The Simplificator blog

You are reading articles by Simplificator, a Swiss-based custom software development agency. Here we write about the problems we solve and how we work together.

Dare to question

We had a problem.

Let me call it Project X. We were six months behind. Requirements Creep resulted in enormous methods, bloated controllers, a test coverage below the belt and still no clear plan of finishing. We worked a year on the thing, it has been close to finished for months now, but it wasn't coming together. We had a problem.

Dare to question

Wasn’t it cool in the old days, when we were the wizards, the magicians - where just the fact that we were able to create a simple calculating form or create a script saving someone two days of busywork per week? They trusted us when we said, it is going to take three weeks to implement it. If you understood how to “fix a computer” by finding the loose cable connector on the keyboard. When running a defragmentation tool made your uncle feel like he bought a brand new machine.

It’s no longer like that. Writing software is not so magical anymore, it’s a craft. We know what we do, and we’re appreciated for it. But things have to get done. The customer is king again. We’re constantly struggling in the space between what the customer wants and what we know is the right thing. We learned a while ago that wearing a hoodie and carrying a sticker-infested laptop to a board meeting doesn’t automatically raise their respect for us. We learned to listen. We learned to learn each customer’s language, to better understand, to better craft what’s needed.

On the other hand, we still feel like wizards. We know what works, and don't want to waste our precious time with dull decoration. We want our effort limited to a minimum, working on the ambitious adventure, the principal puzzle, the real riddle. The cool stuff. Let’s write the simplest thing that can possibly work. You want more? You Ain’t Gonna Need It (YAGNI™). Because an apparently simple request might lead to days of unforeseen work, which might even go unpaid because its complexity never got onto any offer.

So we grew an instinct to say no, to approach a request with a certain defensive attitude. A feature has to pass a threshold first: Is it really needed?

But then, the customer actually pays for what we do, so saying no doesn’t fly well with them. We apparently need a different attitude.

We had a routine importing data which needed almost a day to run, and one wrongly formatted element in the source data would knock the process out. We added and tweaked, only to find the next edge case… we dearly wanted to exclude those edge cases, but many were still essential.

What was going wrong? What was the problem behind the problem?

Complexity is not value. But neither is simplicity as such. We are trained to write what’s needed, in budget, and on time. Those constraints are natural. We coders have experienced many situations where broken business models resulted in hopeless strategies, which turned into convoluted requirements. Sometimes we call it “design by committee”, where the results of a brainstorming session is translated into demands full of contradictions, wishful thinking and pies in the sky. After the session, several people “flesh out” the requirements, and the input of all participants is gathered, but never questioned.

Now try to write good code with that. We try to manage upwards, trying to filter what should never have made it into requirements.

Hence, the first draft of our company values had the line “dare to say no”.

“Dare to say no” at least tames the devil of blindly implementing what’s requested, only to find the contradictions at the very end where ideas meet reality, when bugs show up stemming from the bad design decisions above. Code is honest, code is pure. There is no handwaving, no "maybes" in code, no “mostly” or “generally” - come with unfinished ideas and you will be mercilessly punished. The wall of logic can’t be broken with sheer will, you’ll be crushed between requirements and feasibility.

But saying no doesn’t give you good code.

And Project X wasn’t finished. We saw it ourselves. We had something which worked, and somehow fulfilled requirements. But it didn’t feel right. It felt buggy and convoluted. It looked the part… We needed a reboot.

Reboot

“Dare to say no” apparently needed a reboot too. We worked on that line. And we found out what we meant by it. We wanted to be able to work on all levels of software to find the right solutions. We needed to be able to address the first decisions. Those which lead to the requirements causing trouble.

Mind you, this happens anyway - at the latest, when broken code goes in production. At this point, even the people who brainstormed the ideas will see the contradictions, because they’re now glaringly obvious. Only now the important questions get asked. Can’t we get to that knowledge earlier?

We can. It requires courage to show the contradictions, the unfinished thoughts. It requires tact and skill to identify the core requirements which clash, and talk about them. It requires a lot of guts to ask fundamental questions.

Invigorated, we addressed Project X with new energy. We started with tidying up the code. Where weird requirements held us up, we went back to the customer and asked why they wanted a certain feature, why it had to be like that. The pruning and culling resulted in a much more streamlined user experience, clean code, and somewhat to our surprise, a greatly improved relationship with the customer.

Our value became “dare to question.” Ask why, understand the answer - or ask why again. Get to the bottom of it. Find the need behind the need. Throw away what’s not necessary, make it clean - with the full understanding of the requirement.

The project is live now. We have more work coming.

Maybe we can still be wizards. We just have to learn the new magic.

Dare to question.

Filter Rails SQL log in production

In order to debug a problem, which only occurred in production, we recently wanted to tweak our Rails SQL logs to only show the access to a specific table.

Here's what we did to accomplish this. We created a file initializers/filter_sql_log.rb with this content:

if Rails.env.production?
module ActiveRecord
class LogSubscriber
alias :old_sql :sql

def sql(event)
if event.payload[:sql].include? 'users'
old_sql(event)
end
end
end
end
end

This monkey-patches the ActiveRecord::LogSubscriber class and only delegates to the old logging method, if the SQL statement includes the string "users".

By default, SQL logging is deactivated in the Rails production environment. Therefore we needed to change config/environments/production.rb like this:

config.log_level = :debug

Simple Vagrant setup for Rails applications

There are many reasons on why you should use Vagrant for your development, as described here and here.

In order to get your Rails application running in Vagrant, the VM needs to have several components installed, such as: Ruby, Rails, a database, etc. One of the most common ways to provision (install the necessary packages) your VM is via Puppet of Chef. However, not everyone knows them well, and luckily there is an easy approach, namely to use shell scripts.

In a terminal window navigate to your existing Rails application and run the following command (don't worry, Vagrant will not break your existing Rails project):

$ vagrant init

A `Vagrantfile` has been placed in this directory. You are now
ready to `vagrant up` your first virtual environment! Please read
the comments in the Vagrantfile as well as documentation on
`vagrantup.com` for more information on using Vagrant.

Like the output mentions, the command creates a file called 'Vagrantfile' in the current directory. Open it and read through the comments in order to get familiar with the available options. You will notice that all configuration is done in Ruby.

The first thing we need to do is to instruct Vagrant which OS to install. Edit the Vagrantfile and change the line config.vm.box = "base" with

config.vm.box = "ubuntu/trusty64"

You can also search for available Vagrant VMs.

Next, we need to forward port 3000, in order to be able to access the Rails server in a browser outside the VM. We also want to tell Vagrant how it should provision our VM. To do that, add the next lines to the Vagrantfile:

config.vm.network 'forwarded_port', guest: 3000, host: 3000
config.vm.provision 'shell', path: 'bootstrap/bootstrap_vagrant.sh'

Now, it's time to create the file bootstrap/bootstrap_vagrant.sh inside the root folder of your Rails application. The commands we place in this file will be executed when the VM will be provisioned.

An easy way to tell the provisioning script to only install packages it didn't install already is to organize it in blocks. When a block completes it will track the progress by writing a tag to a temporary file, for instance the .provisioning-progress file.

Here is a basic example that installs Ruby (downloads the binary and compiles it):

# Install ruby
if grep -q +ruby/2.1.5 .provisioning-progress; then
echo "--> ruby-2.1.5 is installed, moving on."
else
echo "--> Installing ruby-2.1.5 ..."
su vagrant -c "mkdir -p /home/vagrant/downloads; cd /home/vagrant/downloads; \
wget --no-check-certificate https://ftp.ruby-lang.org/pub/ruby/2.1/ruby-2.1.5.tar.gz; \
tar -xvf ruby-2.1.5.tar.gz; cd ruby-2.1.5; \
mkdir -p /home/vagrant/ruby; \
./configure --prefix=/home/vagrant/ruby --disable-install-doc; \
make; make install"

sudo -u vagrant printf 'export PATH=/home/vagrant/ruby/bin:$PATH\n' >> /home/vagrant/.profile

su vagrant -c "echo +ruby/2.1.5 >> /home/vagrant/.provisioning-progress"
echo "--> ruby-2.1.5 is now installed."
fi

As you can see, the script first checks the .provisioning-progress file for the tag +ruby/2.1.5. If it finds it then it skips the install (the whole block). Otherwise it installs and appends +ruby/2.1.5 to the .provisioning_progress file after it finishes. In this way, the next time you provision your VM it will detect that Ruby is already installed and will skip this block. Similarly we can group our requirements and define setup blocks:

Therefore our bootstrap_vagrant.sh script will have several blocks. At this gist: https://gist.github.com/luciancancescu/57025d19da727cfdc18f you will find an example that works for a new "blog" rails application. To get started copy the entire gist to your project and begin customising it.

Important: by default the provisioning script is run as user root.

After you have the provisioning script in place you can run:

vagrant up

This will create a VM and will start provisioning it. When it finishes you can start your Rails application like:

vagrant ssh
cd /vagrant
bin/rails s

In a browser open lvh.me:3000 and you should see the homepage of your Rails application. (read more about Lvh.me here)

Note: The first time you run vagrant up it performs the provisioning. If you want to run the provisioning script again simply run vagrant provision.

Bonus 1: If you need to install something new in the VM don't to it by hand. Instead add the install commands in new block in the provisioning script file and from outside the VM run:

vagrant provision

This will print a message for each of the existing blocks saying that it is installed and will only install the new package you added.

Bonus 2: If for some reason you want to reinstall an already installed package just delete the corresponding block tag from ~/vagrant/.provisioning-progress and rerun vagrant provision.

Happy provisioning! If you have any suggestions or alternatives leave a reply in the comments box below.

increment/decrement counters in ActiveRecord

In lots of web apps you need to count something. Availability of products, number of login attempts, visitors on a page and so on.

I'll show multiple ways to implement this, all of them are based on the following (somewhat fictional) requirements.

You have to implement a web-shop which lists products. Every product has an availability which must not go below 0 (we only sell goods if we have them on stock). There must be a method #take which handles the decrement and returns itself. If anything goes wrong (i.e. out of stock) then an exception must be raised.

The samples only deal with decrementing a counter. But of course incrementing is the same as decrementing with a negative amount. All the code is available in a git repository and each way is implemented in its own XYZProduct class. I ran the samples on Postgres and one implementation is Postgres specific but should be easy to adapt for other RDBMS.

Change value of attribute and save

The first thing that might come to your mind could look like this:

class SimpleProduct > ActiveRecord::Base
validates :available, numericality: {greater_than_or_equal_to: 0}
def take!
self.available -= 1
save!
self
end
end

The #take! method just decrements the counter and calls save!. This might throw an ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid exception if the validation is violated (negative availability). Simple enough and it works as expected. But only as long as there are not multiple clients ordering the same product at the same time!

Consider the following example which explains what can go wrong:

p = SimpleProduct.create!(available: 1)

p1 = SimpleProduct.find(p.id)
p2 = SimpleProduct.find(p.id)

p1.take!
p2.take!

puts p.reload.available
# => 0

p1 and p2available does not go below 0 is executed against the current state of the instance and therefore p2 uses stale data for the validation.

The same holds true for increment! and decrement!

So how do deal with this problem? We somehow need to lock the record in order to prevent concurrent updates. One simple way to to achieve this is by using optimistic locking.

Optimistic Locking

By adding a lock_version column, which gets incremented whenever the record is saved, we know if somebody else has changed the counter. In such cases ActiveRecord::StaleObjectError is thrown. Then we need to reload the record and try again. Rails allows to specify the lock column name. See Locking::Optimistic for details.

The following snippet should explain how optimistic locking works:

p = OptimisticProduct.create(available: 10)

p1 = OptimisticProduct.find(p.id)
p2 = OptimisticProduct.find(p.id)

p1.take!
p2.take!
# => ActiveRecord::StaleObjectError: Attempted to update a stale object: OptimisticProduct

by reloading p2 before we call #take! the code will work as expected.

p2.reload.take!

Of course we can not sprinkle reload calls throughout our code and hope that the instance is not stale anymore. One way to solve this is to use a begin/rescue block with retry.

begin
product.take!
rescue ActiveRecord::StaleObjectError
product.reload
retry
end

When StaleObjectError is rescued then the whole block is retried. This only makes sense if the product is reloaded from the DB so we get the latest lock_version. I do not really like this way of retrying because it boils down to a loop without a defined exit condition. Also this might lead to many retries when a lot of people are buying the same product.

Pessimistic Locking

ActiveRecord also supports pessimistic locking, which is implemented as row-level locking using a SELECT FOR UPDATE clause. Other, DB specific, lock clauses can be specified if required. Implementation could look as follows:

class PessimisticProduct > ActiveRecord::Base
validates :available, numericality: {greater_than_or_equal_to: 0}
def take!
with_lock do
self.available -= 1
save!
end
self
end
end

The #with_lock method accepts a block which is executed within a transaction and the instance is reloaded with lock: true. Since the instance is reloaded the validation also works as expected. Nice and clean.

You can check the behaviour of #with_lock by running following code in two different Rails consoles (replace Thing with one of your AR classes):

thing = Thing.find(1)
thing.with_lock do
puts "inside lock"
sleep 10
end

You will notice that in the first console the "inside lock" output will appear right away whereas in the second console it only appears after the first call wakes up from sleep and exits the with_lock block.

DB specific, custom SQL

If you are ready to explore some more advanced features of your RDBMS you could write it with a check constraint for the validation and make sure that the decrement is executed on the DB itself. The constraint can be added in a migration like this:

class AddCheckToDbCheckProducts > ActiveRecord::Migration
def up
execute "alter table db_check_products add constraint check_available \
check (available IS NULL OR available >= 0)"

end

def down
execute 'alter table db_check_products drop constraint check_available'
end
end

This makes sure that the counter can not go below zero. Nice. But we also need to decrement the counter on the DB:

class DbCheckProduct > ActiveRecord::Base
def take!
sql = "UPDATE #{self.class.table_name} SET available = available - 1 WHERE id = #{self.id} AND available IS NOT NULL RETURNING available"
result_set = self.class.connection.execute(sql)
if result_set.ntuples == 1
self.available = result_set.getvalue(0, 0).to_i
end
self
end
end

Should the check constraint be violated, then ActiveRecord::StatementInvalid is raised. I would have expected a somewhat more descriptive exception but it does the trick.

This again works as expected but compared to the with_lock version includes more code, DB specific SQL statements and could be vulnerable to SQL injection (through a modified value of id). It also bypasses validations, callbacks and does not modify the updated_at timestamp.

Performance

Yes I know. Microbenchmark. Still I measured the time for each implementation in various configurations.

1 thread, 1'000 products available, take 1'000 products

Implementation Duration [s] Correct?
SimpleProduct 1.71 YES
OptimisticProduct 1.87 YES
PessimisticProduct 2.16 YES
DbCheckProduct 0.91 YES

1 thread, 1'000 products available, take 1'500 products

Implementation Duration [s] Correct?
SimpleProduct 2.52 YES
OptimisticProduct 2.81 YES
PessimisticProduct 3.25 YES
DbCheckProduct 1.42 YES

10 threads, 1'000 products available, take 1'000 products

Implementation Duration [s] Correct?
SimpleProduct 1.51 NO
OptimisticProduct 15.86 YES
PessimisticProduct 1.87 YES
DbCheckProduct 0.61 YES

10 threads, 1'000 products available, take 1'500 products

Implementation Duration [s] Correct?
SimpleProduct 2.19 NO
OptimisticProduct 18.94 YES
PessimisticProduct 2.74 YES
DbCheckProduct 1.23 YES

Some interesting things to learn from these results:

Summary

Depending on your requirements the simplest way could already work and be good enough. If you have more specific requirements (i.e. validations, concurrency) then I'd suggest to go with the pessimistic locking as it is quite easy to implement and well tested (compared to my check constraint implementation of #take!). It is important to release a pessimistic lock ASAP as it blocks other clients from accessing the data.

Configuration load order in Rails

Ever wondered what the load order of the various configuration files of Rails is?

In Rails the (more or less) common places to configure your app are:

Since there is multiple points where you can add the configuration the order in which those configurations are applied is important. E.g. it might happen that you set a value in one place and it gets reverted from another config file. This is the order that get's applied, tested in Rails 4.2

  1. application.rb
  2. environment specific config file in config/environments/*.rb
  3. initializers, they are loaded in alphabetical order
  4. after_initialize callbacks, in the order they have been added

éncöding hèll (part 3)

The (currently) last part of my encoding hell series. To finish up I'll show some samples.

force_encoding and encode

Ruby is smart enough to not encode a string if it is already in the target encoding. This might not be what you want if you have data which has been encoded wrongly in the first place. You can use force_encoding in such cases:

data = "\xF6\xE4\xFC"
p data.encoding
# => "UTF-8"

p data.encode('utf-8')
# => "\xF6\xE4\xFC"

p data.force_encoding('iso-8859-1').encode('utf-8')
# => "öüä"

transcoding

Data read from a file is expected to be in UTF-8 by default. You can change that using the encoding option. This will lead to Strings that are encoded in something non-UTF-8 though. Ruby offers an easy way to transcode, so you only will have to deal with UTF-8 Strings

data = File.read('file.txt')
puts data.encoding
# => "UTF-8"

data = File.read('file.txt', encoding: 'iso-8859-1')
puts data.encoding
# => "ISO-8859-1"

data = File.read('file.txt', encoding: 'iso-8859-1:utf-8')
puts data.encoding
# => "UTF-8"

String concatenation

This works as long as both Strings are in the same or in a compatible encoding. This can happen in places where you don't expect it. For example when writing a CSV file or just print out some log information.

utf = "öäü"
iso_1 = utf.encode('iso-8859-1')
iso_2 = "oau".encode('iso-8859-1')
ascii = "oau".encode('ascii')

puts utf + utf
# => öäüöäü

puts utf + iso_1
# => CompatibilityError: incompatible character encodings: UTF-8 and ISO-8859-1

puts utf + iso_2
# => öäüoau

puts utf + ascii
# => öäüoau

puts and p

Ruby calls #inspect when passing an object to p. This leads to some interesting behaviour when printing out Strings of different encodings.

p "öäü".encode('iso-8859-1')
# => "\xF6\xE4\xFC"

puts "öäü".encode('iso-8859-1')
# => ���
# Note: if you run this from Sublime, then you might see the following message:
# [Decode error - output not utf-8]

puts "öäü".encode('iso-8859-1').inspect
# => "\xF6\xE4\xFC"

éncoding hèll (part 2)

How does Ruby deal with encoding? Here are some important parts.

There are multiple encoding settings and multiple ways they are initialized. And of course this differs depending on the Ruby version used. Most of this has been found out by trial and error as I could not find a concise documentation of all those values. Corrections are welcome.

__ENCODING__

This is the encoding used for created strings. The locale is determined by the encoding of the source file (defaulted to US-ASCII in 1.9, now defaults to UTF-8) which can be changed with an encoding comment on the first line (e.g. #encoding: CP1252)

Encoding.default_internal

The default internal encoding. Strings read from files, CSV, ARGV and some more are transcoded to this encoding if it is not nil. According to the docs the value can be changed using the -E option. This did not work for me though, neither with 1.9.3 nor with 2.2.0.

Encoding.default_external

Data written to disk will be transcoded to this encoding by default. It is initialized by

  1. -E Option
  2. LANG environment setting

And it seems to default to ASCII-8BIT

String#encoding

Returns the current encoding of the String. This is usually the __ENCODING__ for created strings.

String#force_encoding

Changes the encoding. Does not re-encode the string but changes what #encoding will return.

String#encode

Re-encode the string in the new encoding. Does not change the string if it is already in the target encoding. You can pass transcode options.

I18n.transliterate

Replaces non US-ASCII characters with an US-ASCII approximation.

In the next part I'll show some example code. It should be online soon.

éncöding hèll (part 1)

If you ended up reading this, then you know what i am talking about. It's this garbled up text. That umlaut which got lost. Those diacritical marks that don't show up. And then first you blame the accent-grave-french, the umlaut-germans, the diacritic-czechs and so on (not even mentioning chinese/japanese/...languages) .

Why can't we all live with ASCII. Surely 8 bit ought to be enough for everyone;-)

So this is the first post on my encoding hell. I plan to follow up with more posts on this topic.

Encoding::UndefinedConversionError

The situation

At Simplificator we recently worked on a ETL application. This application loads data from various sources (databases, files, services, e-mails), processes it (merge, filter, extract, enrich) and stores in various destinations (databases and files). This application is a central tool for data exchange between multiple companies. Data exchanged ranges from list of employees to warranty coverage of refrigerators. Not all sources are under our control and neither are the targets.

And this is where the problems started. Some sources are delivering UTF-8, some are using CP-1252, some are in ISO-8859-1 (a.k.a Latin-1). Some destinations are expecting ISO-8859-1 and some are expecting UTF-8.

ISO 8859-1 (ISO/IEC 8859-1) actually only specifies the printable characters, ISO-8859-1 defined by IANA (notice the dash) adds some control codes.

The problem

While in most programming languages it is easy to change the encoding of a string this sometimes includes more troubles than visible at first sight. Those encodings can contain from 256 to more than 1'000'000 code points. In other words: UTF-8 is a superset of CP-1252 and ISO 8859-1. Going from those 8 bit encodings to a (variable length) 4 byte encoding is always possible while for the other way it depends on the content. If an UTF-8 String contains characters which can not be encoded in 8 bit then you have a problem. Say hi to your new best friend the Encoding::UndefinedConversionError (or whatever your programming language of choice throws at you in such cases).

Unicode symbols

The solutions

There are two solutions for this. Both are relatively easy. And both might cause trouble by the consumers of your output. As mentioned the problem only shows when the content (or parts of it) are not covered by the destination encoding. CP-1252, ISO 8859-1 and UTF-8 share characters between 0020 and 007E (ASCII, without some control codes). As long as your content is within that range there is actually nothing to change when changing the encoding. But if your content lies outside this range then you either have to:

  1. Use UTF-8 for your output everywhere: Going from UTF-8/CP1252/ISO-8859-1 to UTF-8 is easy. As long as you stay in the current encoding or move from a "small" encoding to a "big" encoding you are safe. If possible, then this is the desirable solution.
  2. Use transliteration: This means mapping from one encoding to another. This can be achieved by replacing unknown characters with something similar or a special mark. So "Petr Čech" could become "Petr Cech" or "Petr ?ech". Depending on your use case one or another might be more appropriate.

The new problems

I told you... both solutions might cause troubles.

If the consumer of your output can not deal with UTF-8, then this is not an option. It would just move the problem out of your sight (which might be good enough ;-))

If you have changed the name of "Petr Čech" to "Petr Cech" and later on this data is imported again into another system, then it might or might not match up. I.e. If the other system is looking for user "Cech" but only knows about a user "Čech".

Also then transliteration (in our case) is irreversible. There is no way of going back to the original form.

Summary

If possible then stay within one encoding from input to processing to output. In my experience you’ll have fewer problems if you chose UTF-8 as it can cover a wide range of foreign languages, unlike ASCII, CP1252, ISO-8859-1.

According to this Graph (source) UTF-8 is used more and more on the web. Hopefully one day we don't have to think about ISO-8859-1 anymore.

Growth of UTF-8

Rake: execute vs. invoke

I recently had to write custom rake tasks for a Rails project which deals with multiple databases (one Rails database and 1+ additional databases). The way we deal with multiple databases should be covered in another post. Now i only want to show the difference between invoke and execute.

invoke

Rake::Task[:a_task].invoke

Only runs the task if needed. Which in our case translates to once.

execute

Rake::Task[:a_task].execute

Runs the task as many times as called.

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