Sunday, January 11, 2015

Software designs that grow with monads, comonads, and type compatibility

This post is about designing software with internal and external APIs that are robust to future changes. It is therefore about API compatibility, but more importantly it is about the compatibility of a full software design to changes. Not surprisingly, monads and comonads are part of the presented solution, as is a careful approach to use of types.

I had a "aha" moment last year when I watched a video (by Timothy Baldridge)
that showed how an AST for a Clojure compiler was fully based on key-value pairs (nested hash maps), therefore without typed structures nor classes, and was doing very well. The thing is, I have suffered enough times to get the types of the different phases of a compiler to fit together. Therefor the idea of giving up on types and just using key-value pairs, that can easily be added for each compiler phase, seemed really to be an attractive way to write a compiler.

Key-value pairs, duck typing, and many "traditional" functional patterns (think lisp, not Haskell) have all in common their reliance on generic, almost typeless, structures. So while each "atomic element" of these patterns has a type (e.g. int, string, ...), the structures (e.g. struct, list, array, ...) are all generically typed.

Types are what capture the invariants of a design. Giving up on types is in effect giving up on capturing those invariants in a robust manner. Using types normally leads to higher quality software, yet with enough complexity, types no longer capture all the design invariants of a program. Worse, sometime types actually hinder the design by holding it back because they are not powerful enough to capture the desired invariant. This is the case with the difficulty to design an typed AST that "fits" all phases of a compiler. This rigid nature of types is also the hidden problem of API compatibility.

The invariants of APIs are captured with the types of their signatures. When new features or corrections are added to an API, these invariants and associated types evolve. When APIs link different software projects, changing API types is where API compatibility becomes an issue: APIs remain compatible when types change but remain compatible with older types, APIs become incompatible when the types are no longer compatible. An example of type compatibility in OO, is to derive a new class from an existing class, and to add a constructor in this new class from the old class. Unfortunately, that last example is at the source level. At the binary level, compatibility to type change is usually nonexistent, especially when focusing on forward compatibility. Note that API compatibility is not only about types: an API will also become incompatible when the interpretation given to values transferred over the API changes. Therefore to remain compatible, an API can add new value interpretations but must also ensure that past value interpretations never change.

Serializing data for transport and for storage is much about breaking program defined types into language standard basic types, and keeping a strict discipline of interpretation to ensure compatibility. Therefore ensuring both backward and forward compatibility of an API is to maintain a strict growth of value interpretation and to use serializing packages like Protocol Buffers or Thrift. The question is then: how do we ensure the future growth of a complete software design, not just a single API, but a family of APIs? Just like with the single API, the answer also lies in the notion of serialization. The goal is to stitch together the typed lower level design with a higher level untyped design that can change over time.

Data is serialized by walking through it a certain order and breaking it down into its primitive types. Programs can be broken down the same way. Yet to do that, your first need to adopt a functional programming style because it is hard to serialize procedural constructions. In a functional style, only functions need to be "broken down".

In the good old days, scalable software design was about using construction such as data schemas, object patterns, futures, continuation style, etc. Data schemas are still good, but all these other program constructions elements must be revisited with the fact that they can all be implemented with monads and comonads. More importantly, they must be revisited because the bind and cobind operator (and other monadic and comonadic operators) is what serializes functions! Therefore, just like you must serialize your  data schema to ensure future data compatibility, you must "serialize" your functions with monads and comonads to ensure future design compatibility.

Here are few examples of existing designs that do this:
  • Injection frameworks are comonadic constructions. 
  • Transactional frameworks are monadic constructions.
  • Parallel tasks are monadic constructions.
  • Embedded queries are monadic constructions.
  • Reactive streams are monadic constructions.
  • Lenses are comonadic constructions.
  • Automatic differentiation (computing analytical derivatives of numerical code) are both monadic (forward differentiation) and comonadic (backward differentiation).
Just like data compatibility is tied to the order in which data is traversed, future design compatibility is tied to the "order" of function serialization. That is to say that each software design is strongly defined by the order in which functions are broken into monadic and comonadic constructions. While monads and comonads have a duality relationship, they fundamentally differ in "character": monads are "trace" centric, while comonads are environment centric. Said differently, conditional expressions can be monadic, while comonadic expressions can abstract away their environment. A design is then a chosen hierarchy of monads and comonads with chosen set of API extension points.

Just like with data compatibility, future design compatibility is tied to the amount in which types can be changed and remain compatible. And again, to differentiate between the need of source compatibility (e.g. for component designs) and binary compatibility (e.g. to design distributed systems). Use strong types to build your design when your programming language offers a type system that ensures that forward design compatibility is supported by forward type compatibility. Limit your reliance on types when these do not provide this forward compatibility. If this limited use of types, or the limits of the type system, do not allow monads and comonads constructions to be expressed with types, then use typeless/generic bind, cobind, and other monadic and comonadic like operators (e.g. duck typing on key-value pairs). 

Finally, use only the language features that allow you to break down your functions into monadic and comonadic constructions. For example, only use destructive assignment if you can model it within your monadic and comonadic design. Also,  do not forget you need also to enforce a "growth" only rule for your interpretation of values.

Now having said all this, you cannot build a design if it costs too much or if you cannot explain it to others. For example,  I wanted once to upgrade an algorithmic trading API around a monadic construction (within a C++ framework). I communicated around prototypes and presentations, (I was CTO), yet failed to get across to my key team members (who where top notch developers), and ended up canning the idea.  And this brings me back to a few important issues:
  • Monadic and comonadic constructions are higher order, even if you do not implement them with higher order types, you still need to think of them as higher order invariants hidden in back of your design. This is like a mathematician would "see them", and is not obvious from a classical procedural or OO background.
  • The cost to implement typeless/generic monadic and constructions within your language may simply be too high. 
For example, concerning this last point, this week I wanted to implement a duck typing pattern in Java  on top of Protocol Buffers objects (for all the reasons mentioned above), but Protocol Buffers is only efficient if you access fields in a typed manner. So even while I could see how to build a design with a robust algorithmic binary compatibility model, the cost on performance would simply be too high to do it on top of Protocol Buffers.  (Luckily using Protocol Buffers is not a requirement for this project so I can move to another data serialization protocol that supports fast generic field access).

As an end note: I understand that I am not telling you in this post "how" to write monadic and comonad style constructions, especially without a functional language. What I am telling you is that you want to know how to do this if you want your designs to grow well.

All original content copyright James Litsios, 2015.