Sunday, November 23, 2008

The geeks were back in town...

Jay Zimmerman and crew descended upon southern Denver for the Fall 2008 No Fluff Just Stuff symposium. And I had the opportunity to attend.

This is my fourth No Fluff and as usual, it was great. Eleven hour-and-a-half long sessions, a great keynote, and an entertaining and informative panel discussion, coupled with some great networking filled the weekend. My brains were leaking out of my ears by conference end Sunday evening.

Here are the sessions I attended (as always, the biggest complaint I have is that there were some hard choices to make when choosing sessions):

Beginning Drools - Rule Engines in Java, Brian Sam-Bodden
What's Going On? : Complex Event Processing w/ Esper, Brian Sletton
Rapid Web Development with Grails and Ajax, Scott Davis
Boosting Programmer productivity with Mylyn, Brian Sam-Bodden
Design Patterns in Dynamic Languages, Neal Ford #1: Common Ground, Stu Halloway
Architecture and Scaling, Ken Sipe
Git control of your source, Stu Halloway
Agile Test Driven Development With Groovy , Jeff Brown
Real World Hibernate Tips, Scott Leberknight
Google Your Domain Objects With Hibernate Search, Scott Leberknight
Keynote - Soft Skills and Organizational Dynamics, Ken Sipe

Here are some rambling take-aways from the sessions. The goal is to peak curiosity, not repeat the preso. Feel free to drop me some e-mail or leave a comment if you would like to discuss further.

The first two sessions I chose based upon professional curiosity, since, in a past life, I worked on a commercial Complex Event Processor. Rules engines are similar in nature, so I wanted to compare the two. Turns out, the biggest difference is that in a CEP, time is a de facto part of the system (you handle data in time order order the vast majority of the time). By default, the Drools rules engine processes rules in the order they were entered into the system. Another difference is that typically, a rules-based system is used when you already understand the business logic you wish to use for processing the data, whereas a CEP system might be used to discover what those rules are. Keep in mind that these differences are a bit fuzzy. I believe you could use either system to solve most problems without any serious complications. It was interesting to see that the user interface of Esper was not radically different from the commercial product I worked on (the underlying implementation could be another matter).

Most of my technically oriented friends know I am a Groovy fanboy. For that reason, I sought to expand my knowledge of this dynamic language and attended a couple of sessions dealing with the language. Unfortunately, both talks were a bit basic for my needs. The Grails talk was interesting, but most of the time was spent covering grails, so it was review. Because of time, the integration with Ajax was a bit rushed and not given the detail I had hoped for. The good news is that Scott runs the local JUG, so there is hope he will present the Ajax integration there in the near future (hint, hint). The Groovy testing talk suffered from a similar problem. Too much time covering the basics and not enough time discussing the interesting issues you can solve using GroovyTestCase. In particular, I had hoped to see more about how to test Java with Groovy. This is given a a lot of lip service, but examples are less common. (aside: I have done a little with this, see Exploring Groovy's Optional Typing Features). Instead, two very basic examples of using Groovy to test Groovy were presented. for folks new to Groovy, this was probably helpful. Another case of a talk that needs to be broken into basic and advanced sessions.

Neal's talk on Design Patterns in Dynamic languages, while not specific to Groovy, provided my Groovy fix for the weekend. The take away from this talk is that design patterns really have two purposes. As a mechanism for communication with other developers, they provide a set of common semantics. Neal feels this is a "Good Thing"(tm) and doesn't think this should change. The second purpose, on the other hand, is to provide band-aids to languages that lack features that can directly solve the problem a pattern is targeted toward. Neal argues that in the dynamic language arena, this reason is less relavent. Referring to the Gang of Four book, Neal relates anecdotally that one of the authors once stated that the sub-title of the book could have been "Making C++ suck less." To back this up, Neal went through several patterns, starting with the Command Pattern, that require a lot of scaffolding in traditional languages, but become so trivial in a dynamic language (examples used Groovy and Ruby) that it is almost not obvious you are using the pattern. He also introduces a new pattern, common in dynamic language solutions, call the Type Transmogrifier Pattern, which has a goal of transforming types as needed as part of a fluent interface call, such as a DSL that allows an end user to request services in convenient units (grams versus ounces) and letting the code handle the conversion.

The Mylin talk was another session taken principally to scratch the itch of curiosity. You get Mylin in a standard Eclipse download, but what the heck does it do? From Brian's talk, it appears one excellent use is to provide an Eclipse-based interface into defect tracking tools like Trac and Jira. Talking to another attendee after the talk, it sounds like Mylin can be also be used for task tracking without the need for an external tool to interface with. I find integration with external tools to be the most compelling argument for me. But even that seems a bit weak unless there is organizational use of the tool. Still, a good talk and now I know...

Source code control is important. It is one of those things that every good developer I have worked with feels strongly about. Having worked in systems like ClearCase for many years, CVS (and later, subversion, which is CVS++) felt like a breath of fresh air when I started using it. But even these tools are getting a bit long in the tooth. Git is an SCM tool that is garnering a lot of buzz. Stu's talk was a great intro to the tool, which represents a bit of a paradigm shift to the traditional tools. At its heart, it is really a distributed file system with some SCM tools layered on top. One bit of trivia I had not heard before, git was written by Linus Torvalds. The selling point for git is how easily it supports distributed development, where you do not have access to a central repository all the time, and the ability to do lightweight branching, again without having to phone home first. This is a cool tool and one I intend to start using at home right away.

The Scaling talk was good, if a bit web-centric in nature. My biggest take out of the talk is that scaling is not necessarily equivalent to performance. A system that scales may actually degrade performance as load increases, but it does so in a linear and measurable fashion. Ken stressed the need to do load testing as means to validate that your system behaves in this fashion. Another key take away that seems obvious after you hear it is that any agreed upon SLA must include load along with response time. Otherwise, you are almost guaranteed to violate the SLA at some point. Also discussed was the fact that systems can scale horizontally (add more boxes) or vertically (add more memory, increase processor speed). Given that increasing processor speed these days really means adding more cores rather than increasing the clock speed, I think the distinction is a bit artificial. Given this fact, Ken stressed the need to understand concurrency.

Beyond the technical details presented at NFJS, one of the really cool aspects of the conference is the way the presenters share their vision of the where the industry is going. Two very common memes present this year were concurrency and the JVM as a platform.

As mentioned earlier, improvements in processor speeds is leveling off and multi-core processors are now the de facto mechanism used to increase the performance of a system. But this presents new issues for software. The only way a software product can benefit from the perfromance increase provided by a multi-core system is if it is designed to operate in a concurrent fashion. And worse, if software is not written to operate in a concurrent environment (that is, not thread safe), not only will it not see a performance improvement, but it may fail when run in these environments. In past conferences, there have been some great presentations regarding this. This year, rather than a focus on thread safe Java, presentations were made regarding functional languages that run on the JVM and are inherently thread safe. Scala and Clojure seemed to be the popular languages among the presenters this year. Venkat has a book in the works on Scala and Stu has a book (out in beta) on Clojure. I just picked up the clojure book. Will hopefully blog on it soon (the folks reading this who know me now what soon means). Neal has coined the term "Polyglot Programming" and advocates using the correct language for the job, e.g., Groovy/Grails for a front end, Scala for the back end to provide thread safety, etc. When folks complain about the complexity this adds, he points out that we already do this, since most projects have custom XML property files, Spring property files, Ant (or Maven) build files, Java source code, etc. In other words, developers are already used to this.

The other meme, the JVM as a platform, has been building steam with the presenters for the last three years and really seems to have arrived this year. Stu has a series of presentations he is calling the series. I attended the Common Ground session, in which he presented four up and coming languages, Groovy, JRuby, Clojure, and Scala, that run on the JVM. He spent most of his time discussing the common features of all of these languages and why any of them represent a better language solution than Java. Rather than relist these features, I just point you to Stu's blog on the topic, here. As an aside, Stu was a huge Ruby advocate last year. This year, he seems to have decided that Groovy is a reasonable language as well, but is really into Clojure right now. He made a comment about being attracted to bright and shiny new objects. I can totally understand that.

A blog post cannot even begin to impart all of the knowledge that is shared at a No Fluff. And beyond the sessions, there are great side conferences, networking, and food (really good food!). One of my favoite meta-activities is to collect entertaining sound bites. In conclusion, here are a few gems I picked up this time...

Never burn a bridge (unless the orcs are behind you)

A compiler tells you your code is well formed, a unit test tells you your code is well behaved

Developers are responsible for keeping their knowledge portfolio up-to-date

Increase your digital footprint, blog

A stack trace means nothing to a human (I laughed my rear off on this one)

Eat like a bird, poop like an elephant (i.e., consume information in large quantities, share information in large quantities)

Agile development means sustainable progress, not necessarily fast progress

Be resourceful, not a resource

Greenspun's 10th Rule applies to Java

Evangelize, be passionate!