Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Interview with Uncle Bob

I enjoyed this podcast of an interview with Robert Martin aka Uncle Bob.

It's interesting to hear how he still likes to spend his time programming after 40 years (as opposed to getting sucked into management or other activities).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

More on Java assert

Java's assert is a mixed blessing.

It's nice syntactic sugar. I'd rather write:

assert x == 0 : "expected x = 0, got " + x;


if (x != 0)
    throw new AssertionError("expected x = 0, got " + x);

You could make your own assert so you could write:

verify(x == 0, "expected x = 0, got " + x);

But there is are subtle but important differences. With your own function, the error message is always constructed, whether the error is thrown or not. Whereas with assert, as with writing out the if, the error message will only be constructed if the assert fails. That doesn't matter if the message is just a literal string (or there's no message) but if the message requires, for example, calling toString on a complex object you could take a significant performance hit. There's also the lesser overhead of calling a function. It's possible that the JVM JIT optimizer will in-line the function so it becomes equivalent to writing out the "if" and therefore eliminate the overhead, but I'm not sure if it's "safe" to count on this.

The downside of assert is that you have to remember to enable it. (My blog post on this is one of my most visited. Google for "enable java assert" and it's currently the third result.) One way to avoid this is to write a test to confirm that asserts are enabled. I did this after I got burnt by disabled assertions a second time.

I just ran into another problem with this. We were looking at using NativeJ but it doesn't appear to have any way to pass the -ea option since it uses the java dll rather than the actual java executable.

I discovered that there is a way to enable assertions from within the code:

     .setPackageAssertionStatus("suneido", true);

It only applies to classes loaded after this, but I have it as the first statement of my main method which should be the first class loaded.

Another wrinkle to assert is that the exception it throws is AssertionError which is an Error. The Java exception hierarchy is:


Only RuntimeException's can be thrown without declaring them. "Normal" code is only supposed to catch Exception, not Error. But in Suneido, I don't want an assertion failure to "crash" the system, I want to be able to catch them. But to do that, I have to catch Throwable, which is not the recommended practice. I could use two catch's - one for Exception and one for AssertionError. But apart from the extra code, I wonder if there aren't other Error's that I would want to catch.

One way around the AssertionError issue would again be to write my own assert function so I could throw whatever exception I wanted (e.g. a RuntimeException). But as I explained above, there are issues with that.

Yet another option is to use a javac (the Java compiler) annotation processor (like fa.jar) that converts assert to if-throw. But that seems a little scary.

Of course, a lot of this is due to wanting to keep the assertions enabled, even in production. I'm a believer in this since so many problems don't show up till the software gets used for real. However, it does mean you have to be a little careful to make the asserts fast enough for production.

The People Behind The Software

I like how this video is about the people and the emotions behind the software.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A JVM Does That?

Cliff Click's recent blog post led me to the slides for his talk "A JVM Does That" - interesting stuff.

A quote from his post:
Java appears to have plateaued (although Projects Lambda and Coin may give it a serious boost), but the JVM is on a roll. Where people used to target C as their “assembly” of choice years ago (to avoid having to do code-generation), they now target the JVM – which avoids the code-gen AND supplies a GC, AND a well-understood threading model, plus true type-safety.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

jSuneido Goes Live

Almost three years after starting the project, the Java version of Suneido is now live in production. Last night one of my programmers switched our in-house accounting and customer support system over to jSuneido (thanks Kim). We have about 40 fairly heavy users so it's a good test.

We had a few minor problems today but for the most part it went quite smoothly. When I brought it up with several people they said they didn't notice anything different, which is what I want to hear. Several people thought it was faster. My own impression was mostly that it felt "smoother" - no annoying pauses like we've been running into lately.

(Honestly, I'm amazed that cSuneido manages to handle as many users as it does. When I designed it I never thought it would. It's definitely benefited from Moore's law.)

Our current server is only a dual core machine with 6 gb of memory. It doesn't really have enough cores or memory for jSuneido to take advantage of. We're in the process of getting a new i7 server with 8 cores (counting hyperthreading) and 24 gb of memory (thanks Dorlan). That should be a better platform for jSuneido.

One of the main goals of jSuneido was to scale better to handle larger systems with more users. For smaller systems cSuneido uses less resources. But it can't take advantage of 64 bit systems with large amounts of memory and multiple cores. jSuneido can.

Three years of work to reach this point. Not full time, but close to half my time. That's a lot of hours. It feels good to reach this point. No doubt there will be issues to deal with, but that's to be expected. In many ways it's just a transition between phases of the project. With climbing, reaching the top is only half the battle, the other half is getting down. With software, writing it is only half the battle, the other half is running, fixing, maintaining, and improving it.

This kind of project definitely requires being able to handle deferred gratification. But just as important is to take pleasure in the work itself, as well as in the end result. If I didn't enjoy the day to day programming (most days anyway!) there's no way I would do it for the relatively small amount of final gratification.  It's not like anyone really understands what you've done or what it took to get there. The external rewards just aren't enough to justify something like this. The process itself has to be sufficient reward. Any pats on the back at the end are just icing on the cake.

I'm deliberately making a point of marking this milestone. It's good to celebrate small victories along the way. Too often they slide by and with no punctuation it can seem like just one long slog. It must have been an even bigger milestone when the original version of Suneido first went into production, but I can't even remember it. I remember thinking that I would reward myself with one of the brand new flat screen monitors (that dates it!). But I never did, because it never seemed like I was "finished" - there was always as much road ahead of me as there was behind. Here's to the road ahead.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I've been working with ThreadPoolExecutor and it's a little confusing so I thought I'd share my experience.

Some background - Executor is a simple interface:
An object that executes submitted Runnable tasks. This interface provides a way of decoupling task submission from the mechanics of how each task will be run, including details of thread use, scheduling, etc. An Executor is normally used instead of explicitly creating threads.
A ThreadPoolExecutor uses a pool of threads to execute the tasks. The trick is in configuring it. I wanted:
  • no threads when it's idle
  • a limited number of threads when it's busy
  • a bounded queue
You have to read the documentation for ThreadPoolExecutor very carefully. Forget about your preconceptions of how it "probably" works. 

You can specify "core pool size" and "max pool size". Normally "core" threads do not time out. You also specify the type of queue (bounded, unbounded, or synchronous), and the rejection policy.

There are a couple of gotcha's. 
  • Even if activity is very low and one thread could handle it, the full number of core threads will be created. 
  • Even if activity is high and all the core threads are busy, additional threads will not be created until the queue is full. 
Both of these are because it's very hard to know if a thread is idle. 

They combine to lead to a common mistake - setting core size to 0 because you want all the threads to time out, and using an unbounded queue, which will never be full. Using a large queue is almost as bad because additional threads won't be created until that many requests are queued up - ouch!

Here's what I ended up with:
private static final int CORE_THREADS = 0;
private static final int MAX_THREADS = 8;
private static final int KEEP_ALIVE = 1;
private static final ThreadPoolExecutor executor =
     new ThreadPoolExecutor(CORE_THREADS, MAX_THREADS,
          KEEP_ALIVE, TimeUnit.MINUTES,
          new SynchronousQueue<Runnable>(),
          new ThreadPoolExecutor.CallerRunsPolicy());
A SynchronousQueue is a zero size queue, it hands off items directly. Because its remainingCapacity is always zero, it is always "full", so up to MAX_THREADS will be created as needed.

Without a queue and with a maximum number of threads, it's possible that tasks will need to be rejected. By specifying the CallerRunsPolicy rejected tasks will be executed by the calling thread. This is a simple feedback mechanism that will throttle requests since the caller won't be able to accept additional requests while it's busy executing a task.

I chose MAX_THREADS of 8 to be a bit bigger than the expected number of cpu cores (to allow for some threads being blocked). In our actual usage one or two threads seem to be sufficient.

There is a standard Executors.newCachedThreadPool but the documentation isn't specific about what its configuration is. From other sources it appears quite similar to my configuration - zero core threads and a SynchronousQueue. However, it has unlimited MAX_THREADS instead of CallerRunsPolicy. In my case, I wanted to limit the number of thread because each holds some limited resources.

I'm not an expert on this stuff, so suggestions or criticisms are welcome.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


I've been reading Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests. I write automated tests for my code, but I'm not especially good at it. Partly because I'm not very good at writing testable code. Which is partly because I don't usually code test first. My problem is that I know enough to know that I don't know enough!

Anyway, I decided I should try to clean up my act a little. I wanted to try using a mocking library. I did a few minutes of research and looked at a comparison between EasyMock and jMock. Then I ran across Mockito and it looked simple and easy to use.

I added the jar to my project and wrote my first test with it. No problems and very easy to use.

But it's never that easy. I ran my build, which uses Proguard, and got a ton of errors and warnings :-(

I probably could have fixed them, but I took the easy way out and just configured my build to exclude the tests. I only ever run them from Eclipse anyway. It's not the ideal solution but it'll do for now.

In the process I cleaned up my Ant build file. When I first created it I was even more ignorant about Ant and Java and Proguard than I am now.

I've revised a few more tests to use Mockito and I'm quite happy with it. If you're programming in Java and aren't using a mocking library, give it a try.