Run! The Distributed Systems are coming!

You can avoid the fate of those that fell before you

This is a letter to my fellow engineers, specifically those who operate in the front-end world. This letter is sent with love, but carries a message of deep foreboding. It is a warning and yet it is a message of hope, that there is a chance to maintain peace and happiness in your work life.

This letter is inspired by a question recently posed by the talented Andy Pimlett – with whom I had the pleasure of serving alongside the lovely people of Mando. See Andy Pimlett on LinkedIn: JavaScript Front-End Architecture. Therein Andy poses a question that has been keeping my mind in constant churn: ‘what does the line between the UI and the backend platform look like now?’. More importantly to me however is raising awareness of the quite frankly ridiculous levels of complexity that hide behind the innocent term ‘Microservices’, as I shall lay out here…

Lurking in your Jam

The devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.

Tucker Max – Apparently

Jamstack is exactly the sort of revolution the front-end world has desperately needed for too long. It promises to reduce the long-standing pain resulting from complexity and bloat that has emerged out of the constant over-engineering introduced by well intending technologies such as npm, React and Angular.

I’ll not cover the ‘Client’ end definition of Jamstack as there are plenty of perfectly good resources for that already including the Jamstack website itself: https://jamstack.org/. To be absolutely clear on my position here, I have been blown away by the power of Jamstack. This really is the tech that the web needs now. You want to put your money into new web technology? I’m telling you it is Jamstack and its global community; Web3 can get in the bin (really, forget Web3, it’s another last-ditch Ponzi-scheme from the crypto bros to try and keep their awful blockchain investments on life-support for another year).

That said, the threat to your peace and happiness that I wish to warn you about lies, unbeknownst to many, innocently nestled away in a corner of a diagram featured in many of the Jamstack articles, videos and websites that talk about this otherwise wonderful new technology:

Buried in these tempting looking simple diagrams lies a terrible, terrible beast that wears a red coat and charges through your peaceful villages shooting anyone who fails to kneel before the might of the King.

(Let’s forget for a moment that all the diagram shows is that the app server on down has been moved into a small little innocent tidy-looking box alongside CDN)

A Microservice by any other name will be just as difficult

Scenario: You’re building an application… You are writing some logic that calls a method on a class in another area of the application.

Question: Would calling the method be much improved by sending it on a trip along a network?

The only sensible answer, surely, would be: “are you mad?”. And, yet, here we are, some 10 years on since the term ‘Microservice’ was first bandied about, with half the planet decomposing their applications into separate ‘Microservices ‘ and having them directly call each other synchronously across a network. This antipattern now even has its own name: ‘distributed monolith’ and it is known to give all the pain of a monolith plus the pain of a distributed system and basically none of the benefits.

Why would anyone willingly triple the complexity of an application for no tangible benefit? Well… first of all… I guess… we’re social creatures, if our peers and those we look up to are doing something then we naturally take an interest. If everyone in your industry is talking about a thing then it becomes so well known that you may even be getting pressure from your boss or clients to do that thing.

Secondly… we’re techies, nerds, geeks, we like the challenging things. Hey, if Netflix do it and it gives them great results then the complexity must be worth it and it will feel great to wield complexity and win fortune for the business!

Finally, I think the name has a lot to do with it. How much harm can come from something called a ‘microservice’? Well, would you willingly embark on the path of a Service Oriented Architecture for your UI tier? Because that is what you are doing  whether you realise it or not. Microservices are a slant on the classic ‘Distributed System Architecture’. It has all, if not more, of the complexity of your classic Distributed System, but the name ‘microservice’ doesn’t really give you that feeling. Sure a Microservice must be an easy service, easy to deploy, easy to build, easy to integrate? No. No. No. Read on…

Distributed Systems destroyed my technical career

If ever there was a clear way to demonstrate how complicated Distributed Systems really are, it lies in my career trajectory. During the first half of my career I always imagined I was destined to become a technical architect. That is until I encountered technical architecture in Distributed Systems design. Now I am a hands-off manager. I find that managing teams of people and managing projects with all of the pressures and complexities that come with those responsibilities is far easier and more rewarding than programming Distributed Systems. But of course some people love this stuff! I’m not saying it is bad or a terrible choice, just that I do not have the technical chops to survive a career in this area and I don’t consider myself to be very dim. I certainly wouldn’t want to wander into this quagmire by accident!

So, what, exactly, are you trying to protect me from?

I get it, by now you’re probably sick of hearing me describing how difficult I find Distributed Systems. So let me tell what I know that engineers must know to be able to deliver effective Distributed Systems, or Microservices, or SOA, or Cloud Native Architecture, or MACH or whatever you want to call it – they all have the same fundamental concerns.

  1. Loosely coupled architecture – You need it. Its numero uno for any distributed system. Without it you have a distributed monolith which isn’t a distributed system at all. Loosely coupled means embracing asynchrony and with that comes eventual consistency, which your application must also embrace. Asynchrony is different from ‘async’ calls. Instead your tools in this space include message queues, service buses and brokers – more specifically for cloud native you will include events and streams.
  2. SRE – Distributed Systems are so complex that the industry consensus is that you should assume your system is in a failure state and go from there. I’m not even kidding. See Software Reliability Engineering, you will likely need someone skilled in this on your engineering and operational teams. You need to make sure your system is consistent, available and durable. This really is a career path in its own right!
  3. Deployment Strategies – You need to be able to safely update your microservices, components and so on without disrupting service. See the Google DORA research in this area for the different strategies you will need to familiarise yourself with: https://cloud.google.com/architecture/application-deployment-and-testing-strategies
  4. Observability: Modern cloud native systems will often have hundreds of components interacting with each other to achieve common business goals. How do you know if the system is healthy or not? How do you know the lifecycle of your customer’s data through your system for compliance with data protection standards? Enter Application Performance Monitoring and Distributed Tracing. See: https://opentracing.io/docs/overview/what-is-tracing/

Hey, I would always default to a single application until such time that the technical demands necessitate decoupling. Monoliths are NOT a dirty word, they have many benefits in terms of maintainability. A helpful rule here is thus: if your components need to call each other directly to achieve their goals then keep them together in a monolith and save yourself a world of pain. Most UIs that call down into a distributed architecture will probably be fine with a single UI aggregation tier or at most BFFs (Sam Newman) https://samnewman.io/patterns/architectural/bff/). Introducing loosely coupled architectures into your UI strikes me as a one-way trip to pain.

Your options have been laid before you…

Know that it is not a technical decision, it is a business decision and often closely tied to your business architecture.

It is too late for many of us in backend/platform engineering but I am worried for those of you responsible for client tier architecture. The concept of ‘Microservices’ is a creeping menace and I hope that these lessons serve to protect your sanity and stress levels.

So don’t feel pressured into a Distributed Architecture just because it’s a name you’ve heard (Microservices, MACH) or part of a wider architecture that you already get some benefits from (i.e. Jamstack). Just be aware that those little boxes on those diagrams belie decades of computer science that will likely never become as simple as the tempting diagrams want you to believe.

Understand whether you truly need microservices and avoid them if at all possible! But! But just because I struggle to imagine many scenarios where a UI tier would warrant a distributed architecture does not mean you don’t need it. Netflix and Amazon need it but so do some smaller businesses. Hell, my current employer has carefully considered its technical strategy, weighed the pros and cons and has decided that the increase in complexity of a distributed system is worth it for their commercial strategy. Know that it is not a technical decision, it is a business decision and often closely tied to your business architecture.

If you wish to stand and fight then be prepared to wield your weapons of Loosely Coupled Architecture, SRE, Deployment Strategy and Observability. But be sure, no one will blame you should you choose to consolidate your efforts in something far simpler; something that protects your daily life, bringing joy to you and your customers.

Run! The Distributed Systems are coming!

Babeling in defence of JavaScript

And so it goes, the eternal question “What is wrong with JavaScript?” and the inevitable, inescapably droll, reply:

Oh, ho ho ha ha haaaaaaaaaaah… The gag never gets less funny. I need to be clear that Scott Hanselman is one of my favourite people in the public eye. I hold him to be an industry treasure and I’m fully aware of him just poking fun here but we’ve all seen this dialog before and we all know it is not always so lighthearted.

At the end of the day, these scenarios showing how ‘broken’ JavaScript is are almost always bizarrely contrived examples that can be easily solved with the immortal words of the great Tommy Cooper:

Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this”
Doctor: “Well, don’t do it”

Powerful Facts

Lets be absolutely clear that JavaScript is an incredibly powerful language. It is the ubiquitous web programming language. Of course it currently has a monopoly that ensures this status. That does not change the fact that JavaScript runs on the fastest, most powerful and most secure websites. So clearly it does exactly what is needed when in the right hands.

JavaScript is free with a very low barrier to entry – all you need is a web browser.

JavaScript through its node.js guise powers Netflix, LinkedIn, NASA, PayPal… The list goes on and on.

Furthermore it is easy enough to learn and use that it is a firm favourite for beginners learning programming. It is in this last point that we observe some particularly harmful industry attitudes towards JavaScript.

What’s The Damage?

So now that we can all agree that Tommy Cooper has fixed JavaScript from the grave and now that we’re clear about just how seriously capable JavaScript is as a language, we can get onto the central point: industry attitudes to JavaScript are damaging. While many languages such as SQL and PHP are common targets of derision and it seems to me that each case has it’s own unique characteristics and nuances, there is something notably insidious about the way JavaScript is targeted.

One of the more painful examples of JavaScript’s negative press can be observed in the regular reports from those learning programming that they feel mocked for learning JavaScript. This is, quite frankly, appalling. We work in an industry that is suffering from a massive global undersupply of talent and we’re making potential recruits feel like crap. Well done team! Even globally established personalities such as Miguel de Icaza of Xamarin fame can’t help but fan these flames. What chance do new recruits have?

The JavaScript Apocalypse?

Moving on to the issue that prompted me to start writing this article; WebAssembly is here. It has a great website explaining all about it: webassembly.org. It even has a logo! It also has a bunch of shiny new features that promise to improve the experience of end users browsing the web.

WebAssembly logo
Of course WebAssembly has a logo!

From distribution, threading and performance improvements to a new common language with expanded data types, WebAssembly offers a bunch of improvements to the web development toolkit. I’m all for these changes! JavaScript and the web programming environment are far from perfect and these are another great step in the right direction.

Of course WebAssembly’s common language also promises to open up the web client for other programming languages. “Hurrah!” I hear many cheer. I’m seeing countless messages of support for the death of JavaScript at the hands of the obviously infinitely superior quality languages of C#, Rust and Java 🙄 Yeah… I’m not so sure…

Nah!

Like most programming languages, JavaScript is a product of its environment: namely, the web browser. It did have competition in the early days with VBScript back in IE4/5… I think… It was a long time ago. But otherwise it has developed on its own in response to demand from the web developer community and in response to the changing web landscape. The modern incarnations of JavaScript (ECMA Script 6/7/8) are incredibly powerful, including modern language features such as an async programming model, functional capabilities and so on. In many ways modern JavaScript resembles the languages to which it is so frequently compared but it also lacks many language features that are less relevant to web client programming such as generics and C#’s LINQ. It’s loose typing system make it well suited for working with the HTML DOM. Overall it would appear, as you might expect, that JavaScript is made for web client programming and is in fact the best choice for this task.

Even the WebAssembly project agrees, confirming on the project website that JavaScript will continue to be the ‘special’ focus of attention and you know what? This is a good thing!

Babel

Look, we already have other languages that compile for the web client but I don’t see any existential threat from the (albeit beautiful) CoffeeScript or from the (misguided) TypeScript. Sure, WebAssembly will make this more effective but the reasons that TypeScript hasn’t already taken over the web development world will still apply to C# and WebAssembly. We have seen a similar battle play out in the database world where NoSQL was lauded as the slayer of the decrepit 1970’s technology we all know as SQL. That was until NoSQL databases started to implement SQL. Turns out that SQL is hard to beat when it comes to querying data, which is unsurprising when you consider its 50-odd years of evolution in that environment and the same rule will apply to any JavaScript challengers. Personally I suspect a large part of JavaScript’s alternatives failing to take hold is that web client programming doesn’t need the added static typing, etc.; in my experience all these challengers do is introduce compiler warnings and complexity that waste time. Ultimately I don’t have all the answers here but it is fair to say that it would take a serious effort to out-web the language that has evolved for the web environment.

The Tower of Babel (from WikiPedia)

Where my real concern lies is in the well known problems that are brought about by having too much choice when it comes to communicating. We use human readable programming languages so that we can communicate our programs to each other. With that in mind it is clearly more effective in the long run if we all learn to talk the same language. The story of The Tower of Babel shows us that for a long time we have considered too much choice to be a very bad thing when it comes to communication.

It would be a frustrating situation indeed if we were to end up having to consider and manage the overhead of multiple languages for a single task all because of some daft attitudes towards JavaScript. Furthermore, businesses that are struggling to find web developers don’t now also need to worry about whether these developers are Rust, Java or C# web developers. JavaScript is the right tool for the job so lets stop wasting time with all the JavaScript bashing and get on board with an incredibly powerful language we can all understand!

Babeling in defence of JavaScript