Pessimism as a Service

As far as I can remember, I was forgetful (ironic, I know). I could be driving for ten minutes, wandering why I don’t see the phone Bluetooth symbol on my car’s dash, and realizing I forgot my cellphone at home. Lately, when I reach the door, I ask myself: “OK, what have you forgotten”? Not “have you forgotten anything” but “what”, assuming that an affirmative answer is a forgone conclusion. Such a negative, “guilty until proven innocent” approach saved me many times, but taxed my soul. Am I really that predictable? Is cynicism the only way?

As our super cool, micro-service packed, React supercharged project is picking up steam, I am looking at everything we have done and counting the ways we have deployed ‘Pessimism as a Service’ to production. These examples may seem disconnected to you, but I assure you, there is a cold, calculated thread binding them. Hey, it’s a totally accepted artistic form – my own omnibus, as it were.

Micro services and human nature

I said it before, and I will say it again – micro services are more about people and process than about technology. In his strained attempt to disguise his distaste for micro services, Martin Fowler has still mustered a fainted praise in the way micro services tend to enforce code modularity.

The trouble is that, with a monolithic system, it’s usually pretty easy to sneak around the barrier. Doing this can be a useful tactical shortcut to getting features built quickly, but done widely they undermine the modular structure and trash the team’s productivity. Putting the modules into separate services makes the boundaries firmer, making it much harder to find these cancerous workarounds.

Martin Fowler on Strong Module Boundaries

It this will not inject you with a healthy dose of Weltschmerz, nothing will. What he is saying is that reaching directly into modules instead of using proper interfaces is a tech version of a cookie jar, and instead of counting on your maturity and discipline, micro services simply hide the cookie jar or put it on a top shelf, were you can’t reach it because you skipped the gym too many times.

Large systems are built by real-world organizations, and people are messy, petty, complicated, full of hidden agendas and desires. Engineers who try to look at micro services as a rational system fail to grasp the potent property that requires high emotional intelligence to understand. And it is nothing new – in fact I posit that the first micro service architecture has been practiced by the Nipmuk Indians, living near the lake in today’s Massachusets of the impossible name Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. Translated, it is really a module boundary protocol:

You fish on your side [of the lake], I fish on mine, nobody fishes in the middle.

– Full Indian name for the lake Manchaug, shortened by locals not familiar with micro-service architecture

So, yeah. Ideally, a monolithic system could be highly modular and clean if implemented by highly disciplined, rational people impervious to human foibles. When you manage to hire a teamful of such people, do let me know. In the mean time, the jaded micro service system we are using is humming in production.

AKKA is not a true micro service system

True story – I went to present in the first Toronto Reactive meetup because: (a) I mixed Reactive with React and (b) I wanted to learn what the whole Reactive Manifesto was by presenting on it. Hey, learning by doing!

As such, I was exposed to the AKKA framework. You can read all about Reactive in one of my previous blogs, but suffice to say that AKKA is a framework based on the ‘actor’ pattern and designed specifically to foster an asynchronous, dynamic and flexible architecture that can be deployed to a single server, and then spread out across any number of clusters as the needs grow.

There is a lot to like in AKKA, but I must sadly posit here that it is not a true representative of a micro service system. It is a system inspired by micro services, implementing many of their tenets and with some really nice properties. And yet it betrays one of the key aspects of micro services in that it is not pessimistic. In order to get the benefits of it, you need to lock yourself into a Scala/AKKA stack, paraphrasing the famous Ford Model T joke (you could order it in any color as long as it was black). You lose the ability to choose your stack per micro service.

This property is often misunderstood as a licence for anarchy – a recipe for disaster, cobbling together a concoction of languages, platforms, stacks and runtimes that nobody will be able to keep running and maintain. Of course that unchecked freedom has its price: a real world microservice system will most likely be using only 2-3 stacks (in our case, they ended up being Node.js and Java) and a small number of client side frameworks (for our extended team, React and AngularJS). But there is an ocean of separation between one and two platforms – the former representing lock-in, the latter being freedom.

As I always assume I forgot something, we should always assume that something better is just around the corner, and we don’t want to be hopelessly locked in when it arrives. But we also don’t want to bet our farm on it just yet. This is where the ability to start small is vital: we can try out new approaches in a single micro service without the obligation for a wholesale switch. AKKA requires that we profess our undying love to it and its Scala/JVM stack. Your milage may vary, but I cannot put all my money in that or any other single basket.

React is smart so you can be dumb

On to the client side of the the full stack. My readers know I have expressed my reservation about AngularJS before. I always found its syntax weird, its barrier of entry too high for a practical working system, and that’s before we even mention the version 2.0 schism. However, I always feared I will be viewed as ‘old man that yells at cloud‘ for not recognizing Angular’s genius, until React arrived.

You see, I got React instantly. I didn’t have to scratch my head and re-read its examples. When you read React code, you know exactly what is happening. Of course, that’s because it does less – just the View part. You need to implement Flux for coordinating actions, data stores and views, but Flux is even simpler, and consists of a single dispatcher module you fetch from NPM. You also need something like react-router in order to handle client side page switching. Then you need something like react-engine if you want isomorphic apps (I was told the new term is ‘universal’; I will use both for fun).

You may not fathom the difference in approaches between AngularJS and React until you watch the video explaining React’s design philosophy. You can tell that Facebook deploys React to production. In my opinion, Angular suffers from being designed by rock stars for other rock stars. Once you start getting real and deploying non-trivial apps to production, you need to scale, and that means increasing the number of people that can be productive with your framework of choice. React was designed with the assumption that if the framework is predictable and relatively simple, the velocity can be increased without the proportional increase in the bug rate. Otherwise, what’s the point?

React designers took human nature into account, assumed that we are all dumb at various times of day or week, and ensured that even in those unhappy moments, we can still read our React code and understand what it is doing with relative ease. It feels like a rotten compromise, but it is pure genius.

Web Components just around the corner

Ah, Web Components. The ultimate native component model that will solve Everything. Three years ago there was a lot of excitement, and people jumping on the polyfills to ‘temporarily’ shim the browsers until everybody implements them natively. Fast-forward to November 2015, and today you still cannot bet your project on them in production. Yes, they are natively implemented in Chrome, but if you didn’t want to use IE-only browser extensions 15 years ago, why would you do it when Google, and not Microsoft, is the vendor trying to sell its agenda as a standard.

Yes, there has been some movement on cross-browser support for Web Components, at least when Shadow DOM is concerned. Nevertheless, nothing stands still, and now some aspects of the ES6 module loading are at odds with HTML Imports (an important part of Web Components spec).

And of course, what has also happened in the last three years is that we got React. It has a very strong component model (albeit one that you can only peruse if you lock yourself into React), and more importantly, it extends to the server and even native rendering. This makes React attractive in ways that Web Components will never be able to match.

A year ago, we seriously toyed with the idea of just using shims until Web Components, clearly the future of the component models, arrive. I am glad I allowed my jaded self to prevail and instead used React – it helped us ship to production, with no performance compromises coming from shims, and looking back, we would be nowhere close to the promised glorious future if we allowed exuberance to sway our better judgement.

I am not saying ‘No’ to Web Components forever – they are actually not incompatible with React, and in fact a low-level Web Component can be used just like a native component in a React application, reaping the benefits of the DOM diffing. However, we don’t intend to write Web Components ourselves – we are fully isomorphic and server-side rendering gives us benefits that a comparable Web Component would not.

I predict that Web Components will be the way for incompatible frameworks to co-exist, the way to ‘fish in the middle’ of the Nipmuk lake mentioned above.

Optimism dreams, pessimism ships

These four examples show why enthusiasm and optimism rule the prototypes, meetups and articles, but pessimism takes over in production. Taking human nature into account, rolling with the imperfections of reality, expecting and preparing for the worst pays off tenfold once the projects get serious.

Now, if I can only remember if I turned the stove off before leaving home.

© Dejan Glozic, 2015


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