Meanwhile, in Nodeland…

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights", between 1480 and 1505.
Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, between 1480 and 1505.

In India, we don’t call it “Indian food’. We just call it “food”.

Rajesh Koothrappali, “The Big Bang Theory”

It was always hard for me to make choices. In the archetypical classification of ‘satisficers’ and ‘maximizers’, I definitely fall into the latter camp. I research ad nauseum, read reviews, measure carefully, take everything into account, and then finally make a move, mentally exhausted. Then I burst into cold sweat of buyer’s remorse, or read a less than glowing review of the product I just purchased, and my happiness is dimished. It sucks to be me.

It appears it can be passed on as well. My 14-year-old daughter recently went to the mall to buy clothes (alone, a rite of passage of sorts). She returned empty-handed – ‘there was nothing nice’. I think we confirmed paternity right then and there.

Of course, this affliction carries over into my professional life. Readers who follow me for a while can attest my hemming and hawing about Node.js – should I stay or should I go, what if it is not ready, what if it turns out to be just a fad, what if I read a bad review after we port everything.

At least in my professional choices I appear to be more decisive than when looking at Banana Republic sweaters. After we jumped into Node.js waters in January this year, there was no turning back. It is almost April now and my mid-term report is due.

One of the beneficial things of ending the agony and giving Node a chance is that you stop worrying about HOW things are done and focus on GETTING them done. And once you do it, like Rajesh above, Node.js recedes into the background and the actual problems you are trying to solve become your focus (you are not solving problems in Node, you are just, you know, solving problems). Xenofobic people who get to know ‘the other’ are often surprised that under the surface of difference there is a sea of sameness – people around the world have similar worries, hopes, fears and joys. In Node, you still have to worry about security, i18n, performance, code structure, user experience, and Node is not the only player involved in this – just one tool in your toolbox.

One of the most important roles in converting an organization of any size to Node.js is that of influencers. People like myself who push for it, look for opportunities to get ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ (to borrow from Bill Scott), find a crevice where Node can squeeze and then expand like ice in the road potholes (I should know, I keep avoiding them this cold March in Toronto all the time). It is a startup of sorts, an inverted pyramid that can easily fall sideways if the founder flinches or loses hope and vision.

On the other hand, it can remind you of the locked potential of the people. There is a dark lake of passion in all of us, often trapped under a layer of dealing with day to day stress and ‘things that need to be done’. It is heart-warming to see that when you succeed in winning people over to the Node.js side, the passion bursts out and they jump in with enthusiasm and vigor that is great to experience.

Example: a member of the JazzHub team heard my pitch for Node.js and started experimenting with tutorials written in markdown. Like everything else, these tutorials are currently served using JSPs and client-side JavaScript. He wrote a small Node app that takes the tutorials, converts them to HTML using a nice little module and renders them using Dust.js. He did it in one afternoon and proudly demoed it the next time we met – it is one page of JavaScript – you don’t even need to scroll to see the entire code. Needless to say, he was hooked.

One of the most important jobs of an influencer is to prevent failure on stupid technicalities. People ready to yell ‘I told you Node was not ready’ are everywhere. Node is awesome,  but we all know that a single uncaught exception can crash the process. A JEE container can throw exceptions like a leaky barge, filling up the logs, but it will stay up. In Node, it is your responsibility to prop Node up, a Weekend at Bernies’s of sorts. Judging by the frequency of questions about this behaviour, it is hard to stomach by people moving over from the other platforms.

JEE is in fact not that different. When an uncaught exception is thrown in a simple Java program with ‘main’, it exits. When the same happens in a JEE container, the runnable running in a thread exits. The thread is reset, returned to the thread pool, and the next request is passed on to another thread. In a production system with Node.js, it is your responsibility to replicate this behaviour.

It is somewhat easier to end up with an uncaught exception in Node.js than it is in Java. Due to the asynchronous nature of Node, trying to surround a piece of code in a try/catch block is often futile. Exceptions can and will escape. This is such a tricky problem that it warranted the high priests of Node to huddle recently and release a detailed and super useful document that anybody trying to write production quality Node.js system should read and internalize.

It goes without saying then that you will never run ‘node myApp.js’ except during development. In production, you want to spread out to cover all the cores of the machine or VM you are running on. You want to restart the process when it exits (and it will, repeatedly). And finally, it would help to monitor CPU, memory and throughput of each running process. We are currently looking at PM2 for this, but as always with Node, there are other ways of addressing this need.

There are other things we discovered while getting serious with Node. For example:

  1. WebSockets – one of the first things you will try to do after getting the CRUD down is server push – after all, Data Intensive Real Time (DIRT) is what initially catapulted Node into our consciousness. After you get the code working on your machine, inspect the entire path to the browser on your system – proxies are surprisingly cranky when it comes to support for Web Sockets. NGINX didn’t have it until version 1.3. If you are using Apache, note that it will not let the Web Socket connections through unless you install and configure mod_proxy_wstunnel. Of course, this is not Node-specific, but chances are you are most likely to hit it with Node because of its affinity to server push.
  2. DevOps – make them your friend. If you thought Continous Integration and Continous Deployment was a neat idea, you will find it absolutely indispensable once you start getting real with Node. A well established pattern here is a system composed of micro-services, and it is not uncommon to juggle dozens upon dozens of separate Node apps performing a role in the system. You will go mad trying to manage micro-services by hand. Of course, once you get your DevOps going, the ability to deliver new features into a micro-service with surgical precision will bring no end of joy, particularly if you are replacing a JEE pig that takes minutes to restart. Zero downtime is a reachable goal in a micro-service based system comprised of Node processes. In IBM Rational, we use Urban Code, which is natural to us since we bought them recently. Do what you need to do to go automatic.
  3. Storage – Node will make you re-evaluate the rest of your system. When I started this blog, I was characteristically wishy-washy about databases. With Node.js, we noticed that we naturally lean towards JSON-based NoSQL databases. Many people use MongoDB with success due to the smooth transition from SQL, but if you don’t like its scalability characteristics or your lawyers don’t like its AGPL license, CouchDB is an easy choice. IBM recently bought Clodant (hosted CouchDB fork with Apache Lucene tossed in) so it is hard for us to say ‘no’ to a free, Cloud-based and professionally managed NoSQL JSON DB. Again, YMMV – use what works for you, but give JSON-based NoSQL databases a try – going JavaScript all the way down is liberating.
  4. Authentication and Single Sign-On – if there is anything that will remind you of the Ford Model T (you could order it in any colour as long as it was black), it will be authentication and SSO in your system. Nothing will uncover unnecessary complexity of the authentication schemes used in the system like trying to move it to something that is not JEE-based. The complexity is normally hidden in the JEE filters, and is uncovered as soon as you try to replicate it in Node.js. It is technology agnostic as long as you use Java. The good thing is that with a sympathetic team on the other end, this serves as a catalyst to finally simplify and clean up the protocol or switch to something saner.
  5. Legal – if you are in an enterprise of any size, you will not be allowed to just use whatever you find on the Internet (even startups find software promiscuity to have side-effects as soon as they grow enough to attract legal attention). Our legal department probably hates us – the amount of Node.js modules they need to vet is staggering, but the mountain of requests is tapering down. For example, the Markdown app I mentioned earlier in the post needed to vet only the markdown module – all the other modules were already encountered by the apps before it. At this rate, the flow will slow down to a trickle soon.

So there you go – three months after our foray into Nodeland, we are lining up several new Node micro-services, the sky didn’t fall, we are learning new things every day and worry more about what we are building than how we are building it. Every once in a while we are forced to solve a problem for the first time. We agree on the best practice together, write it down for others coming after us, and move on. Where we can, we rely on the efforts of people before us, allowing suites such as Kraken.js to let us focus on what is really unique about our code, rather than the boilerplate. Our lawyers hate us, but if ‘tried and true’ was the only criterium when choosing our tools and languages, we would be still writing everything in Cobol.

If only I was this decisive choosing my last Home Theatre receiver.

© Dejan Glozic, 2014

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