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When Formality Works

In which I argue that sometimes it takes a standard to improve things.

On his blog, Yehuda Katz writes:

One of the things I love the most about the Ruby community is how easy it is to try out small mutations in practices, which leads to very rapid evolution in best practices. Rather than having the community look toward authority to design, plan, and implement “best practices” (a la the JSR model), members of the Ruby community try different things, and have rapidly made refinements to the practices over time.

In general, I agree with Yehuda about Obie’s current advertising campaign: playing hot-or-not with the bullet points in a HashRocket sales brochure does not make for a compelling discussion of what makes good software, nor does it actually help the community. (But then, I don’t think helping the community is the intent behind RMM–I think it’s about drumming up business by being thoughtleaders.)

But I have an important nit to pick.

That’s not how the JSR model works.

Java programmers don’t sit around feeling helpless waiting for JSR-9918: Doing That Thing You Get Paid To Do to be finalized. Instead, they haul off and implement crazy experiments and solve their problems in new and unique ways just like every other programming community.

In the Java Community Process, you write a JSR proposal describing what you’d like to standardize and why. Here’s the original proposal for JSR-311, about RESTful web services for Java. Then you assemble an expert group–a group of people who are both knowledgeable and interested in the subject–and write a bunch of drafts, go through a bunch of reviews, and finally end up with both a free reference implementation of the standard and a test suite to verify API compliance with the standard.

Horrible, I know.

It is incredibly bureaucratic, yes. But it’s a standardization process. It’s not where innovation starts, it’s where it ends. And that’s as it should be.

The whole point of a standard is to describe a fixed set of practices that people can take for granted. Once they can take it for granted, they can begin to focus on other things.

For example, Rack.

One of the more exciting things to have happened in the Ruby web development community is Rack. It’s not a very sexy project–one can’t claim to be a web framework middleware ninja–but it has an incredible amount of utility: it’s standardized the interface between web application containers–Mongrel, Thin, Ebb, Passenger, Glassfish, Jetty, Tomcat, JBoss, SpringSource, Google App Engine, WEBrick, LiteSpeed, Fuzed, CGI, FastCGI, SCGI, EventedMongrel, SwiftipliedMongrel–and Ruby web applications.

Thanks to Rack’s acceptance, you write a web application to work with a minimal interface and deploy it on a wide variety of infrastructure without needing to write your own adapter code. You no longer need to care about the glue code between your web server and your web application. You can then spend time doing other things, like caring about your actual web application.

Why did Rack succeed?

Rack succeeded because it has a spec, a reference implementation and even a test suite to ensure spec compatibility.

It doesn’t matter if Christian Neukirchen–not that he would–hauls off and destroys Rack as a library; the spec still exists, and implementations of it can be written again and again.

But a spec is not sufficient, obviously. You can’t just crack open Word and start writing fiction in order to make your project gain traction. You need to extract from existing projects a common pattern, round off rough edges, and resolve long-standing issues. Rack did that. It took the various Rails dispatch glue code and other half-assed Ruby middleware implementations, looked at what worked for the Python community, came up with some iterations, got an astounding amount of feedback from concerned, knowledgeable people in the Ruby community, and ended up producing something which has seen widespread adoption in a short period of time.

I’m not sure why Yehuda feels compelled to bring out the scare quotes when referring to these as “best practices.” It’s a good process and it obviously works.

Ruby needs more of this.

The Ruby community has not had a great history of doing this. Ruby Change Requests, a mechanism for proposed changes to the Ruby language, were mothballed because ruby-core simply didn’t want to deal with it. It’s much easier just making changes and having everyone else run around fixing the ways in which the latest patch release of Ruby totally breaks their code. It was discontent with this process which produced the RubySpec project which, say, looked toward authority to design, plan, and implement “best practices” regarding the Ruby language.


Because trying to build a business on top of a Ruby interpreter in which ruby-core is constantly trying out “small mutations” is really goddamn annoying.

Not everything needs a spec–actually, very few things need a spec. But trying to build the fundamentals of interoperability without a spec and an open process is–like Ruby 1.8.7–bound to fail.


The path to success for a Ruby library and a JSR are the same: pick a problem where diversity of interface poses a problem, extract a common solution, get a bunch of feedback from stakeholdersinterested people in the community who are working in the area, build a solid reference implementation which people can easily use, build a test suite so implementers can red/green their projects, and write a well-defined, simple spec.

It worked for servlets, it worked for Hibernate, it’s working for Restlet, it’s working for Joda Time, it’ll work for Spring and Guice, and it worked for Rack.