By Amos Latteier
This is the second time I’ve been to Silicon Valley. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – I started writing open source software. It’s taken me to some strange places like Washington DC and Kwajalein, but never until recently to the suburbs of San Jose.
The reason I’m here is for a hackathon. I recently was hired by Khan Academy. I live in Vancouver, the one in Canada. I work remotely. In fact most of the people I work closely with are remote. This is one of the great things about this new job. Also it turns out that I get to work with smart and friendly people. And instead of writing a CRM for insurance salespeople like I was doing at my last gig, my job is to help anyone anywhere get a free world-class education. There’s got to be a catch. Maybe it’s this hackathon.
What kind of hackathon is this anyway?
Apparently it’s healthy. Growing up my mother was very focused on healthy foods. My sister and I used to break into the carob chips, looking for anything candy-like. So if it’s anything like that I know that I’m in trouble.
The offices are covered in decorations when I arrive. This seems less like a hackathon and more like a craft party. I feel a bit out of place, so I cut a cape out of felt and put it on. That’s better.
Rather than endurance coding, we do a lot of socializing and collecting donations for a food bank interspersed with project work. I decide to work with someone I don’t know on a fun-sounding project.
A fun-sounding project
The co-worker I don’t know explains the project to me. Right now Khan Academy runs on App Engine. Classic, not flex. There’s interest in moving to flex. It turns out that they are pretty different. There’s a ton of institutional knowledge here about classic built up over years. But we don’t have a lot of experience with flex. This project is about getting some experience with flex.
Plus the project is a language shootout. Right now most of the backend code is in Python, but there are fantasies about moving to another language. Who doesn’t fantasize about other languages? I’m currently infatuated with Elixir. It’s possible that I like it because I haven’t used it for any serious projects yet. But I have tried writing distributed systems (and even worse, debugging distributed systems written by others) in Python, and that was a bad enough experience to make me look for alternatives.
Anyway we’re probably not going to switch languages anytime soon, but it’s fun to dream.
The task we set ourselves is to consume a pub/sub feed and put the results into BigQuery. The feed collects information about about exercises attempted by users of Khan Academy. There is a lot of exercise data.
We must first validate the message using a hmac digest. We use a secret stored in metadata. Next parse the pub/sub message. Then send it to BigQuery. We have to insure that the right table exists and then insert the data.
Oh, and we need to run a web server, cause that’s how you do push subscriptions.
So it’s not too much work, but not completely trivial.
Of course I’m going to write a service in Elixir. In fact that’s the reason I chose this project.
Elixir is a new marketing campaign for Erlang. Well technically it’s more than that, but from my point of view the great things about Elixir are OTP and BEAM. My coworker already has the Elixir implementation started. I only have to add a few things to get it working, but there are no official Google Cloud libraries so that ends up being my biggest challenge.
Go is a language that not many people who I know seem to be enthusiastic about. But hey, why not try it? There are bound to be decent Google Cloud Platform library for it, right? And it compiles fast.
Kotlin is a language that I haven’t heard of until recently. But my manager loves it, so I guess I should test it. Actually it doesn’t seem to be as dreadful as I expected. Plus some people say that they’ve gotten the JVM working pretty well these days. One downside is that it doesn’t compile as fast as go does.
Python is the language I’ve hitched my professional career to. Happily for me Python isn’t dead yet. Khan Academy uses a lot of Python. Yeah, it’s slow. Also under flex you have to choose your own WSGI server. I’m not sure we chose the best one. If we had more time I’d like to look into this more.
Crystal is a language I’ve never heard of. But my coworker checks in a microservice written in one night. He says it’s fun.
Interlude in which my mind is blown
We’re making progress on the project, mostly due to my co-worker’s efforts. I’m spending most of my time trying to understand the code he’s checking in. But then comes the Python Bee. It’s like a spelling bee, but in Python. That sounds cool; I know Python. So it turns out there’s a wrinkle. You have to speak out your program, character by character without looking at the screen while someone else types it in for you. OK, so you have to keep it all in your head and not mess up on indenting. I think I can do this. Oh wait, it turns out that you have a partner, and you can’t communicate with them, and you each take turns saying the next character of the program! So it’s not just keeping the program in your head, it’s guessing what program is in your partner’s head too.
Two people are writing a prime number sieve in Haskell using mind reading. This is happening right in front of me right now.
Now it’s my turn. Ok, ok, ok, ok.
IndentationError. Ugh, not only does this look really hard, it is really hard too.
Some benchmarking results
We don’t get around to doing message validation on all the different microservices. So our benchmark isn’t fair. In fact it’s not even particularly precise. We just start the microservices, point the pub/sub firehose at them and see how far behind they fall during the day, and how long it takes them to catch up with the backlog in the evening.
Still it isn’t hard to see how each language fares.
|Elixir||Not quite as fast as Kotlin|
|Go||Pretty much as fast a Elixir|
|Python||Quite a bit slower|
We can’t get Crystal running well enough to compete. We run into ssl errors and don’t have enough time to track down a solution.
After doing this sloppy benchmark I’m not sure that it’s really a great argument to switch away from Python. Speed is only one consideration among many.
In practice it seems that the quality of Google Cloud Platform libraries is probably one of the most important factors in picking a language for our benchmark, since we rely so heavily on Google Cloud Platform.
I am impressed with Elixir’s performance, though. It almost kept up with Kotlin, and hey confirmation bias.
I also wonder about whether we should be consuming pub/sub messages with a push queue. I suspect that performance would be much better using a pull queue, since then we could batch our BigQuery inserts. Often the best way to improve performance is changing the algorithm not the language.
Anyway we present our results. People nod respectfully. Ours is just one in a vast and riotous sea of hackathon projects.
We haven’t figured out the organization’s future language strategy, but we have gotten some practical experience with App engine flex. Plus we’ve validated that microservices seem to work OK for a simple task that’s bounded by external APIs.
I’m still really in awe of the Python Bee performances I saw. I asked the Haskellers how they did it. Foldl I was told. Foldl makes sense for this kind of thing. If you are both thinking ”Foldl, foldl, foldl” then it’s easier to read each other’s minds. I’m probably not going to learn Haskell, but I know about reduce. Next year I just need to find a partner who’s also thinking ”Reduce, reduce, reduce”. That and remember how many spaces we’re indented.