The Meaning of Power

January 23, 2013

GravatarMichael Snoyman

As I announced recently, the Yesod team has started work on the upcoming 1.2 branch. I'm going to be following up with a few blog posts to discuss some design decisions we have to make. To try and frame this discussion better, I want to describe a little bit of the design philosophy I had in initially creating Yesod, and see if that can help us make our decisions.

Definition of Power

Programmers often use a term in two very different- and often times contradictory- ways. Consider the folowing two sentences:

  • This library lets me create anything I want, it has so much power.

  • I was able to use that library and create exactly what I needed in just a few lines of code, it's such a powerful library.

Both statements refer to a positive aspect of some library, but the positive aspects are completely different. The first refers to the flexibility of a library. The second is saying that the library is optimized for your use case (for brevity, let's call this featurefulness). And to a great extent, these two concepts are at odds.

Let's take a simple example. Suppose you need to generate some HTML content. One approach would be that my library provides you with the means to generate a stream of bytes. This approach is incredibly flexible. You can generate any character encoding you want. You can optimize your HTML by leaving off some closing tags if you wanted. You can use single or double quotes for attributes values. You can use decimal or hexadecimal numerical entities. And for that matter, you could forget about HTML entirely, and just generate PNG or PDF files if you wanted.

At the other end of the spectrum, I could provide you with an HTML templating solution. In a few lines of code, you could have a fully valid HTML document. You could specify at a high level the key-value attribute pairs for each element, the contents of the element in textual form, and the library would generate your HTML for you.

Which approach is more powerful? That's a meaningless question. Each approach has an advantage over the other. They are each powerful in their own way, whether flexibility or featurefulness. The question you should be asking is not which is more powerful, but which one you should use.

Layers of Abstraction

Another way to frame this discussion is to recognize that we're just talking about layers of abstraction. Under the surface, my theoretical HTML templating library is just generating the bytes for you. So we need some way to determine what our best abstraction level is. And to do that, we need to analyze our goals.

Educating yourself

One goal which I've seen touted occasionally in the broader web framework discussion is one of educating yourself. The argument goes that if you use a system that does a lot of the work for you, then you don't learn anything. I frankly think this is a meaningless argument, and not a helpful goal. All you've done in this case is stated that you want to learn how to reimplement existing functionality. If your goal is to understand how HTML is rendered, then forcing yourself to use a raw-byte-generating library is a good idea. If your goal is to create an HTML page, forcing yourself to learn the details of how rendering is done is a needless distraction.

Flexible enough for the problem at hand

So what other goals are available? Clearly, we need to be able to address the actual problem at hand. For example, if our task is to generate a PNG file, then the HTML library is not suitable, and we'd have to use the lower level of abstraction of dealing with bytes. (This is of course ignoring the possibility that there might be some other libraries in existance that could help with PNGs.) Said another way, we need to make sure that we haven't sacrificed too much flexibility given our goals.

Simplicity

Another goal is to make the coding process as simple as possible. Simplicity spells out in multiple ways: the code is shorter, easier to read, easier to write, less buggy, more robust. I think it's an easy argument to make that an HTML templating library will allow simpler code to be written than directly producing a stream of bytes.

Learnability

I can probably express my entire byte-generating library as a function emit :: ByteString -> IO (). That's incredibly simple to learn. By contrast, an HTML library might have types to represent different kinds of nodes, attributes, etc. This would imply that it is easier to learn the lower-level library.

While this may be true, it actually hides a lot. With the bytes library, you'll need to learn the rules of HTML escaping, attribute quoting, nesting, etc. So the breadth of the API does not always tell you how difficult it will be to learn how to use something. If a task at hand requires a feature that a lower level abstraction doesn't provide, you'll also need to learn how to implement that yourself!

Performance

Often times (but not always), high levels of abstraction can introduce a performance cost. Weighing this against the benefits of the higher level of abstraction is really a personal decision. In some cases (say a desktop app used by one person that will be run once a month), the benefit of additional performance is probably negligible. In software that will be calculating large scientific calculations and will run for months on end on a cluster of supercomputers, eeking out a 2% performance increase could equal a massive cost savings.

So the value of extra performance is up for debate, but in all cases performance is a good thing to have.

Optimizing for the problem at hand

The main point I hope came across in the previous section is that we need to design solutions for the problem at hand. Let's consider the question, "What's better, C or Haskell?" I'm sure many readers would immediately say Haskell, but that's not really a fair answer. Suppose that the problem at hand is to add a tiny piece of functionality to a large C project. C is probably the better tool in that case, as introducing a Haskell piece of code into this codebase just wouldn't make sense. Similar reasons would be targeting a platform without a Haskell compiler, or a memory constrained environment where we cannot reasonably use garbage collection.

Bringing all of this back home: in the Yesod world, I've tried to identify a number of different levels which users may want to have. Consider this progression of levels of abstraction for creating a web application, starting with the lowest:

  • Direct I/O on a socket.
  • network-conduit, allowing an abstraction over the streaming nature of the data.
  • WAI, abstracting over the HTTP protocol itself.
  • yesod-core, providing routing and common handler functions.
  • yesod, adding in Persistent and Shakespeare for data access and templating.
  • The Yesod scaffolding, tying it all together with a set of best practice folder conventions and helper functions.

The line can sometimes get a little bit blurred, but for the most part we have a distinction between all of the different sets of goals a user might have. Need to create a non-HTTP network application? network-conduit can provide what you want. Need a basis for a full blown web app using a standard database and templating solution? Use the scaffolding. And so on.

Once we've established what our goals are, we can then proceed to try to optimize our solution based on the four points from the previous section:

  • We need to make sure that we have the flexibility to solve the entire problem. If network-conduit only allowed textual data, this would not be flexible enough, since many network protocols require binary data. On the flip side, we don't need to provide full flexibility higher up. The scaffolded site includes Persistent, it doesn't need to provide five other data storage mechanisms as well. If you want to use a different data model, go down a layer of abstraction. (Or in reality, use the scaffolding that doesn't include Persistent, but you get the idea.)

    But there's another point to make as well. If we can still provide the extra flexibility without hindering the user experience, we should. A prime example of that is the fact that Yesod will allow you to deal directly with the WAI protocol via waiRequest and sendWaiResponse. So really, our objectives are:

    • We must provide enough flexibility for the problem at hand.
    • We should make it possible to get extra flexibility if it doesn't destroy our abstraction.
    • We could make this extra flexibility easy to get at as well.
  • Once we've identified what features we're going to have, we should make it as easy as possible to access them. Let's take routing as an example. At the level of Yesod, we've created a system where routes are non-overlapping, represented as individual pieces of a requested path, and are fully decoded to text. We don't take the hostname or the query string into consideration for routing by default. And our routing syntax is possibly the simplest expression of these constraints.

    What if you need to be able to route based on hostname? There are approaches available, but they are not as simple. At a certain point, trying to get all of this extra flexibility into the system doesn't make sense, at which point it's more logical to drop a layer of abstraction to WAI. But this brings up another issue: if I need more flexibility in one area (e.g., routing), should I really have to give up simplicity in another one (e.g., templating)?

    To address that, Yesod is designed to be modular. The Shakespearean template system can be used with non-Yesod application as well, so you can have an incredibly flexible routing system together with a simple HTML templating solution.

    Could we augment Yesod's routing system to- by default- route based on the hostname? Certainly. But it would complicate our solution. We'd be getting extra functionality which we don't need for our stated problem domain, and giving up on simplicity. And that's not a good tradeoff.

  • Learnability comes down to two points. One is that there should be a subset of the API which addresses the most common needs. This overlaps very much with the goals of simplicity. You can create a lot of Yesod applications by just sticking to defaultLayout and widgetFile.

    The second aspect is documentation. Functionality needs to be well documented in how it works. But that's not sufficient. It needs to be easy for people to find what they're looking for. One aspect is highlighting the most common API subset in the documentation. Another is giving lots of examples, such as our cookbook. In many cases, people don't need to know all the details and every way to achieve a goal, but seeing a single best practice example is enough.

  • There's not much to say about performance. Make your code as efficient as possible without losing the necessary flexibility and simplicity.

Concrete examples

To take this out of the abstract, I want to give some more concrete examples of how these design goals have played themselves out in some of the libraries in the Yesod ecosystem.

conduit

The first question is what our use cases are. I was lucky in this case, since we already had a large body of streaming code to use as a basis for determining what features we needed. Note an important point here: when creating a library, it's IMO completely meaningless to simply design a solution. You have to have real cases in mind to guide the design, or you end up with libraries that seem simple and elegant but don't solve the actual problems.

Based on what I'd implemented previously, I knew that we'd need the ability to create data producers, consumers, and transformers. We'd want to be able to escape the Inversion of Control that most streaming packages had. Buffering (a.k.a., leftovers) was a requirement for the majority of use cases. As a result, all of these features are first-class citizens of conduit.

There are other features that were left out because they were less commonly used. enumerator's isolate function, for example, is more powerful than conduit's. But getting that extra flexibility would greatly harm conduit's simplicity, and since that flexibility wasn't necessary, it was left out. On the other hand, we absolutely needed to have guaranteed and prompt resource finalization. Even though that complicated conduit, it had to be included.

Is conduit as efficient as directly reading and writing to file handles? No, it introduces some overhead. Is it as easy to learn as a basic I/O API would be? No, it has a larger API and more concepts to learn. However, it makes resulting code simpler to read and write, and less bug prone. So the tradeoff is (IMO) worth it.

authenticate/yesod-auth

Let's say we want to implement OpenID login on a website. At a high level, I'd simply like a library where I say "allow OpenID access" and a button magically appears on the login page. But unfortunately there's a lot more to it than that:

  • I need to provide such a login page and insert the correct HTML.
  • I need to create an OpenID completion route.
  • I'll have to store user credentials in a database (or equivalent) somehow.

There are lots of different approaches to each of these. So in this case, I decided to attack the problem by starting with the most general solution and building more and more specialized solutions. The authenticate library itself knows nothing about any web frameworks, and must be passed in GET and POST parameters manually. It handles communications with the OpenID providers, and introduces a type-safe interaction layer.

On top of that is yesod-auth, which includes an OpenID plugin. This does fulfill the goal of "just say OpenID and it appears on the login page": the YesodAuth typeclass has a member for declaring all of the plugins, and plugins can provide HTML to be injected into the login page. However, there's still quite a bit of machinery to getting yesod-auth itself running: integration with the database, providing routes to access authentication, etc.

Finally, we have the Yesod scaffolding, which provides sensible defaults for all of these. When you run the scaffolding, you have a fully functional authentication system, and can quite trivially add in new authentication options like OpenID.

What we have here is a very clear delineation of simplicity versus flexibility. There are many use cases for which the scaffolding's authentication system would not be appropriate, but for which you'd still want to have OpenID logins. If you're using Yesod, you can stick with yesod-auth and still get a level of simplicity. And if you're not using Yesod at all, authenticate is still available to facilitate your OpenID logins, though you'll have to do a bit more work (or rely on a different higher-level wrapper if available).

Designing libraries in this fashion can take a bit more effort, but in my opinion providing reusable tools for the broader community is worth it. Beyond any advantages for the community in general, this also makes code easier to test, and a wider group of users can help push bug fixes and improved featuresets even faster.

Summary

  • Figure out the problem you're actually trying to solve.
  • Determine the flexibility necessary to solve that problem.
  • Based on those required features, design as simple a programming experience as possible.
  • If it's possible to add extra flexibility without comprimising simplicity, do it.
  • Optimize as much as possible based on these constraints.
  • Document, making it clear what the recommended approaches are.

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