInitializers (SCIs), and other classes with annotations defined in the Servlet 3.1 specifications if they are used by the Building Block.The pattern can contain the template variable @CORE_PLUGGABILITY_PATTERN@, which will resolve to a regular expression that matches all Blackboard jar files containing such components.

Here is an example:

  • A Building Block contains classes that implement Spring’s WebApplicationInitializer
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.pluggabilityJars=spring-
    web-.*\\.jar
    

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter

This Java regular expression should list all SCIs in the CLASSPATH that are not used by the Building Block. The default value is ^.*$, which matches ALL SCIs and assumes that the Building Block does not use any.

Examples:

  • Building Block does not use SCIs and does not have any uncompiled jsps
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter=^.*$
    
  • If for some reason, your JSP is not compiled, use
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter=^.*(?<!\\.JasperInitializer)$
    
  • If the JSPs are compiled, but your code relies on classes that implement Spring’s WebAppplicationInitializer
    com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter=^.*(?<!\\.SpringServletContainerInitializer)$
    

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.processTldsOnStartup

This is not required to be in the bb-context-config.properties file. You would include this and set it to true only if the Building Block or one of the jar files it contains defines a listener in a TLD that the Building Block requires.

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.processTldsOnStartup=true

Here is a final example of a typical /WEB-INF/bb-context-config.properties file:

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=
com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.pluggabilityJars=
com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter=^.*$

If you see errors like:

Unable to compile <myclass> root cause:
INFO | jvm 1 | 2018/02/06 00:51:17 | java.lang.NullPointerException
INFO | jvm 1 | 2018/02/06 00:51:17 | at org.apache.jasper.JspCompilationContex
t.getTldResourcePath(JspCompilationContext.java:566)
INFO | jvm 1 | 2018/02/06 00:51:17 | at
org.apache.jasper.compiler.Parser.parseTaglibDirective

try adding making your bb-config-context.properties file look like this:

com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.tldJars=@CORE_TLD_PATTERN@
com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.jarscanner.pluggabilityJars=
com.blackboard.tomcat.servletcontainer.context.containerSciFilter=^.*(?<!\\.JasperInitializer)$

web.xml

Your Building Block should be using Web App version 3.0, and requires metadata-complete to be set. By default and in most cases, this should be set to true for best performance. Set this to false ONLY if your Building Block uses annotation-based web_xml extensions as defined in the Servlet 3.1 specification or if your jar files should be scanned for web-fragment.xml. These are some of the annotations that require the metadata-complete attribute to be set to false:

  • WebServlet
  • WebFilter
  • WebInitParam
  • WebListener
  • MultipartConfig
  • ServletSecurity
  • HttpConstraint
  • HttpMethodConstraint
  • DeclareRoles
  • EJB
  • EJBs
  • Resource
  • Resources
  • PersistenceContext
  • PersistentContexts
  • PersistenceUnit
  • PersistenceUnits
  • PostConstruct
  • PreDestroy
  • RunAs
  • WebServiceRef
  • WebServiceRefs

Some of these annotations, like PostContruct, PreDestroy, and Resource, only require the setting to be false if they are placed in an object whose life- cycle is managed by the container, such as a Servlet or a Listener.

Here is an example of what this will look like in your web.xml file:

<web-app 
  xmlns="[http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee](https://community.blackboa
rd.com/external-link.jspa?url=http%3A//java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee)"
  xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance"
  xsi:schemaLocation="http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee http://java.sun.com/xml/ns/javaee/web-
app_3_0.xsd"

version="3.0" metadata-complete="true">

In addition to metadata-complete, another new tag should be included at the end of the web.xml file: absolute-ordering. Generally, this should be an empty tag for best performance. If web fragments are used, the ones that are required should be listed explicitly her to to avoid unnecessary initialization of other unused fragments in the class path.

For example:

  • The Building Block does NOT use web fragments
<absolute-ordering/>
  • The Building block uses web fragments from the spring-web jar
<absolute-ordering>
  <name>spring_web</name>
</absolute-ordering>

Faster Startup

When declaring servlets in web.xml, the tag allows you to decide when a servlet is loaded into memory. The default value is to load at first access, but that is not always appropriate for every situation. The following table illustrates the tags and their meanings. Be sure to select the one that is right for your Building Block.

Tag Value Description
1 Load the servlet during system initialization.
-1 Load the servlet the first time it is accessed.
-9876 Load the servlet immediately following the Learn system initialization

Be sure to evaluate your individual integration before deferring your startup. If this or another Building Block depends on the servlet code being registered or if this servlet must be live prior to the system starting for user access, deferring startup is not appropriate.

Deferring all of your servlets to load immediately following system startup will definitely make the system available to users more quickly, though one should note that those user requests might be a bit slower as all of the servlets are starting. In addition, it is important to note that should a user access a servlet that has been deferred and not yet started, it will load at that time, so there is no risk of a servlet being unavailable should the process still be underway.

If you are executing other startup logic inside something such as a ServletContextListener’s contextInitialized method and that logic is not 100% required to be executed before user activity then please defer it by calling ContextInitThreadRunner.startThread(Thread) or .startDaemonThread(Thread).

Here is a snippet from the Javadoc explaining this method:

/**

* This method can be used in place of thread.start() when you are starting a thread typically during system startup

* and you do not absolutely NEED that thread to start immediately. Once the system has completed normal startup of

* all webapps (b2s) and is ready to accept requests, any threads registered via this method will be started. <br>

* <br>

* It is safe to call this at any point in time though - if the server has already started then this will merely start
* the thread.<br>`

* <br>

* The reason we are doing this is to make sure all resources can be
dedicated to pure startup tasks and not diverted

* to 'background' activity, thus getting the system to a ready state a bit
faster.

*/

URL Encoding

Tomcat 8.5.12 and later releases of Tomcat 8.5.x by default does not allow curly braces ( { } ) or vertical bars, often referred to as pipes ( | ) in URLs. For backward compatibility, Tomcat provides a way to override this behavior by allowing a system property tomcat.util.http.parser.HttpParser.requestTargetAllow to be defined. Please be advised that this exposes the application to a known security issue.

Future versions of Tomcat may not support this override. Therefore, all B2s must url-encode these characters. For example, an URL like http://myuniversity.blackboard.com/webapps/myb2/appController?options={x|y} must be written by the application as http://myuniversity.blackboard.com/webapps/myb2/appController?options=%7bx%7cy%7d. Otherwise, Tomcat will reject the request.

Permissions

As Blackboard continues to modernize the Blackboard Learn platform and move services out of the Learn code line and into microservices, the need to secure the application from both accidental and malicious actions, the properties granted to Building Block integrations is necessarily tightening. This is being addressed in a phased manner, with the intent of providing third-party developers ample runway for adjusting to the new restrictions. As new restrictions are added, this page will list them, so be sure you are following this page to receive updates.

Permission Mitigating Factors Current Action**
java.security.AllPermission   Filtered Out
java.lang.RuntimePermission createSecurityManager, setSecurityManager Filtered Out
java.lang.RuntimePermission action implying createSecurityManager or setSecurityManager Warning Message
java.util.PropertyPermission write Warning Message
java.io.FilePermission ALL FILES Warning Message

Many Building Blocks rely on the ALL FILES permission for writing to the file system. This will be filtered out soon. The Building Block should request explicit file system permissions and utilize the advice in this guide when writing to log files and config directories. To illustrate the change, here is an example of a bad permission and a good permission for writing to a log file from a Building Block.

BAD

<permission type="java.io.FilePermission"name="&lt;&lt;ALLFILES&gt;&gt;" actions="read,write,delete,wxecute"/>

GOOD

( A couple examples. See ALL FILES No More for a full set.)

<permission type="java.io.FilePermission" name="BB_HOME/-" actions="read,write,delete"/>
<permission type="java.io.FilePermission" name="BB_HOME/logs/" actions="read,write,delete"/>

Original UI

Original courses run in an iframe on Learn SaaS. This shouldn’t affect your Building Block, except in the two following cases:

  • If you set top.document.location or top.location.href or any other similar settings that change the top page for the browser, your Building Block will not display properly. You can use window.location instead.
  • HTML form tags with target=”_top”, or target=”_blank” will break out of the Ultra Original course peek panel. Change these to target=”_self”.
  • To meet accepted best practices in web design, there is a new maximum browser width of 1920px. Make sure you plan accordingly.
  • B2s using the bbUI and bbData tag libraries should be refactored were at all possible to use bbNG.

Ultra UI

There are currently no extension points for Building Blocks in the Ultra UI.

Continuous Delivery

Blackboard strives to deliver updates every two weeks. As a result, you should be using only public APIs whenever possible, as the continuous delivery model, coupled with the possibility of undocumented private API changes without warning, makes using private APIs extremely risky.

Installing Building Blocks in Learn SaaS

There is no way to install a Building Block in Learn SaaS, regardless of the User Interface you are using. If you have licensed Learn SaaS Plus or Advantage, you do have the ability to install Building Blocks, but you must work with support to schedule the installation

Update a Building Block for TinyMCE 5

In Learn 3900.X we intend to implement an updated content editor, TinyMCE 5, in the Original Course View and Original Experience of Learn. (*Forward-looking statement applies.) This editor changes certain patterns of UI with more of them living in an overlay modal rather than pop-up window after pop-up window. This change has led to required changes that are specific to B2s that have a Mashup. Cancel buttons in these mashups that expect to close a window will actually now need to close on overlay modal. The overlay modal will also include a close action button, an “x” in the interface, which will also work to close the window in case the cancel button doesn’t work; but if a cancel button in a mashup B2 is going to continue to work, the code will need to be updated.

The code below needs to be added for the cancel button. This code assumes that a B2 is being designed that is compatible with both the new editor and the older one, Learn v 3900.x vs v3800.x and earlier.

if ( parent && parent.tinymce &&
     parent.tinymce.activeEditor &&
     parent.tinymce.activeEditor.windowManager )
{  
  parent.tinymce.activeEditor.windowManager.close();
}
else
{
  // Call the JavaScript you currently use for Cancel here.
}

If the B2 will only be compatible with the updated editor and not backwards compatible, the else section isn’t required:

if ( parent && parent.tinymce &&
     parent.tinymce.activeEditor &&
     parent.tinymce.activeEditor.windowManager )
{  
  parent.tinymce.activeEditor.windowManager.close();
}

*Statements regarding our product development initiatives, including new products and future product upgrades, updates or enhancements represent our current intentions, but may be modified, delayed or abandoned without prior notice and there is no assurance that such offering, upgrades, updates or functionality will become available unless and until they have been made generally available to our customers.

Changes Required to Address SameSite Issues with B2s

Why These Changes Are Necessary

Historically a Building Block can launch from content created by a Blackboard Learn B2 to a remote server where some content is selected to push back to Blackboard Learn. With the advent of browsers now enforcing a SameSite cookie policy the remote server cannot then make a request back to Learn with cookies that contain Learn session information because of the browser SameSite enforcement. For this discussion we’ll describe how that impacts a B2 mashup and describe a solution that uses JavaScript to get around the browser’s enforcement of the SameSite policy. You will need to examine the rest of your B2 functionality to determine if you need to make similar changes in other areas that get content from your server.

For this example, we discuss a B2 that provides a mashup that does a launch to get content from a mashup content provider, say mashupsource.com. The user used to be able to select content on mashupsource.com and do a form POST, or a GET back to the B2 endpoint. Because browsers now enforce the SameSite policy by default, the form POST will no longer work. And, in the next major release of Learn, a GET will not work either because the new TinyMCE 5 editor will render the B2 mashup inside an iframe. The browser will not send the Learn Server (LearnServerFQDN) cookies to LearnServerFQDN when accessed in that manner.

Hence you need a way update Learn Server content without a cross-site HTTP request from mashupsource.com to the Learn Server. Following is a description of how you can do so:

Overview of the Changes

Instead of redirecting the browser to a page on mashupsource.com, that page needs to load an iframe, provided by your B2, with the source being mashupsource.com. The user will interact with mashupsource.com within that iframe and when done, that page will use JavaScript to postMessage to the parent window with whatever the result of the user’s interaction with mashupsource.com is. JavaScript in the parent (authored by mashupsource, rendered by your B2 as part of your mashup) will accept that message (and validate it is coming from mashupsource.com) and then from within this window (the one launched from LearnServerFQDN/B2…) it would then POST (or GET) back to learn. Since this is a POST (or GET) from a page coming from the same origin it will all work. These changes are compatible with the current and future releases of Blackboard Learn.

In the next major release of Learn the window and frames will be stacked as follows:

[window/iframe: LearnServerFQDN – the Learn Original Course page with the editor on it

                [iframe:LearnServerFQDN/B2 providing mashup (receive postMessage then POST or GET to B2)

                                [iframe src=mashupsource.com (postMessage to parent)]

                ]

]

Code Examples - Coming Soon

Our intent is to provide more detailed pseudo code here, or possibly complete sample B2 code.