Thursday, June 21, 2018

Version Locking

We have a few lovely workarounds, arrived at through a small measure of blood, sweat, tears, and research, embedded in our cpanfile these days.  Here are my two favorites:

requires 'Email::MIME', '<= 1.928';
    # 1.929+ screws up Content-Type sometimes
requires 'DateTime::Format::Strptime', '<= 1.57';
    # DynamoDB v0.1.16 (current) buggy with rewritten Strptime

Nobody wants to come back and check these, to see if later releases of the packages work again.  (It’s possible I’m the only one who remembers these hacks are here.)

Email::MIME was especially nasty because it only failed sometimes, and now, how do I prove that the fixes (which may have occurred in 1.931 or 1.933) actually solve the problem?  I can’t prove the negative in test, and I can’t trust the package in production.

As for the other fun bug, “DynamoDB v0.1.16” refers to the package whose full name is Net::Amazon::DynamoDB and released on November 6th, 2012.  I think this one was detectable at install/test time, but it was still No Fun.  A lot of work was expended in finding out its dependency changed, and I’m not excited to redo it all to find out if 1.67 (or 1.63) fixed the issues.

Especially since use of Perl was deprecated company-wide, and we want to get it all ported to a new language.

Editor’s Notes: this was another old draft.

Since it was written, we accidentally introduced an updated version of Email::MIME into production, and it still failed.  We fixed the bug that allowed the update to occur; clearly, upstream’s process is broken.  I don’t think we could be the only people hit, across multiple years and multiple versions of the entire software stack.

I’m not entirely sure what happened with Net::Amazon::DynamoDB—but we may have been able to use a newer version with it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Python, virtualenv, pipenv

I heard (via LWN) about some discussion about Python and virtualenvs.  I'm bad at compressing thoughts enough to both fit Twitter and make sense at the same time, so I want to cover a bit about my recent experiences here.

I'm writing some in-house software (a new version of memcache-dynamo, targeting Python 3.6+ instead of Perl) and I would like to deploy this as, essentially, a tarball.  I want to build in advance and publish an artifact with a minimum amount of surrounding scripts at deploy time.

The thing is, the Python community seems to have drifted away from being able to run software without a complex installation system that involves running arbitrary Python code.  I can see the value in tools like tox and pipenv—for people who want to distribute code to others.  But that's not what I want to do; I want to distribute pre-built code to myself, and as such, "execute from source" has always been my approach.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Stream Programming, Without Streams

Editor’s note: Following is a brief draft from two years ago.  I’m cleaning out the backlog and faking HUGE POST COUNTS!! for 2018, I guess.

I wrote before that I don't “use” stream programming, but I've come to realize that it's still how I think of algorithms and for loops.  Input enters at the top, gets transformed in the middle, and yields output at the bottom.

It's like I look at a foreach loop as an in-line lambda function.  The concept may not be explicitly named, and the composition of steps built into lower-level control flow… but inside my head, it's still a “sequence of operations” on a “stream of data.”

There doesn't seem to be much benefit to building up “real” streams in a language that doesn't have them either built-in or in the standard library. It creates another layer where the things that have been built can only interoperate with themselves, and a series of transformations can no longer share state.  And, a PHP array can be passed to any array_* function, where (last I even checked) our handmade streams or Iterators cannot.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Get and Set

Editor’s note: I found this two-year-old draft hanging around with all my other posts on my PC.  What follows is the original post, since it appears to have aged fairly well, although it could use a conclusion…

It happens that having to call methods of a class in a particular order—unless there’s an obvious, hard dependency like “don’t invoke Email::send() until all the headers and body have been added”—leads to fragility.  There’s no hint from the IDE about the dependencies or ordering.

Worse, if a class has a lot of methods that must be called after setting some crucial data, every one of those methods has to check that the necessary data is set.  It’s better to pass that into the constructor, and have the created instance always contain that data.

Given a class that wants to maintain a valid state for all its methods at any given time, how do setters fit into that class?  It needs to provide not individual setters, but higher-level methods that change “all” relevant state at once.

So, I’m starting to see get and set methods as an anti-pattern.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is Elegance Achievable?

Editor’s note: This is a three-year-old draft that I found.  I’m bad at coming back to things. Regardless, what follows is the post in its near-original form; I reworked some “recently” wording because it is certainly not recent anymore.

The best solutions are “clean,” “elegant,” and “simple,” right?  But what does that mean, and are those things even achievable?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Why we have a memcached-dynamo proxy

Previously, I mentioned that we have a proxy that speaks the memcached protocol to clients and stores data in dynamodb, “for reasons.”  Today, it’s time to talk about the architecture, and those reasons.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ubuntu Bionic OVA size optimization (reduction)

For Ubuntu 18.04 LTS “Bionic Beaver,” Canonical has released a new installer on the server image, the one with live in the ISO’s filename.  (The old installer, with full feature support, is available as an alternative download.) The new installer is named Subiquity.

We have a set of scripts that take “an Ubuntu install” and turn it into a VM image pre-installed with PHP, Perl, and dependencies for our code.  This creates a “lite” VM build.  (We used to have a “full” build that included all our git repos and their vendored code, but that grew large.  We’ve moved to mounting the code to be run into the guest.)

Our standard build scripts produced an 850 MB OVA file when starting from the new Subiquity-based installer, compared to around 500 MB on previous releases.  The difference?  Previous releases used the “Install a minimal virtual machine” mode option in the old installer.  In fact, after checking I had used zerofree correctly, using the minimal VM mode in the alternate installer for 18.04 produced a 506 MB OVA.

But maybe that alternate install won’t be around forever, and I should fix the bloat sooner rather than later.  Where do those 344 MB come from, and how do we find them?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

MySQL data copying optimizations

Recently at work, I optimized a script.  It copies data from a live system to a demo system, anonymizing it along the way.  We used GUIDs as contract and customer identifiers, but in the pursuit of something shorter and more URL-friendly, we created a “V2 format.”

The V2 format secretly hides a client ID inside; the demo importer used to copy the IDs and not worry too much, but now it has to change them all. Making that change took it from running in about four minutes to 15 minutes against a local MySQL instance hosted in the same virtual machine.

Unfortunately, it took 75 minutes in production, and the ID rewriting it was doing was causing our infrastructure to raise alerts about data stability, response times, and IOPS rate limiting while a rebuild was running.

Update 2018-05-18: the production run takes around 9 minutes and 3 seconds after optimization, with far less disruption. I got the local instance rebuild down to 2 minutes and 15 seconds.  I want to share a bit about how I did it.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Effectively Using Future in Perl

I’ve been working a lot with the Future library and IO::Async in Perl recently.  There was a bug in our memcache/dynamo proxy, so I ended up doing a lot of investigation about Futures in order to simulate the bug and verify the fix.  So, I want to talk about how Futures work and why it was so difficult for me.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

PHP 7.2 exposed our bad code

We upgraded to PHP 7.2, and then something horrible happened.

A “thanks for submitting client $x!” message was distributed not only to the agent who did the submission, but to all agents registered in the system.  A lot of drama ensued as confused messages started coming in, and the account rep forwarded the message to basically everyone in the company saying “what happened!?”

We stared at the code, but it was so simple that it couldn’t possibly be wrong, and besides, it hadn’t changed in months.  But the switch over from PHP 7.1 to 7.2 had happened mere hours before this event.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Commit Logs vs. External Systems

There’s a couple of schools of thought on commit logs: should you make them detailed, or should they be little more than a pointer to some sort of external pull request, ticketing, or ALM system?

When people have external systems, the basic problem they face is that those systems seem to be redundant with the information in the commit log.  Why write the same thing twice, when the commit log can just point to the ticket, which undoubtedly has a lot of rationale and reasoning already written into it?

But in my experience, it’s far more useful to have good commit log messages. When hunting in the code for a problem, the commit log is right there and available to tools like git log --grep, which can also print the diff alongside the log messages.

And while some tools like GitHub pull requests offer line-by-line commentary on diffs, the other interesting thing about commit logs is that they’ve proven much more resilient over time.  Our ticket tracking has migrated from my boss’s inbox, to Lighthouse, to a bespoke ticketing system… that we integrated into our support team’s workflow as well, which has become something we want to split back out.  And then we might replace the “remaining half” of the bespoke system with some off-the-shelf solution.

Meanwhile, our commit logs have been preserved, even across a move from subversion to git, so those go back to the point in time where the founders realized they should set it up.  But the references to “Lighthouse” have been broken for years, and if we succeed in killing a huge pile of custom code nobody wants to maintain, all those “ticket #16384” references are also going to be useless.

But the commit messages will live on, in a way that ticketing systems have not.  And so, I don’t really trust that we’d stick to GitHub and have their issue and pull request systems available for every change, forever.

Aside from that, I think a succinct summary of the ticket makes a good commit message.  I try to avoid repeating all the ticket babble, status updates, and dead ends in the commit:

Contoso requested that their cancellations be calculated on a 90-day cliff instead of days remaining in term.  Add cancel_type=cliff and cancel_cliff_days=90 to the client settings.  Ticket 18444.

This gives the big-picture outlook on what happened and why, and lets the diff speak for itself on whether the change suits the intention.  If there are questions about whether the true intention was understood, then the ticket is still linked, so it can be examined in further detail.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Supposedly Readable Code

There are two hard problems in Computer Science: cache invalidation, and naming things. —Phil Karlton

The problem with long-term evolution of a codebase is that the compatibility requirements end up creating constraints on the design.  Constraints that may be felt for a decade, depending on how history unfolds.

What my company now refers to as “Reserve,” which seems to be fairly universally understood by our clients and b2b partner soup, was initially called “Cost.” That was replaced by “Escrow” because the “Fee” is also a cost, just a different kind.  But escrow didn’t sit right among people who make deals and sign contracts all day, because it wasn’t necessarily being held by a third party.  (Depending on what kind of hash the salesmen made of it, it was held by either the first or second party.)

The point is, before coming up with a universally acceptable term, we needed some term, so Cost and Escrow got baked into the code and database structure to a certain extent.  Along with Reserve.

When someone new comes along, their first instinct is to complain about how “confusing” it is.  And I can see that.  It’s a single concept going by three names.

You get used to it, though.  As you work with it repeatedly, the concept gets compressed in your brain.  Here it’s Cost, there it’s Reserve, it’s the same thing in both places.

But, getting used to it is a symptom of the “ignoring weak signals” problem.  (Is there a better name for that?  “Normalization of deviance” is heavy, too.) If we hired enough people, it would be a clear source of suckage that we’d really want to fix.

On the other hand, I’d love to do a cost-benefit analysis and find out just how important it really is to get fixed.  Unfortunately, that depends on measuring the “loss of productivity” from the multiple names, and measuring productivity to begin with is difficult.  I think the experimental design would also require fixing the problem to get a decent measurement on the single-name productivity.

Therefore, it ends up easy to ignore weak signals because they’re weak, and we don’t know what we’re missing by doing so.

Another justification for ignoring them is that we can’t act on them all.  We have to prioritize.  After all, developers tend to be disagreeable.  I know—whenever I’m making a “quick bugfix” in some code I don’t own, I have to suppress strong urges to “fix” all the things, from naming to consistency to style conventions to getting rid of the variable in $x = thing(); return $x;.  I’m pretty sure the rest of the team does the same for my code.

The funny thing is, I bet each one of us on the team thinks we write the most readable code.  I’ve been doing this longer than anyone, and I put a lot of effort into it.  I standardized my table alias names, and I wish everyone else followed that, because the code was a lot easier for me to read when “clients” was just “C” and not a mix of “C”, “c”, “cl”, or “cli” depending on which SQL statement one happens to be reading.

Between synonyms and the irritating slipperiness of natural language, then—is there such a thing as “readable code?”  There’s certainly code that’s been deliberately obfuscated, but barring that: can we measure code readability? Or is it just doomed to be, “my latest code is best code,” forever?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Linux’s Hazing Ritual

What happens the instant a user wants to install some non-graphical software on their system?  What if they want to tweak something that happens to be considered an “advanced” configuration setting?

All the advice for these situations begins, “Go to a terminal, and type sudo ...

Whatever is being solved is a common enough problem that there’s advice for it all over the internet, but it’s not common enough that anyone can build a graphical interface for it?

I think about this every time I have to install the VirtualBox Guest Additions.  The GUI package managers have shifted from showing all software on the system to only showing “graphical” software, insisting there are no results for packages like build-essential.  The package is there, it’s just being “helpfully” hidden from me, even when asking by its exact name.

So instead, I am expected to go off to the command line, and either paste a string from a web page, or carefully type it out in its entirety, with exact spelling.

The idea of exploiting web pages comes up from time to time—styling allows additional text to copy but not display—but the general response from the community is “Don’t do that, then.”  Paste it into vim if you’re not sure? How does a user even know to do that in the first place? Can anyone, including expert users, ever be “sure” about it?

I understand why directions are given as terminal commands.  They’re easy to write, and if the copy/paste mechanism is working and trustworthy, they’re efficient to execute that way.

But the underlying cultural problem—that everyone must be able to use the command line as a basic prerequisite to managing their system—is an obstacle to creating a more user-friendly design.  That in turn becomes an obstacle to getting widespread usage.

People tell themselves it doesn’t matter, but consider how hard Microsoft worked on getting “a tablet PC” going for a decade before Apple showed up with the iPad.  The tech circles predicted a quick death, just like they did for the iPod and perhaps the iPhone, but it defined the segment instead.

What was the difference?  The iPad didn’t require stabbing at mouse-sized bits with a delicate stylus.  It was designed around the finger, with no fallback, producing internal pressure to make sure the finger interface worked, worked well, and worked for everyone.

In Linux, the terminal exists by default and remains the only way to do some things, making it inescapable.