Angular.js 2.0, Index Investing and Micro-Services

Beuckelaer_Girl_with_a_basket_of_eggs
Beuckelaer: Girl with a basket of eggs, Wikimedia Commons.

Now here is somebody with all her eggs in one basket, literarily. I used it to illustrate what index investing tries to avoid. I thought of index investing while reading the bitter and often hilarious reactions to the announced changes in Angular.js 2.0 on Reddit. I also thought about my experience with Google services. Watch me tie all these things together in one magic feat.

First off, let me be the first to acknowledge that righteous indignation about changes to a free product or service is always a bit rich. “I used this for my benefit for months and now they changed it – I demand they fix it and continue to invest real money so that I can continue using it for free”. Right.

That thing off the table, here is my amusing experience with Google services. A while ago I amassed a number of feeds I wanted to keep up with every morning over breakfast. I created a nice multi-page dashboard using iGoogle. It worked, and it was even responsive – it loaded fast and works well on my iPhone.

Then one day Google pulled the plug on it. After venting my, you guessed it, righteous indignation for a while, I looked for a replacement and found that Google Reader can be used for that. So I moved all my feeds to it. You guess what happened next – they pulled the plug on it too, and I had to move my feeds to Feedly, where they remain to this day.

Apart from feeling like the first of the three little piggies forced to change its address often due to the certain wolf, it taught me how Google feels about its free services. While it has a number of exciting and often groundbreaking products in the air at any point, you better steer clear if long term stability is important to you. Google engineers are not sentimental about their software and change their minds at an alarming frequency, which moves things forward but also leaves a lot of victims in their wake.

The moment I learned about Angular.js and how it was bestowed on the world and maintained by Google, my first thought was ‘uh, oh’. It had Google fingerprints all over it:

  1. A vertically integrated opinionated framework that attempts to solve all your needs.
  2. It does not play well with other well loved and popular libraries
  3. A lot of the approaches need getting used to and don’t look like anything you have seen before
  4. As a result, the learning curve is steep, and once you climbed it, you feel personally invested to a degree that is not healthy

And now with the announcement of Angular.js 2.0, we have the final shoe to drop – Google’s famous impatience with continuity and careful evolution. There were many people on Reddit who evangelized for Angular 1.x in their companies, and now feel betrayed. Others are contemplating switching to Knockout, Backbone, or leaving Web development altogether.

Index Investing

To change the pace a bit, let’s look at index investing. It is an investment technique that openly gives up on picking stock market winners and losers. Through the bitter experience, some people discovered that their stock picks are worse than if they let a blindfolded monkey choose their investments by throwing darts. Instead, they decided to invest in a basket of investments in each category, using low-fee instruments such as ETFs (Exchange Traded Fonds). All empirical evidence suggests most people can’t pick winners if their life depended on it, and even those who can cannot sustain that track record over any length of time. Full disclosure – I moved all my investments to index funds and my results are way better than my dart throwing years.

Index investing is all about diversification, asset allocation and risk containment. It applies to Web development more than you think.

The trouble with frameworks

I was picking on Angular.js, but I didn’t need to go that far outside my own company. We at IBM have written a hot mess of Web UIs using the Dojo framework. Truth to be told, a few years ago it was a pretty decent option and had some solutions that mattered to enterprises (i18n, important widgets such as sorting tables and trees, and support for all god-awful IE browsers known to man). The problem is that once you write all that code on top of it, you are stuck – you are forever bound to it. Dojo was a basket we put all our eggs in, like that girl above.

In the investment analogy, we bought one stock for all our money. Any investor will tell you that such a strategy is crazy – way too much alpha for a good night sleep. At the first opportunity to reflect on our strategy and devise something saner, we decided to use stable, standard-based protocols for integration, and confine stack choices to individual services. While we can change our minds on the implementation of one service, the other services can continue to work because the integration protocols are stable.

We also learned the hard way that frameworks tend to generate additional work – the source of accidental complexity. If you find yourself spending nontrivial amount of time ‘feeding the framework’ i.e. writing code not because it makes sense for your project but because the framework needs it done a certain special way, you are the victim of accidental complexity.

As a result, we also developed a strong preference for toolkits over frameworks. It allows us to maintain control and have a better chance of avoiding nasty surprises such as Angular.js 2.0.

Micro-services and risk minimization

Our current love affair with micro-services have several reasons, many of which I have written about in the previous posts. However, one of the reasons is closely related to the subject of this post: risk control. Like in investing, our ability to pick the right framework has a dismal track record. Therefore, with our switch to micro-services, we focused first on the way they communicate with each other. We invested in stable REST APIs, and message brokers that pass messages around using open protocols such as MQTT and AMQP 1.0. Due partially to the glacial pace of protocol standardization, the danger of them changing overnight is much lower.

Our approach to individual micro-service implementation is then to confine risk to the service boundary. If the service is small enough, picking the wrong framework (if you even need a framework) will doom only that one service. A small service can be re-written if need be. The entire system cannot without a world of pain.

Essentially our approach is to officially declare that we will not assemble a committee to choose one framework to rule them all. We will apply the following mitigation rules instead:

  1. Use the simplest approach you can get away with
  2. If you can get away with server-side generated content, do it
  3. If you can get away with server-side content + jQuery + Bootstrap, do it
  4. If you need a bit of MV* magic, try Backbone combined with isomorphic templates (e.g. Dust.js partials that are reused on both server and client)
  5. If you must use Angular.js 1.3, do it, but you are on the hook to keep up with Google, and have a contingency rewriting plan
  6. We will NOT base any of the integration code on any of the frameworks de jour. Instead, we will use REST, AMQP/MQTT, JSON, HTML5, CSS3 and vanilla JS.

Be pessimistic

Someone once said that we are all writing legacy code every day, so we should strive to make it the best legacy code we can muster. Angular 1.3 turned from shiny to legacy in a flash (even though in ultra slow motion since 2.0 will only arrive in the early 2016). Our approach may be pessimistic, but it will help us sleep better in the years to come, and will make those that come after us curse us a bit less. Micro-services help in this regard because they confine the risk, in the way oil tankers break up the cargo space into compartments. If you ensure that you can change your mind about the implementation of each service, the risk and importance of choosing the right framework diminishes.

The right question should not be “should I use Backbone.js, Angular.js, Ember.js or something else”. The question should be: will I be able to recover when the ADD-suffering maintainers of your framework of choice inevitably lose interest.

Right now, a starry-eyed college dropout is writing the next shiny framework to take the world by storm. With the micro-service approach, you will be able to give it a shot without betting the farm on it. You are welcome.

© Dejan Glozic, 2014

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