Developing Your Java Project with Eclipse
    —everything you wanted to know about getting started
      with Eclipse, but had no one to ask.

Russell Bateman
Spring 2010
last update:

Though it's been years now—I really got started under the version just prior to Europa—I still remember the bewilderment of trying to get going in Eclipse. This isn't really a tutorial on how to do it, but an exposé on how to reach Eclipse with your project and existing Java code, or what obstacles you'll overcome in beginning to cooperate with others on a project in Eclipse. To the extent that this document makes reference to Eclipse particulars, it was written to Eclipse Galileo.

Among topics covered are:

You'll be so enthusiastic about Eclipse after reading this that you'll want to set it up. When that moment arrives, click here.

You can get all this information more accurately via Eclipse's Help menu. You can also get help at the Eclipse newcomers' forum where many brighter folk than I wait to answer your questions. Still, this short article is a good place to start especially if you're investingating Eclipse or trying to climb the first little foothill before tackling the great mountain.

Table of Contents

The Eclipse project and workspace
Project layout
Source code origins
Uncontrolled source code
Importing projects
Saving (and sharing) configuration
Source code control systems
Beginning to develop
Using existing source
Web-application projects
Remaining steps
Specifying JRE and Java-compliance level
Changing the JRE to be used
Java-compliance level
Using a different output folder
Web applications
Specifying a different source folder
Note: Package Explorer vs. Navigator
Using different libraries in development
Setting up third-party libraries for consumption
Linking source outside the Eclipse project
Appendix: Setting up Eclipse
Appendix: Setting up Subclipse
Appendix: Integrating Maven
Appendix: Using containers like Tomcat
Appendix: Updating code and workspaces
Appendix: Library and client projects
Appendix: Some random ideas...

Introduction to Eclipse

You should probably understand that Eclipse is developed by a (rather huge and worldwide) open source community with considerable backing by many corporate entities that does not result in this IDE being beholden to any. Its widespread adoption makes it the premier tool for Java, JEE and application development of many types.

There are other, excellent Java environments like NetBeans, but Eclipse is what most real Java and JEE developers use. (I apologize to NetBeans users; it's a fantastic tool and easier to use at first. In power, however, it quickly gives way to Eclipse.)

Architecturally, Eclipse owes much to its plug-ins—modules forming what we all think of as its nucleaus, but also countless ancillary ones that tailor it in specific directions. See a list here of different "Eclipses" for different purposes. This list is not exhaustive; this is just the list that itself distributes. In addition, Eclipse is the basis for other, commercial IDEs such as FlexBuilder® from Adobe.

If you don't work in Java, this document probably isn't the one you want to read. Though I'm a (very old) C guy, I now work almost exclusively in Java and am writing for Java. If you are wondering which Eclipse to download, I suggest you download Eclipse IDE for Java EE Developers unless you are certain you never want to develop web applications. With this IDE, you can develop both superb web and non-web applications.

The Eclipse project and workspace

The concept of a project needs little introduction. Even those as I who originate from a 1980s command-line environment can think of a project as being the ensemble of resources including source, configuration, library support and tool stack needed to create an application.

In Eclipse's case, however, there is an additional concept of "workspace."

The Eclipse workspace is like a sandbox in which you can work on more than one project, but all projects share something in common (like the same sand) in that they tend (though this can be violated) to use the same configuration in terms of JDK, the same version of Java compliance, the same set of compiler errors and warnings, the level of JEE aspects (JavaServer Faces), Java, XML, etc. validation rules, the same code format templates, and the same containers or servers (like Tomcat or GlassFish).

The workspace configuration is not hard and fast for you can make project-specific settings divorced from the assumptions guiding other projects. Look for Enable project-specific settings in many places in Eclipse preferences.

Project layout

Eclipse lays projects out according to industry best-practices for Java development although it exercises some choice over areas in which there is any leeway. Here is a brief illustration of a project named Thingies with one Java class, Thing and a JUnit test for it. Thingies uses MySQL and log4j. All Java projects use the JRE System Library. Project Thingies has some configuration done in

As the default option, packages appear as one entity, but underneath the directory structure is maintained, as can be seen in the Navigator View (not shown here).

In the example below, the best practice of separating test code from production source code is illustrated.

Eclipse also provides a Dynamic Web Project whose layout appears different. Seen from the Project Explorer, this is sometimes confusing or unrecognizable, but in the end, it's the same. Under Java Resources are found the src and test subdirectories. The libraries consumed (JAR files) are under the Libraries subdirectory.

The biggest difference between a mere Java project and a Dynamic Web Project is the presence of Eclipse's WebContent subdirectory. This doesn't have to be called by that name, you are free to rename it to anything you want, like web. webroot, etc. What's under this directory is what's deployed to a web server container such as Tomcat including JSPs, HTML, CSS, images, XML configuration files, etc.

WebContent subsumes the WEB-INF subdirectory which is mandated for web application deployment.

The build subdirectory is where Java class files are placed temporarily before being exported to a WAR file for deployment.

Source code origins

There are two possible origins of your source code—out of which you'll build and application:

The difference isn't particularly visible on the surface when you edit your code, but consuming code from source control requires the same, specific actions required when you work from the command line, namely, that you worry about it being up to date before you start editing and commit it when you feel you have something to hang onto.

When you create a new project in Eclipse, you must decide what the origin of your code will be. If you consume it from source code control, then you must not take the default when the create-project wizard comes up, but instruct it to Create project from existing source.

Uncontrolled source code

If, on the other hand, you are creating a brand new project (that you may or may not check into source code control later) you can take the default. Once, however, you commit the project to source code control, you should create a new project that consumes it as if you were a new developer coming on board. (This may not in fact be true, but it's how I see it and do it.)

Importing projects

The last place you can get source is by importing it from an existing project, Eclipse or not. I have the least amount of experience with this and so cannot say much of it other than it's done by File -> Import... > General -> Existing Projects into Workspace. I don't think personally that this approach is the best for creating projects from code under source control.

Saving (and sharing) configuration

Eclipse doesn't use the Windows registry for anything; all is kept in the filesystem. You cannot share workspaces or projects between computer hosts. You cannot share them between users of the same host, at least not simultaneously.

What you can do is to use File -> Export -> General -> Preferences to save your preferences and share them with colleagues. Use File -> Import -> General -> Preferences to retrieve those preferences into another (colleague's or your own) workspace.

Use File -> Import -> Existing Projects into Workspace to get a project that exists in another workspace into a new one. However, the best alternative for doing this is to use a source-code management tool like Subversion to keep your (entire) project in a repository that can be shared between your own different computer hosts as well as those of colleagues.

Source code control systems

While I have a great deal of long experience (long ago) with CVS, I have never used it from (or with) Eclipse. I have, however, used Subversion in three different environments with (and from) Eclipse including under Windows simultaneously with TortoiseSVN and under Linux using command-line svn.

I surmise, however, that CVS doesn't greatly complicate the matter and that competent plug-ins for Eclipse exist for this means of controlling source code. If you are starting out fresh, I nevertheless strongly suggest using the more modern Subversion. One plug-in for this is called Subclipse.

You'll commit (have already committed) pretty much everything to CVS or Subversion, except class files and JARs that are built from (by) your Eclipse project.

Assuming you've created the classes in Eclipse or they are already in traditional Java arrangement, you can consume them from cvs/svn. With a Subversion plug-in like Subclipse you right-click on the file or folder, choose Team, then you have an array of options to choose from for committing, updating, reverting, ignoring, comparing versions, etc.

Beginning to develop

All you have to do to begin developing is to create a new project, then the packages and source code for that project. Name your project the same as your application if the latter is composed of only one project. If you need to create "subprojects" (there is no such thing in Eclipse) that together make up the application, the names you give them are completely arbitrary.

Let's say that you have several different libraries, each a fairly monumental piece of work in its own right. Maybe one of them is a port of some piece of open source code, another is a proprietary library that's going to be consumed by your team and another one in your company. Maybe your application consists of a service that's a separate back end of a piece that will have a presence on the web. Your architecture is a function of your own imagination and though Eclipse doesn't support so-called subprojects, any project can be a "subproject" of another, typically residing in them same Eclipse workspace for convenience.

Many commercial application consist of dozens or more projects. Any resulting complication only becomes a problem when they are interdependent and you can no longer resolve build order in ant or Maven. It is not the purpose of this article to solve or make suggestions for that. I'm only lifting the covers for you to see a bit ahead.

It will become quickly obvious to you that Eclipse structures projects according to its interpretation of Java best practice. This may differ slightly from yours. You don't have to be satisfied with Eclipse. You can change this as you build your project. This isn't covered in here.

Using existing source

The original, motivating purpose behind this article was to corral all the things I was used to saying in the Eclipse beginniners' forum about getting started with an already existing source base. Therefore, my succeeding remarks will tend to assume this, but much is relevant no matter where your source is or whether it's under control or not. If you're cooperating with other developers, however, your code will be under control.

Each developer will create his (or her) new project by right-clicking in the Package Explorer view (usually the leftmost pane in the workbench if you haven't restructured it), choosing New, then Java Project. You may have to explore a deeper, more complex menu to reach this or other types of projects, but you'll quickly grow comfortable doing this without me detailing the several paths to it.

Web-application projects

If you have pre-existing web projects, you'll want to explore the Dyanmic Web Project as a type. Where you may have found Java Project under General you'll find this type of project under the Web folder icon.

I said before that Eclipse has its own view of how to structure Java projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than for the Dynamic Web Project. You'll see WebContent where you may be in the habit of using web, webroot or something else. You have the opportunity to change this if you want.

When the wizard comes up to create your new project, click Create from existing source and navigate to where you've checked out your sources. (The wording is a little different for web projects, but you'll recognize it and it works the same way.)

Typically, you'll use the subdirectory above your src subdirectory. It's a little tricky to integrate your project into an Eclipse one, however, if you've followed conventional Java practice (in the original project or filesystem structure) it shouldn't be too hard.

Remaining new-project steps

Thereafter, you will need to right-click on the project and use Build Path to set up other, broad categories or aspects of your project. As many of these as I can think of are addressed below.

Specifying the JRE and Java-compliance level

You can specify multiple JREs for Eclipse to work with. Then, you can change between them when this suits your needs and even force one project to use one and another to use a different one.

Typically, a developer with multiple JDK/JRE needs would privately install each JDK (always install JDKs not mere JREs) locally, in separate subdirectories.

Always install only JDKs from Sun Microsystems.

To add one or more JDKs to Eclipse (acquaint Eclipse with your multiple JDKs), pull down the Window menu, choose Preferences, then click on Java and expand it using the triangle control to the left. Click on Installed JREs and use that dialog to acquaint Eclipse with each of the JDKs you wish to use in development (by Adding each, specifying its path).

Changing the JRE to be used

This might arise if you have a project for an application or subproject of your appliction, like a library (JAR), that must run on a Java 1.4 virtual machine (or Java 1.4 JVM). This happened to me once upon a time because I maintained Java software that had to run on the NetWare operating system. Though ready to ship, Novell decided against releasing the Java 5 JVM for its now legacy platform. Some of my libraries and applications still had to run there; others had begun to give up support of that platform and we moved them ahead to Java 5.

The JRE to be use with a project can be specified at creation time, in the creation wizard's first dialog. Thereafter, you change this by right-clicking on the project, choosing Build Path, then Libraries and choose a different JRE System Library [Java xxx]: Click the Libraries tab, click JRE System Library, then Remove, then Add Library, JRE System Library, then Next whereupon you can re-specify this.

The upshot of this decision is the Java runtime library (set of JARs) that your project consumes. Among other aspects of Java programming, it affects whether the generics, enumerations and annotations of Java 5 are supported and all the other things that change from Java release to Java release.

Java-compliance level

Somewhat separately from the JRE version, you can vary for the workspace or for the individual project which version of Java to hold the code to. This means you can constraint the code not to use generics, enumerations, annotations or other features new to Java 5 by setting the compliance level to 1.4.

You cannot, however, set the compliance level to Java 5 if you're using a Java 1.4 JDK/JRE.

Change the compliance level by right-clicking on the project, choosing Preferences, then Java Compiler. Then you can choose to change the compliance level for the entire workspace (all projects not enforcing their own settings) or for the specific project.

Using a different output folder

Changing the default one set up by Eclipse either at project creation or, later, by using Build Path.

For a Java Project, the default output folder (where the compiled .class files go) is <project-name>/bin. I suggest you use this default for simplicity's sake: you'll never have to change it when creating new projects. If you wish, however, you can change it to something else by clicking Browse... and creating a new one. You may be asked if you wish to delete the original one; you can confirm this without fear since Eclipse will simply rebuild the project and put the resulting files into the new place.

I do not advise the use of checking Allow output folders for source folders. This appears to do little more than dump .class files in with .java files.

Output folder for the Dynamic Web Project (web application)

Do not change Eclipse's default here, <project-name>/build/classes. I prefer it to be <project-name>/WebContent/WEB-INF/classes, but this will not work. For example, if you're trying to write a JSF-based application, you'll end up with this problem and the solution I found to overcome it.

There are reasons to change this, but by the time you need to do so, you'll know more about it than I do. At the last place I worked, we developed a server containing quite a number of servlets. The official servlet API states the classloaders will operate first from WEB-INF/classes and then from WEB-INF/lib. And, there are other, deeper reasons, but I won't go into them here.

Specifying (and adding) a different source folder

Changing the default one set up by Eclipse follows somewhat the same logic as specifying the output folder. However, there is more need for multiple source folders.

If you like to maintain your source code remotely from your production code, you'll want to create a new folder at the root of your project, with packages all parallel to what's in your src folder, named test. In order for the code and resources under this new folder to be built and consumable (say, for running or debugging), you'll need to make test a "Source Folder."

This is done by right-clicking it, choosing Build Path, then Use as Source Folder.

Note that, at least by the Galileo release, the Package Explorer displays the src folder as Java Resources: src. If you open the Navigator view (Window -> Show View -> Navigator), you'll see a "filesystem" view of your Eclipse project. The Package Explorer can be a little parsimonious, sparing you from seeing a lot of irrelevant files and folders in your project that do not directly contribute to the business of writing Java code, XML configuration, JSPs, etc. The Navigator view shows it all with no surprises.

Similarly, dynamic source configuration files such as,,,, this_or_that.xml, etc. must also be in source folders both to work when you run or debug your application and to be included in the ultimate deployment file(s).

I like to keep mine separate in a resources subfolder. So, just as for test, I create it, then make it a source folder (see above).

Using different libraries in development

There are a number of system libraries you will want or need to use in the development of your application. Each project must have these tailored specifically.

I refer to these libraries as "system libraries"; they are mostly predefined by Eclipse. You reach the dialog by right-clicking on your project, choosing Build Path, then Configure Build Path and clicking the Library tab. Then, click Add Library. You'll see:

  1. Connectivity Driver Definition—your favorite JDBC connector such as mysql-connector-java-5.1.12-bin.jar
  2. EAR Libraries—libraries in a special JAR format for deploying multiple JEE modules
  3. JRE System Library—see discussion on JDK/JRE above
  4. JUnit—JUnit 3 or 4, JARs that help you write test code
  5. Plug-in Dependencies—I don't know anything about this one
  6. Server Runtime—Apache Tomcat, Sun GlassFish, etc., whatever you've chosen to use as your container
  7. User Library—see next discussion topic
  8. Web App Libraries—gives a list of Dynamic Web Projects whose output (JARs) can be consumed automatically by this project

Now, it's my impression that committing your project's files to Subversion (or CVS) should make it so that when your teammate checks out the project, these will already be set up. This is not the case for User Library. Read on...

Setting up third-party libraries for consumption

This means which of your own or third-party JARs you must consume. For a discussion of Build Path -> Configure Build Path -> Libraries -> Add Library -> User Library, see JARs and Eclipse Build Path: Setting up the library in Build Path. This tutorial demonstrates creating one library project, a consuming application project, and the wiring between them.

For a more practical demonstration of solving problems when setting up to use third-party libraries, see (in that same tutorial) Appendix D: Setting up a third-party library: a practical example.

While the system libraries spoken of previously will in all likelihood be there when the project is checked out subsequent times by additional teammates, the user libraries do not, at least sometimes if not all the time, show up intact. I'm in the habit of having to respecify them each time I create a new project using controlled source code. Maybe I've been doing something wrong all this time. Consider this a warning.

One annoyance of pushing a JAR from a library project to its consuming project(s) is the lack of Eclipse support for this. You will need to write—and invoke—an ant script (or use Maven) to accomplish this with the requisite refresh of the consuming project.

I may come back here at some point and show both an ant script and a step-by-step for doing this.

Linking source outside the Eclipse project

When you have a component that's related to your Eclipse project, but not part of it, you can "add" in its source such that you can browse it, edit it, etc. by right-clicking on the project, choosing

    Build Path -> Link Source...

then browsing to the parent of that source tree. The "parent" is in essence the subdirectory dominating the hierarchy beginning with src (and probably contains com/acme/fun/etc.).

Then, click OK and the component will appear as an Eclipse Source Folder directly under the project.

Adding the thing may create errors in the Problems view that you'll have to ignore. Most of the time, these errors are simply created by the fact that its sense of package is confused. There will be an error to the effect that

The declared package "" does not match the expected package ""

You can safely right-click the added folder and delete it. You will no longer because to see or edit the sources it contained and the errors it created will disappear.

Appendix: Setting up Subclipse

To set up to use the Subclipse (Subversion helper plug-in) in Eclipse, follow these instructions:

  1. Pull down the Help menu, then choose Install New Software....
  3. Click the Add button and type in Subsclipse for Name: and for Location:.
  5. Click OK.
  7. Check the box next to Subclipse and then Next.
  9. You should see a list of (about 7) items that will be installed; click Next.
  11. Accept the license agreement and click Finish.
  13. You will probably need to reassure Eclipse that you're serious about using this unguaranteed software. You will probably also relaunch Eclipse at its request.

This installs the plug-in and sets it up to be updated automatically depending on your update settings (see Help -> Check for Updates).

Appendix: Integrating Maven

Maven is a superb build tool, but that until recently has been hard to integrate with Eclipse. Most just use it in parallel, however, integration has greatly matured. Click here for notes and links on Maven.

Appendix: Using containers like Tomcat

Using a contain such as Tomcat is much easier within Eclipse than you might think. The Eclipse Web Tools Platform, an enhanced basic Eclipse with lots of web application development tools, makes this very easy. You simply specify a "server" when you create your project. Once you begin launching your application, for example, by right-clicking on a JSP and choosing Run As -> Run on Server (or Debug As -> Debug on Server), Eclipse launches a web browser with the URL pointed toward your container, be it Tomcat, GlassFish, JBoss, or any other supported server.

To set up a Tomcat server in a workspace where Dynamic Web Projects will be developed, perform the following:

  1. Right-click in the Project Explorer and choose New -> Other....
  2. Scroll through the folders until you find Server, expand it, then click Server.
  3. Click Next.
  4. Expand the Apache folder and click, e.g.: Tomcat v6.0 Server.
  5. Click Next.
  6. At this point, if you had a Dynamic Web Project, you could add it to the list of those recognized (configured) to be run by Tomcat.
  7. Click Finish.

Other sorts of servers, as you may have seen while creating the Apache Tomcat server, are set up this way. These include IBM WebSphere, JBoss, JOnAS, Oracle OC4J Standalone Server, and a few others. Still others may be added by installing additional third-party software, usually the formal plug-in installation mechanism in Eclipse.

Appendix: Updating code and workspaces between computer hosts

Of course, you can bring home a copy of your workspace or project from the office and dump it on top of what you had last night. Tomorrow, you reverse directions and bring what you did tonight into the office.

Disaster, you see. Even if you could name and constitute your user libraries identically, each time you replace files, you're clobbering them and you have to remove all the user libraries using Build Path -> Configure Build Path -> Libraries and then re-add them (using the Add Library button).

Source-code control

The best way to synchronize coding and other work you do on your Eclipse project is to assemble your project from a source code repository. You check out the code and other sources to your filesystem, then create a new Eclipse project using, instead of the default which is to create the project locally to the workspace, the project root as committed to Subversion (or CVS, etc.).

No more thumb drive between home and office. No more need to rebuild the library configuration.

You can cooperate with other developers simply through the use of the Team option for each file. The same problems and caveats that existing outside IDE development using a source code-control system apply.

You do not commit to Subversion, for example, any .class files or JARs built dynamically as part of a build. However, you would (you have some latitude in this, but here's how I do it) commit JARs from one project ordinarily expected in another. In other words, if you have an ant script that builds and copies JARs from project A to project B's WEB-INF/lib folder, for example, you would commit those in project B (but probably not try to commit the JAR as built in project A in project A).

Similarly, you should commit libraries from third parties like Apache, Sun, etc. that your projects need to build.

When another developer changes a third-party library, this can be momentarily disturbing as it may break a great many things as soon as you do an update. You must react to this by readjusting Build Path -> Libraries to compensate. However, as you aren't going to overwrite what you do, since only the sources under Subversion control are changed, you don't have to keep redoing library configuration.

Creating a new project from existing sources

To create a new project, you must...

  1. create a new project of the appropriate type, the same one as originally created, be it Java or Dynamic Web Project (or yet some other, but as a Java developer I'm giving it mostly from that perspective).
  3. specify the source code as coming from wherever you checked it out to from Subversion; this happens on the first page of both Java and Dynamic Web Project wizards.
  5. set up the Java compiler compliance level to match the project
  7. set up a Tomcat or other server in the workspace as needed
  9. if the test folder in the project isn't recognized as an Eclipse Source Folder (which is almost certainly has not), right-click on it and make it a Source Folder.
  11. set up the Java compiler warning and error levels to match what everyone else is doing on your team.
  13. organize the libraries via Build Path; add non-user libraries too such as JUnit; also, the Web App Libraries.

Appendix: Library and client projects

Imagine you have two projects. The one is an application, but it depends on another, a library for that application (and, perhaps, for still others).

Here it might be best to use two projects, one for the library and one for the library's client (the application). A project dependency must be set up from the client project to the library project. This will allow for checking out/in the projects separately to a tool like Subversion. It keeps the projects isolated.

To setup the dependency, put both projects into the same workspace. Right-click the client (application) project and choose Java Build Path -> Configure Build Path. Click the Projects tab then the Add button. Select the library project.

The application will now automatically pickup any changes made to the library.

There is a Project configuration tutorial in the Java Development User Guide provided in Eclipse Help; it discusses different project configuration options.

Appendix: Some random, but perhaps useful ideas...