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Interview: Intelligence Gathering Software on the NetBeans Platform

02.15.2010
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Chris Bohme is the chief software architect at Pinkmatter Solutions – a small, specialized software development company in South Africa. Pinkmatter has been working with a company called Paterva for the past few years to build Maltego - a tool for data visualization, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Maltego is used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, network security professionals and large corporates to discover and analyze information.

In a nutshell, how does Maltego work?

Maltego models information as entities (e.g., persons, e-mail addresses) and relationships between them. Relationships are discovered by running pluggable functions (called transforms) on the entities. For example, when running a social network transform on my e-mail address, one would discover my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles.

Out of the box, Maltego ships with over 150 transforms that mainly relate to open source intelligence. However, an organization using Maltego user can easily create their own transforms that run on their internal data.

The concept of transforms makes data gathering very quick and easy which is one of the aspects that sets it apart from some of its competitors like Analyst Notebook, which has been the de-facto tool for investigation and intelligence analysis.

Why and how did you choose to use the NetBeans Platform as the basis of this application?

We have actually been using the NetBeans Platform at Pinkmatter since 2002, back in the days of NetBeans 3.2, when the NetBeans Platform was not really separate from the IDE and the only real documentation for NetBeans Platform users was the source code.

Back then Pinkmatter was building a network security management tool we called “Palantir”, which was never released but which would later form the basis framework for Maltego. (Ironically one of Maltego’s competitors is now made by a company called Palantir Tech.)

I was using Forte (Sun’s customized version of NetBeans) as my IDE for Java development and realized that I would need very similar features in Palantir – global selection management, runtime composition (i.e., modules), copy/paste/undo/redo, auto-update, property grid, window manager, system palette etc. So I began reading through the sources and building Palantir as a NetBeans module while trying to remove as much of the IDE parts as possible.

I immediately fell in love with its design and complexity (yes, complexity – no matter how long you have been using the NetBeans Platform, there is something new you can learn every day) – but there was a definite beauty to it and I knew that following its architecture guidelines would save me from the certain “spaghetti-death” to which all large UI applications I had seen thus far were doomed from the start.

What are the main advantages of the NetBeans Platform to you?

On a personal level, working with the NetBeans Platform early on in my developer career has shaped my mindset around application design. As such, the NetBeans Platform source code was one of my most influential teachers when it comes to API design and architecture of large complex applications.

I started looking for similar patterns in the frameworks I was building using other programming languages and it has helped me identify designs that are “right” and those that are “wrong”. (When it comes to API design I believe that “truth, like beauty, is not a matter of opinion” :-) )

On the level of Maltego, I think the benefits are fairly obvious – there is a platform that comes with lots “free stuff” right out of the box. And hey, the best thing is, someone else improves, fixes and supports all this free stuff while you can focus on your specific problem domain.

If I were to rephrase the question to read “what in the NetBeans Platform couldn’t I live without?” – well, it would be the features related to runtime composition. The fact that components can be registered declaratively (for example in layer files) and are added as modules that get loaded at runtime shapes the overall design and maintainability and is something a modern application cannot do without.

As Maltego matures, instead of removing the dependency on some NetBeans APIs and replacing them with our own, we tend to use more and more of what the NetBeans Platform (and even the IDE) has to offer. This is a very good indication to me that a) NetBeans Platform was the right choice to build Maltego on and b) that the evolution of the NetBeans Platform is in line with the needs of its users (well, at least for us).

Continue to part 2 of this interview...

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Geertjan Wielenga.

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