Friday, June 12, 2009

Coding and hill-walking

I've recently been re-organising the internals of the SpringSource dm Kernel so that it can be extended to provide structured install artefacts known as "plans". The current code has been extended to provide a plan equivalent to the existing PAR files, but other variants of plans, unscoped and non-atomic, cannot be implemented without the necessary data structures being put in place.

From early in the development of dm Server 1.0, the team was using several terms which summarised the behaviour of the kernel, but which were not easily identified in the code. Terms such as "scope" and "deployment pipeline". As we started thinking about 2.0, we identified "plan", "install tree", and "install environment" as basic concepts, even if the latter was pretty fluffy.

Scopes were implemented as first class types quite a while ago now and were crucial to being able to make cloning work. One of the trickiest areas was performing operations on types which could be cloned or non-cloned. Explicit scopes enabled these operations to be coded to a non-cloned interface type and re-dispatched as necessary to the appropriate cloned type.

Recently, I've been turning deployment pipeline, install tree, and install environment into first class types. I really love this kind of work. It's rather like walking through a range of hills where the higher peaks are only visible when some of the lower summits are behind you.

Sometimes however things get much more strenuous. It's like the terrain is getting much steeper and there no obvious path to follow.

This afternoon I was struggling to structure the code to handle the starting of bundles. There's an interesting coordination and state management issue because starting a bundle has a synchronous phase defined by OSGi and often an asynchronous phase defined by Spring DM or the OSGi Blueprint Service. I made some progress, but I'm still not happy with the current code and it certainly isn't easily unit tested which is a good measure of code quality.

At this point, the only option is to take a break and come back to the problem with a clear head. I tried consulting colleagues and that helped quite a bit, but there are hopefully some really good abstractions waiting to be discovered.

I think the root cause of the complexity of this small area is that it is fairly low level and we're lacking some really good ways of thinking about the asynchronous processes involved. Occasionally, modelling processes in CSP and exploring the properties of the model using a model checker such as FDR has helped. But more often than not, the best approach seems to be iteratively cleaning up a bunch of code until a good structure starts to emerge.

In the worst case, I'll make the code as clean as possible and add it to the list of areas where future discoveries will hopefully make things cleaner. But I'm hoping for a much better outcome.

Well, that's enough for now. I put this blog together as I expect other people have similar experiences when working in complex areas of software and it's good to learn from each other. I'd be interested in your perspective and how you approach these kinds of activities.

I'll leave you with a hill-walking illustration of my current position: standing on one peak trying to make out the next one in the mist.

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