Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hello world in a production environment

An Hello World is a simple program whose only job is to print "Hello, World" on some form of output. The goal of an Hello World is to explain to programmers the syntax of a new language, but also to check that the infrastructure for compiling, interpreting or running the code is set up correctly.

Hello world in testing

The same concept can be used in the context of writing automated tests when you set up the simplest possible unit test:
When running this test with JUnit, you are validating that the environment is able to:
  • retrieve a dependency such as the JUnit JARs and their own transitive dependencies
  • build your Java code by compiling the test and its imports
  • executing the .class files with the correct classpath.
During a workshop that involves Test-Driven Development, I would typically require everyone with a programming environment to have this simple test set up on the day before; this practice avoids having to put together an environment under time pressure. Especially when trying out new languages or frameworks, getting to this starting point can easily waste a lot of otherwise productive time.

In production

This Hello World pattern may not be limited to a development environment, as apparently simple things can get you a lot of mileage when deployed in production. Here are some examples.
The first API I implement in every microservice accessible through HTTP is the /ping API. It returns a 200 OK response with a content type of text/plain, containing just the text pong. Thanks to this API I can set up the first acceptance test for the project, running it in multiple environments such as CI and staging, and getting it to production where I will be able to call this API with curl and check its correct deployment on the whole server fleet.
I once set up an HelloCommand instead, a simple binary able to write a single log line with a custom text to the centralized log server. By deploying this to all environments we were able to test what happens when the target log server is unreachable or slow, checking that these slowndowns are not propagated to log clients. We also could insert a local proxy, buffering logs before sending them through TCP, and manually check the whole path from generating a log to its final collection.
One of the next things I want to add to the infrastructure is a sample Hello World microservice itself, consisting of its own source code repository, testing and deployment pipeline and monitoring.

What do we get out of Hello World

In the Hello World microservice case, having a template to clone greatly lowers the marginal cost of a new microservice, because the new project can easily be duplicated from a minimal definition. Cloning another existing service is a dangerous operation (we all know the problems of copy-and-paste) as you have to distinguish between what is common infrastructure and what is service-specific code that should not be ported to its siblings. By observing the minimal working template, you will also be able to contain the duplication between services as boilerplate will be highly visible:
How is it possible that we need to have a 200-line build file for an Hello World service?!
What's highly visible can be refactored. Given however that your template is not a code generator but a sample service continuously deployed in production, there will be a tight refactoring feedback loop between making a change to deployment or monitoring infrastructure common to all services, and validating it into the production environment. What you definitely want to avoid is to try to reduce duplication between the builds of different services, only to find out that your extracted method break production deployments on the next day when you're on holiday; or optimize one particular project build but discovering that the improvements cannot be ported to other generic services.
Moreover, there is also knowledge sharing in play: explicitly tested and running Hello World can be picked up by the other team members very quickly, to create a new API, a feature, or even a service. With the concept of living documentation, we prefer executable specifications like unit tests and Gherkin scenarios over complex documents; in the same way, we should prefer living and tested software to be used as a template rather than technical documentation which could be outdated two weeks after it has been written.


The Ginger Cake pattern by Dan North is a version of Hello World that start from concrete, complex instances to be cloned. I am wary of leaving too much stuff lying around after having duplicated the cake, so I prefer to start from the simplest possible example. The benefits of this choice are higher if the number of instances to be created is large, so it takes some tuning to recognize recurring technical tasks.
Nat Pryce hypothesis on TDD on the system scale pushes for considering immediately monitoring and system management into the APIs it should provide. Hello World examples are one of the lightweight tools that can show you if underlying resources such as CPU, databases are available and if the applicaton as a whole is working correctly; at the same time, isolating you from the complexity of real features and the myriad of ways in which they can fail even on a robust application layer.
Walking skeletons are a tiny implementation of the system that performs a small end-to-end function; they should put together all key architectural components to validate they can be integrated and can run in the target environment. Here I'm arguing for samples tasks that can be helpful to develop similar instances, a much smaller scale including for example single HTTP APIs.

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