Await without waiting

Scala has recently introduced async and await features. It allows to write clean and easy-to-understand code for cases where otherwise complex composition of futures would be needed. The same thing already exists in C# for quite a while. But I always had a feeling that I don’t really know how does it work. I tried to look at it from my old-school C++ thread point of view. Which thread runs which piece of code and where is some kind of synchronization between them? Let’s take a look at the following example in Scala:

async {
  ... some code A ...
  await { ... some code B ... }
  ... some code C ...

I don’t want to go into disgusting details here, but the point is to stop looking at the “async” as at a monolithic sequence of statements. In fact it gets split into several blocks of code that can be executed independently, but in well defined order. Try to imagine that each block becomes a “work item” for a thread. Code is also just a piece of data, a data structure. It can be an item in a queue. When a thread from thread pool is available, it picks up a work item from the top of the queue and executes it. Execution of each work item can possibly produce more work items.

I am sure you have started asking how many of these queues we have, how many worker threads for each queue and what about their priorities. These are details that you can google out. But back to the original question. Where is the awaiting?

Technically speaking there’s none. Threads don’t wait for a specific code to finish. Threads are just monkeys. They execute whatever is at the top of the queue. The “await” statement causes the code to be split into separate work items and defines order in which they must be executed. The block of code C is chained with execution of block B. Once B is done, C can be executed. Eventually, by an arbitrary thread. So the thread executing the body of the async block:

  1. Calls block A
  2. Fires off execution of block B (possibly executed by another thread)
  3. Done. Free to do something else. Go for a beer.

The result is that no thread is blocked by waiting for another thread to complete. A thread is either executing a code, or waiting for a work item to be queued. This is really cool. This way you can run a highly parallel application with just a few threads behind – usually the number of CPU cores. Play Framework works like this. Quite an opposite approach compared to Apache Tomcat where the default thread pool size is 200. There’s no need to have a thread per HTTP request.

This is a lot oversimplified. The truth is just a plain boring computer science:
SIP-22 – Async
Scala Async Project

With a little help from our friends

“How many bugs have your unit tests found? And why they didn’t find the one that’s currently killing our production? See? This proves that unit testing doesn’t work. It’s just a waste of money. My money.” said the boss. Of course not my boss.

That’s actually a pretty valid point. How to prove that unit tests that I have written have avoided a lot of problems? Unexistence is hard to see. Management has to be a little bit religious here. Defects found by testers are measurable, because they are officially reported. Everyone can see the issues chart, you hear about them during meetings.

But who has ever reported how many bugs he has avoided thanks to unit tests?

I am not a very religious type. Quite the opposite. That’s why I’m not feeling comfortable when advocating unit tests. I just can’t find any measures, numbers, graphs to show that would clearly visualize the benefits. The more I think of it, the more it gives me the impression that we should start a movement against unit tests.

Let all bugs rise and ruin down the production. We will count them and put them into glass jars with a little help of unit tests. Add salt, oil, sergeant pepper and serve it to the management with colorful defect burndown chart. Their oak tables full of canned bugs are the best evidence they can imagine. When you tell them that it will never happen again if we first write unit tests and then go to production, they will make you the employee of the week. Maybe even of the month.

Don’t worry. They will forget and it will come back again. Decreasing budgets, missed deadlines and always-more-important tasks will keep unit tests in the waiting line. Then you know what to do. Corkboard misses your photo. Let them out again! Get high with a little help from our friends.

Scala Wonderland: Case classes and pattern matching

Pattern matching is usually related to text search. In Scala it has much more sophisticated usage. You can write exciting decision logic when used together with case classes. Even after understanding what the two things mean I wasn’t able to use them as they deserve. It takes a while to really grasp them. Long and winding road.

Case classes allow easy pattern matching when otherwise complicated code would had to be written. See official documentation for introduction. Let’s look at some more interesting examples.

Exceptions are case classes

case class MyException(msg: String) extends Exception(msg)

The reason is that exception catching is in fact pattern matching. Catch block contains patterns and if there is a match then related piece of code is executed. Following code demonstrates this. The second case matches when the exception is either RuntimeException or IOException.

try { ...
} catch {
  case ex: MyException => Logger.error(ex.toString)
  case ex @ (_ : SQLException | _ : IOException) => println(ex)

Plain old data holders
If a class is designed to be just a data holder without any methods, it’s recommended to be a case class. It is syntactically easier to construct new instance and constructor parameters of a case class are by definition accessible from outside. Also they can be structurally decomposed using pattern matching. This is very handy.

Structural decomposition
Pattern is used not only to specify the conditions, but also to decompose the object being matched. Following example tries to find a tuple in a map based on provided key. If it finds one, it returns the second item of the tuple, which is a string. That’s the decomposition. In case it doesn’t find anything, it returns N/A. If you are curious why there are double brackets ((…)) then the reason is that the outer brackets are to denote function call and the inner brackets represent a tuple of two items.

def getValue(key: Int, data: Map[Int, (Int, String)]): String = {
  data.get(key) match {
    case Some((num, text)) => text
    case _ => "N/A"

These two creatures occur more and more in my code. Yes, and not to forget, if you check the previous code you can see that the function should return a string, but there is no return statement. In Scala resulting value is the value of the last statement. Here we have more last statements depending on the pattern matching, but we cover all possible execution paths and we always return a string. Compiler is happy and we are too.

Seduced by the West

I was born and lived 30 years in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. After studies I started working for IBM as a C#/Java developer and stayed there for 5 years. Nice years. I have learned a lot, met great people, traveled around the world. Not to forget, I have earned some money. Nice money.

IBM has a pretty huge centre in Bratislava with about 3500 employees. Vast majority of them are busy with direct cardiopulmonary resuscitation to keep processes of the global monster alive. Sweat, blood and tears everywhere. But they also get some money. Nice money.

Even though negativism and complaining are typical Slovakian features, it hurts to see such a huge crowd of desperate young people. They express meaninglessness of their jobs in doses I just can’t absorb. Typically they are freshly graduated, can speak at least English, often German. They are full of potential. But they need money to live.

Average salary in my beautiful country is 789 EUR. A western company can beat it easily and still be profitable. I don’t want to blame IBM. Not at all. It’s perfectly reasonable what they do and very convenient for us. But we must know when to get off. Otherwise the monster will eat us alive. It will suck life out of our body and will let our corpses float in grey zone of endless legacy bullshit.

I am happy to have IBM in Bratislava. Don’t get me wrong. And this is not just about IBM. We have Accenture, HP, Dell, SAP a other stuff like that. Whenever something bad happens, I can work there and get the bloody money we all need. Nice money. But I’ll fight till my last penny to stay away.

Scala Wonderland: Semicolons, singletons and companion objects

In Scala you may usually omit semicolon at the end of a statement. It is required if more statements are on a single line. Unfortunately there are cases when compiler doesn’t undrstand the code as you would expect. For example following is treated as two statements a and +b:

a + b

Solution is to use parenthesis (a + b).

Scala doesn’t have static members. It has singleton objects instead. Syntactically it looks like a class, except you use the keyword object. The main benefit is that an object can extend a class or mix in traits. On the other hand thay cannot take (constructor) parameters.

class Planet
object Earth extends Planet
object Sun extends Planet

When a singleton has the same name as a class, it’s called to be a companion object of that class. The class is denoted as the companion class. They both must be implemented in the same file. The beauty is that they can access each other’s private members. Typical usage is to have factory and helper methods in the companion object.

class Sheep(val name: String) {
  private var isBlack = false

object Sheep {
  // Factory method #1
  def apply(name: String, isBlack: Boolean) = {
    val sheep = new Sheep(name)
    sheep.isBlack = isBlack

  // Factory method #2
  def apply(name: String) = new Sheep(name)

Sheep("Dolly", true) // Calls factory method #1
Sheep("Daisy") // Calls factory method #2

Scala Wonderland: Lists

In functional style methods should not have side effects. A consequence of this philosophy is that List is immutable in Scala. Construction of a List is simple.

val abc = List("a", "b", "c")

There is one trick in the previous code. A common trick in Scala. It invokes method named apply on List companion object. Companion objects will be explained later. Until then you may look at this method as a static factory method that returns new instance of List. Following code does the same:

val abc = List.apply("a", "b", "c")

Very convenient is usage of the list concatenation “cons” operator ::. It prepands new element at the beginning of an list. Another useful object is Nil which represents an empty list. To construct the same list using cons you may write following.

val abc = "a" :: "b" :: "c" :: Nil

Pretty unusual to prepend a new element instead of appending it, right? The reason is that List is implemented as a linked list. Which means that prepending takes constant time, but appending is linear.
The last magic in this simple excercise is that the cons operator is right-associative. General rule in Scala says that if name of an operator ends with colon “:”, then it is executed on the right operand. Otherwise usual left-associativity is applied. Yet another equivalent piece of code.

val abc = Nil.::("c").::("b").::("a")

Immutability, the apply method, companion object, prepending, linked list, right associativity. Isn’t it too much for such a trivial code? There is a lot of magic in this wonderland.

The Rule of Failed Integration Build

What to do if an integration build fails? By failing I mean either there is a compilation error or an automated test fails. The general rule in most of the teams that I worked with is that this situation should be treated with the highest priority. The developer who has caused this problem is responsible to fix it and act immediately. He’s blocking whole team.

That sounds logical. So if you take a look at history of an integration build, it should be mostly green. If there is a yellow/red color with meaning of failed test or compilation, it should be immediately followed by a nice fixing green build. But what is the reality?

My empirical observation is that the more integration tests a project has, the less stable the builds are. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t want to blame integration tests again, even if I’d like to. There are two obvious approaches how to deal with this. The stupid one is not to write integration tests. You hear me? That’s not a solution.

The better one is to minimize them. Define a minimal set of integration tests that completely cover all intergation aspects of the tested software. For everything else write unit tests.

For example I’d like to check if my application integrates correctly with Twitter REST API. I am not going to write a big integration test that involves logging into my web app, clicking a HTML link, going through all layers and then at some point it finally calls Twitter. I will write a few tests for each interface method of a component that connects my app with Twitter. That perfectly serves the purpose. It doesn’t test anything else which means that it also doesn’t fail for any other reason than failed integration with Twitter.

That’s how I like it. A minimal complete set of integration tests.

Scala Wonderland: The functional style

Scala encourages to use a functional style of programming. For programmers coming from imperative world of Java or C# it is the main challenge. The first step is to recognize the difference between functional and imperative programming. Scala has two keywords for variable declaration:

  • var – mutable variables
  • val – immutable variables

One sign of imperative sign is occurence of var in the code. Scala encourages to lean towards val, but use whatever is appropriate for the given situation.

Example of imperative style:

def printArgs(args: Array[String]): Unit = {
  var i = 0
  while (i < args.length) {
    i += 1

More functional style:

def printArgs(args: Array[String]): Unit = {

Here you can see the reason why Scala encourages functional style. It helps you to write clearer, more understandable and less error-prone code. But you can do it even better. The refactored method is not purely functional. It has side effects – it prints to the standard output stream. One sign of a function with side effects is that its result type is Unit. If a function doesn’t return any value, it has either side effects or it is useless.

The most functional solution:

def formatArgs(args: Array[String]) = args.mkString("\n")

Prefer vals, immutable objects and methods without side effects.

Scala Wonderland #1: All operations are method calls

I’ve started learning Scala two months ago and I can’t get back to Murakami’s 1Q84 so exciting it is. In the coming series I’d like to share my excitement with you. It won’t be yet another step-by-step tutorial. I’ll share features that made me think (IBM should be proud of me). For whatever reason.

val i = 1 + 2

… is equal to …

val i = (1).+(2)

Scala doesn’t have operators. It has methods with names like +, -, *, / instead. The code above invokes method named “+” on the object Int representing number 1 passing Int object of value 2 as an argument.

Note that you don’t have to type “.” to ivoke a method on an object and also you don’t need to provide parentheses around method arguments. This knowledge helps a lot when trying to understand what is a program written in Scala actually doing.

Stay tuned!

Church of Agile

Following a plan. Over and over. We don’t need no education.

Shepherd and sheep

Sheep: “May I move an user story to another iteration? How long should our Sprint be? What if our daily standup takes more than 15 minutes?

Shepherd: “Don’t worry my dear. Subscribe to these courses and we’ll teach you how. You’ll get a shiny certificate!”

Just another brick in the wall. It’s always easier to follow. Even if the shepherd is not going in your direction. In fact, he has his own plans with you in the end. Great green plains demand skills, but offer freedom. Fresh juicy grass. Stay on the top of the hill. Keep your eyes open. Look for the coming predator and respond to change.

Agile giant

Chief Whatever Officer: “The world has gone crazy. They want agile. I want to have it on my desk tomorrow!”

Bunch of pale nonames: “Sir, yes sir!”

The other day the C?O was happy. Very happy. He got slides with beautiful boxes and arrows. According to the latest corporate identity manual. Finally he has got “the agile”. Let’s make a 5-year plan, define milestones and start selling it.

He and his customers didn’t notice that it’s the same 20-year-old waterfall process with loops and return arrows added. Isn’t it agile?

Busy bee

Newcomer: “What process do you follow? Is it Scrum, Kanban, RUP?”

The boss: “It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ll tell you how it works …”

The young guy was disappointed that he will not learn anything that he can put to his resume. Companies want Scrum masters and quality certified professionals. He didn’t even understand what the boss has said.

The next couple of years he was simply doing what had to be done. Without knowing a name of it. If there was a need to implement something, he did it. If somebody wanted to have a new release, he did it. He was agile.

Agile sheep
Agile sheep