Wide Awake Developers

Metaphoric Problems in REST Systems

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I used to think that metaphor was just a literary technique, that it was something you could use to dress up some piece of creative writing. Reading George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, though has changed my mind about that.

I now see that metaphor is not just something we use in writing; it’s actually a powerful technique for structuring thought. We use metaphor when we are creating designs. We say that a class is like a factory, that an object is a kind of a thing. The thing may be an animal, it may be a part of a whole, or it may be representative of some real world thing.

All those are uses of metaphor, but there is a deeper structure of metaphors that we use every day, without even realizing it. We don’t think of them as metaphors because in a sense these are actually the ways that we think. Lakoff uses the example of “The tree is in front of the mountain.” Perfectly ordinary sentence. We wouldn’t think twice about saying it.

But the mountain doesn’t actually have a front, neither does the tree. Or if the mountain has a front, how do we know it’s facing us? What we actually mean, if we unpack that metaphor is something like, “The distance from me to the tree is less than the distance from me to the mountain.” Or, “The tree is closer to me than the mountain is.” That we assign that to being in front is actually a metaphoric construct.

When we say, “I am filled with joy.” We are actually using a double metaphor, two different metaphors related structurally. One, is “A Person Is A Container,” the other is, “An Emotion Is A Physical Quantity.” Together it makes sense to say, if a person is a container and emotion is a physical thing then the person can be full of that emotion. In reality of course, the person is no such thing. The person is full of all the usual things a person is full of, tissues, blood, bones, other fluids that are best kept on the inside.

But we are embodied beings, we have an inside and an outside and so we think of ourselves as a container with something on the inside.

This notion of containers is actually really important.

Because we are embodied beings, we tend to view other things as containers as well. It would make perfect sense to you if I said, “I am in the room.” The room is a container, the building is a container. The building contains the room. The room contains me. No problem.

It would also make perfect sense to you, if I said, “That program is in my computer.” Or we might even say, “that video is on the Internet.” As though the Internet itself were a container rather than a vast collection of wires and specialized computers.

None of these things are containers, but it’s useful for us to think of them as such. Metaphorically, we can treat them as containers. This isn’t just an abstraction about the choice of pronouns. Rather the use of the pronouns I think reflects the way that we think about these things.

We also tend to think about our applications as containers. The contents that they hold are the features they provide. This has provided a powerful way of thinking about and structuring our programs for a long time. In reality, no such thing is happening. The program source text doesn’t contain features. It contains instructions to the computer. The features are actually sort of emergent properties of the source text.

Increasingly the features aren’t even fully specified within the source text. We went through a period for a while where we could pretend that everything was inside of an application. Take web systems for example. We would pretend that the source text specified the program completely. We even talked about application containers. There was always a little bit of fuzziness around the edges. Sure, most of the behavior was inside the container. But there were always those extra bits. There was the web server, which would have some variety of rules in it about access control, rewrite rules, ways to present friendly URLs. There were load balancers and firewalls. These active components meant that it was really necessary to understand more than the program text, in order to fully understand what the program was doing.

The more the network devices edged into Layer 7, previously the domain of the application, the more false the metaphor of program as container became. Look at something like a web application firewall. Or the miniature programs you can write inside of an F5 load balancer. These are functional behavior. They are part of the program. However, you will never find them in the source text. And most of the time, you don’t find them inside the source control systems either.

Consequently, systems today are enormously complex. It’s very hard to tell what a system is going to do once you put into production. Especially in those edge cases within hard to reach sections of the state space. We are just bad at thinking about emergent properties. It’s hard to design properties to emerge from simple rules.

I think we’ll find this most truly in RESTful architectures. In a fully mature REST architecture, the state of the system doesn’t really exist in either the client or the server, but rather in the communication between the two of them. We say, HATEOAS “Hypertext As The Engine Of Application State,” (which is a sort of shibboleth use to identify true RESTafarian’s from the rest of the world) but the truth is: what the client is allowed to do is to hold to it by the server at any point in time, and the next state transition is whatever the client chooses to invoke. Once we have that then the true behavior of the system can’t actually be known just by the service provider.

In a REST architecture we follow an open world assumption. When we’re designing the service provider, we don’t actually know who all the consumers are going to be or what their individual and particular work flows maybe. Therefore we have to design for a visible system, an open system that communicates what it can do, and what it has done at any point in time. Once we do that then the behavior is no longer just in the server. And in a sense it’s not really in the client either. It’s in the interaction between the two of them, in the collaborations.

That means the features of our system are emergent properties of the communication between these several parts. They’re externalized. They’re no longer in anything. There is no container. One could almost say there’s no application. The features exists somewhere in the white space between those boxes on the architecture diagram.

I think we lack some of the conceptual tools for that as well. We certainly don’t have a good metaphorical structure for thinking about behavior as a hive-like property emerging from the collaboration of these relatively, independent and self-directed pieces of software.

I don’t know where the next set of metaphors will come from. I do know that the attempt to force web-shaped systems in to the application is container metaphor, simply won’t work anymore. In truth, they never worked all that well. But now it’s broken down completely.

Time Motivates Architecture

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Let’s engage in a thought experiment for a moment. Suppose that software was trivial to create and only ever needed to be used once. Completely disposable. So, somebody comes to you and says, “I have a problem and I need you to solve it. I need a tool that will do blah-de-blah for a little while.” You could think of the software the way that a carpenter thinks of a jig for cutting a piece of wood on a table saw, or a metalworker thinks of creating a jig to drill a hole at the right angle and depth.

If software were like this, you would never care about its architecture. You would spend a few minutes to create the thing that was needed, it would be used for the job at hand, and then it would be thrown away. It really wouldn’t matter how good the software was on the inside–how easy it was to change–because you’d never change it! It wouldn’t matter how it adapted to changing business requirements, because you’d just create a new one when the new requirement came up. In this thought experiment we wouldn’t worry about architecture.

The key difference between this thought experiment and actual software? Of course, actual software is not disposable. It has a lifespan over some amount of time. Really, it’s the time dimension that makes architecture important.

Over time, we need for many different people to work effectively in the software. Over time, we need the throughput of features to stay constant, or hopefully not decrease too much. Maybe it even increases in particularly nice cases. Over time, the business needs change so we need to adapt the software.

It’s really time that makes us care about architecture.

Isn’t it interesting then, that we never include time as a dimension in our architecture descriptions?

The Future of Software Development

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I’ve been asked to sit on a panel regarding the future of software development. This is always risky and makes me nervous, for two reasons. First, prediction is a notoriously low success-rate activity. Second, the people you always see making predictions like this are usually well past their “use by” date. Nevertheless, here are a collection of barely-related thoughts I have on that subject.

  • Two obvious trends are cloud computing and mobile access. They are complementary. As the number of people and devices on the net increases, our ability to shape traffic on the demand side gets worse. Spikes in demand will happen faster and reach higher levels over time. Mobile devices exacerbate the demand side problems by greatly increasing both the number of people on the net and the fraction of their time they are able to access it.

  • Large traffic volumes both create and demand large data. Our tools for processing tera- and petabyte datasets will improve dramatically. Map/Reduce computing (a la Hadoop) has created attention and excitement in this space, but it is ultimately just one tool among many. We need better languages to help us think and express large data problems. In particular, we need a language that makes big data processing accessible to people with little background in statistics or algorithms.

  • Speaking of languages, many of the problems we face today cannot be solved inside a single language or application. The behavior of a web site today cannot be adequately explained or reasoned about just by examining the application code. Instead, a site picks up attributes of behavior from a multitude of sources: application code, web server configuration, edge caching servers, data grid servers, offline or asynchronous processing, machine learning elements, active network devices (such as application firewalls), and data stores. “Programming” as we would describe it today–coding application behavior in a request handler–defines a diminishing portion of the behavior. We lack tools or languages to express and reason about these distributed, extended, fragmented systems. Consequently, it is difficult to predict the functionality, performance, capacity, scalability, and availability of these systems.

  • Some of this will be mitigated naturally as application-specific functions disappear into tools and frameworks. Companies innovating at the leading edge of scalability today are doing things in application-specific behavior to compensate for deficiencies in tools and platforms. For example, caching servers could arguably disappear into storage engines and no-one would complain. In other words, don’t count the database vendors out yet. You’ll see key-value stores and in-memory data grid features popping up in relational databases any day now.

  • In general, it appears that Objects will diminish as a programming paradigm. Object-oriented programming will still exist… I’m not claiming “the death of objects” or something silly like that. However, OO will become just one more paradigm among several, rather than the dominant paradigm it has been for the last 15 years. “Object oriented” will no longer be synonymous with “good”.

  • Some people have talked about “polyglot programming”. I think this is a red herring. Polylgot is a reality, but it should not be a goal. That is, programmers should know many languages and paradigms, but deliberately mixing languages in a single application should be avoided. What I think we will find instead is mixing of paradigms, supported by a single primary language, with adjunct languages used only as needed for specialized functions. For example, an application written in Scala may mix OO, functional, and actor-based concepts, and it may have portions of behavior expressed in SQL and Javascript. Nevertheless, it will still primarily be a Scala application. The fact that Groovy, Scala, Clojure, and Java all run on Java Virtual Machine shouldn’t mislead us into thinking that they are interchangeable… or even interoperable!

  • Regarding Java. I fear that Java will have to be abandoned to the “Enterprise Development” world. It will be relegated to the hands of cut-rate business coders bashing out their gray business applications for $30 / hour. We’ve passed the tipping point on this one. We used to joke that Java would be the next COBOL, but that doesn’t seem as funny now that it’s true. Java will continue to exist. Millions of lines of it will be written each year. It won’t be the driver of innovation, though. As individual programmers, I’d recommend that you learn another language immediately and differentiate yourself from the hordes of low-skill, low-rent outsource coders that will service the mainstream Java consumer.

  • Where will innovation come from? Although some of the blush seems to be coming off Ruby, the reduction in hype has mainly allowed Ruby and Ruby on Rails developers to knuckle down and produce. That community continues to drive tremendous innovation. Many of the interesting developments here relate to process. Ruby developers have given us fantastic tools like Gems and Capistrano, that let small teams outperform and outproduce groups four times their size.

  • To my great surprise, data storage has become a hotbed of innovation in the last few years. Some of this is driven by the high-scalability fetishists, which is probably the wrong reason for 98% of companies and teams. However, innovations around column stores, graph databases, and key-value stores offer developers new tools to reduce the impedance mismatch between their data storage and their programming language. We spent twenty years trying to squeeze objects into relational databases. Aside from the object databases, which were an early casualty of Oracle’s ascension, we mostly focused on changing the application code through framework after framework and ORM after ORM. It’s refreshing to see storage models that are easier to use and easier to modify.

  • This will also cause another flurry of “reactive innovation” from the database vendors, just as we saw with “Universal Databases” in the mid-90s. The big players here–Microsoft and Oracle–won’t let some schemaless little upstarts erode their market share. More significantly, they aren’t about to let their flagship products–and the ones which give them beachheads inside every major corporation–get intermediated by some open-source frameworks banged up by the social network giants. Look for big moves by these vendors into high scalability, agile storage, and eventual consistency storage.

Failover: Messy Realities

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People who don’t live in operations can carry some funny misconceptions in their heads. Some of my personal faves:

  • Just add some servers!
  • I want a report of every configuration setting that’s different between production and QA!
  • We’re going to make sure this (outage) never happens again!

I’ve recently been reminded of this during some discussions about disaster recovery. This topic seems to breed misconceptions. Somewhere, I think most people carry around a mental model of failover that looks like this:

Normal operations transitions directly and cleanly to failed over

That is, failover is essentially automatic and magical.

Sadly, there are many intermediate states that aren’t found in this mental model. For example, there can be quite some time between failure and it’s detection. Depending on the detection and notification, there can be quite a delay before failover is initiated at all. (I once spoke with a retailer whose primary notification mechanism seemed to be the Marketing VP’s wife.)

Once you account for delays, you also have to account for faulty mechanisms. Failover itself often fails, usually due to configuration drift. Regular drills and failover exercises are the only way to ensure that failover works when you need it. When the failover mechanisms themselves fail, your system gets thrown into one of these terminal states that require manual recovery.

Just off the cuff, I think the full model looks a lot more like this:

Many more states exist in the real world, including failure of the failover mechanism itself.

It’s worth considering each of these states and asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the state transition triggered automatically or manually?
  • Is the transition step executed by hand or through automation?
  • How long will the state transition take?
  • How can I tell whether it worked or not?
  • How can I recover if it didn’t work?

Life’s Little Frustrations

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A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable. -Leslie Lamport

On my way to QCon Tokyo and QCon China, I had some time to kill so I headed over to Delta’s Skyclub lounge. I’ve been a member for a few years now. And why not? I mean, who could pass up tepid coffee, stale party snacks, and a TV permanently locked to CNN? Wait… that actually doesn’t sound like such a hot deal.

Oh! I remember, it’s for the wifi access. (Well, that plus reliably clean bathrooms, but we need not discuss that.) Being able to count on wifi access without paying for yet another data plan has been pretty helpful for me. (As an aside, I might change my tune once I try a mifi box. Carrying my own hotspot sounds even better.)

Like most wifi providers, the Skyclub has a captive portal. Before you can get a TCP/IP connection to anything, you have to submit a form with a checkbox to agree to 89 pages of terms and conditions. I’m well aware that Delta’s lawyers are trying to make sure the company isn’t liable if I go downloading bootlegs of every Ally McBeal episode. But I really don’t know if these agreements are enforceable. For all I know, page 83 has me agreeing to 7 years indentured servitude cleaning Delta’s toilets.

Anyway, Delta has outsourced operations of their wifi network to Concourse Communications. And apparently, they’ve had an outage all morning that has blocked anyone from using wifi in the Minneapolis Skyclubs. When I submit the form with the checkbox, I get the following error page:

Including this bit of stacktrace:

There’s a lot to dislike here.

  1. Why is this yelling at me, the user? To anyone who isn’t a web site developer, this makes it sound like the user did something wrong. There’s a ton of scary language here: "instance-specific error", "allow remote connections", "Named Pipes Provider"… heck, this sounds like it’s accusing the user of hacking servers. "Stack trace" sure sounds like the Feds are hot on somebody’s trail, doesn’t it?
  2. Isn’t it fabulous to know that Ken keeps his projects on his D: drive? If I had to lay bets, I’d say that Ken screwed up his configuration string. In fact, the whole problem smells like a failed deployment or poorly executed change. Ken probably pushed some code out late on a Friday afternoon, then boogied out of town. My prediction (totally unverifiable, of course) is that this problem will take less than 5 minutes to resolve, once Ken gets his ass back from the beach.
  3. We mere users get to see quite a bit of internal information here. Nothing really damaging, unless of course Wilson ORMapper has some security defects or something like that.
  4. Stepping back from this specific error message, we have the larger question: is it sensible to couple availability of the network to the availability of this check-the-box application? Accessing the network is the primary purpose of this whole system. It is the most critical feature. Is collecting a compulsory boolean "true" from every user really as important as the reason the whole damn thing was built in the first place? Of course not! (As an aside, this is an example of Le Chatelier’s Principle: "Complex systems tend to oppose their own proper function.")

We see this kind of operational coupling all the time. Non-critical features are allowed to damage or destroy critical features. Maybe there’s a single thread pool that services all kinds of requests, rather than reserving a separate pool for the important things. Maybe a process is overly linearized and doesn’t allow for secondary, after-the-fact processing. Or, maybe a critical and a non-critical system both share an enterprise service—producing a common-mode dependency.

Whatever the proximate cause, the underlying problem is lack of diligence in operational decoupling.

Topics in Architecture

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I’m working on a syllabus for an extensive course on web architecture. This will be for experienced programmers looking to become architects.

Like all of my work about architecture, this covers technology, business, and strategic aspects, so there’s an emphasis on creating high-velocity, competitive organizations.

In general, I’m aiming for a mark that’s just behind the bleeding edge. So, I’m including several of the NoSQL persistence technologies, for example, but not including Erjang because it’s too early. (Or is that “erl-y”? )

(What I’d really love to do is make a screencast series out of all of these. I’m daunted, though. There’s a lot of ground to cover here!)

EDIT: Added function and OO styles of programming. (Thanks @deanwampler.) Added JRuby/Java under languages. (Thanks @glv.)

I’m interested in hearing your feedback. What would you add? Remove?

  • Methods and Processes

    • Systems Thinking/Learning Organization
    • High Velocity Organizations
    • Safety Culture
    • Error-Inducing Systems (“Normal Accidents”)
    • Points of Leverage
    • Fundamental Dynamics: Iteration, Variation, Selection, Feedback, Constraint
    • 5D architecture
    • Failures of Intuition
    • ToC
    • Critical Chain
    • Lean Software Development
    • Real Options
    • Strategic Navigation
    • OODA
    • Tempo, Adaptation
    • XP
    • Scrum
    • Lean
    • Kanban
    • TDD
  • Architecture Styles

    • REST / ROA
    • SOA
    • Pipes & Filters
    • Actors
    • App-server centric
    • Event-Driven Architecture
  • Web Foundations

    • The “architecture” of the web
    • HTTP 1.0 & 1.1
    • Browser fetch behaviors
    • HTTP Intermediaries
  • The Nature of the Web

    • Crowdsourcing
    • Folksonomy
    • Mashups/APIs/Linked Open Data
  • Testing

    • TDD
    • Unit testing
    • BDD/Spec testing
    • ScalaCheck
    • Selenium
  • Persistence

    • Redis
    • CouchDB
    • Neo4J
    • eXist
    • “Web-shaped” persistence
  • Technical architecture

    • 8 Fallacies of Distributed Computing
    • CAP Theorem
    • Scalability
    • Reliability
    • Performance
    • Latency
    • Capacity
    • Decoupling
    • Safety
  • Languages and Frameworks

    • Spring
    • Groovy/Grails
    • Scala
      • Lift
    • Clojure
      • Compojure
    • JRuby
      • Rails
    • OSGi
  • Design

    • Code Smells
    • Object Thinking
    • Object Design
    • Functional Thinking
    • API Design
    • Design for Operations
    • Information Hiding
    • Recognizing Coupling
  • Deployment

    • Physical
    • Virtual
    • Multisite
    • Cloud (AWS)
    • Chef
    • Puppet
    • Capistrano
  • Build and Version Control

    • Git
    • Ant
    • Maven
    • Leiningen
    • Private repos
    • Collaboration across projects

“If the Last One Goes, We’ll Be Up Here All Night!”

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There’s an old joke about a couple of folks on a plane who hear the captain successively announce that they’ve lost one, two, then three engines. Each time, he reassures the passengers that they’re OK, but will be progressively later to land. After the losing the third engine, one passenger tells the other, “If the last one goes, we’ll be up here all night!”

It’s a remarkable aircraft that can fly on just one out of four engines. Most four engine jets need at least two to cruise. (I’ve been told that they can make a controlled descent on one engine, but can’t maintain altitude.)

Likewise, your web app probably needs more than just one functioning server to handle demand. The usual approach to computing availability is to compute the odds that at least one server survives:


If all the servers are identical, meaning that we expect them to have the same failure rate, then this reduces to the more familiar form:


Coupling and Coevolution

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The mighty Mississippi River starts in Minnesota, at Lake Itasca. Every kid in Minnesota has to make the ritual pilgrimage to Itasca State Park at some point, where wading across North America’s longest river is a rite of passage.

Mississippi River Starts Here

One of the very interesting things in Itasca State Park is a section of forest that is fenced off so that deer cannot enter it. It’s part of a decades-long experiment to see how forests are affected by browsing herbivores. What’s really interesting is that not only are the quantity of plants different inside the protected area, but the types of plants and trees are different, too. Because deer prefer to nibble on younger trees, fewer saplings survive in the main body of the forest than in the fenced-off portion. Outside the fence, the distribution of tree size and age is biased toward older trees. The population of trees is weighted more toward resinous species like pines, which deer prefer not to eat. Inside the fence, more saplings survive into young maturity, so you see a more even distribution of tree ages and a wider diversity of species represented in the mature trees. The changes in the canopy affect the ground cover which, in turn, change how deer could (if allowed) reach the trees and browse them.

So, here’s a feedback loop that involves deer, trees, leaves and brush. The net result is a different ecosystem (albeit a slightly artificial one.)

Most physical and biological systems are like this in several ways, particularly relating to feedback. In our artificial systems (electrical, mechanical, symbolic, or semantic) we build in feedback mechanisms as a deliberate control. These are often one dimensional, proportional, and negative.

In natural systems, feedback arises everywhere. Sometimes, it proves to be helpful for the long-term stability of the system. In which case, the feedback itself gets reinforced by the existence and perpetuation of the system it exists within. In a sense, the system adapts to reinforce beneficial feedback. Conversely, feedback webs that cause too much instability will, like an overly aggressive virus, lead to destruction of their host system and disappear. So, we can see the constituents of a system co-evolving with each other and the system itself.

The old “microphone-amplifier-speaker-squealing” example of feedback really fails here. We lack both language and metaphor to really grasp this kind of interaction over time. In part, I think that’s because we like to separate the world into isolated components and only talk about components at a single level of abstraction. The trouble is that abstractions like “level of abstraction” only exist in our minds.

Here’s another example of coevolution, courtesy of Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. I’ll apologize in advance for oversimplifying; I’m devoting a paragraph to an argument he develops across entire chapters.

At some point, a group of nomads decided that the seeds of these particular grasses were tasty. In collecting the grasses, they spread it around. Some kinds of seeds survived the winter better and responded well to being sown by humans. Now, nobody sat down and systematically picked out which seeds grew better or worse. They didn’t have to, because the seeds that grew better produced more seeds for the next generation. Over time, a tiny difference (fractions of a percent) in productivity would lead some strains to supplant the others. Meanwhile, inextricably linked, some humans figured out how to plants, harvest, and eat these early grains. These humans had an advantage over their neighbors, so they were able to feed more babies. That turns out to be a benefit, because farming is hard work and requires more offspring to help produce food. (Another feedback loop.) Oh, and this kind of labor makes it advantageous to keep livestock, too. Over time, these farmers would breed and feed more children than the nomads, so farmers would come to be a larger and larger percentage of the population. Just as an added wrinkle, keeping livestock and fertilizing fields both lead to diseases that simultaneously harm the individuals and occasionally decimate the population, but also provide some long-term benefits such as better disease resistance and inadvertent biological warfare when encountering other civilizations.

Try to diagram the feedback loops here: nomads, farmers, livestock, grains, birthrates, and so on. Everything is connected to everything else. It’s really hard to avoid slipping into teleological language here. We’ve got feedback and feedforward at several different levels and timescales here, from the scale of microbes to livestock to civilizations, and across centuries. This dynamic altered the course of many species evolution: cattle, wheat, maize, and yes, good old H. Sapiens.

This complexity of interaction extends to planetary and stellar levels as well. At some sufficiently long time scale, the intergalactic medium is coupled to our planetary ecosystem.

The human intellectual penchant for decomposition, isolation, and leveled abstraction is purely an artifact of the size of our bodies and the duration of our lives.