Modularity through HTTP

As programmers, we strive for modularity in the code we write. We hope that splitting the problem up makes it easier to solve, and allows us to reuse parts of our code in other applications. Object-orientation is the most obvious of many attempts to get us closer to this ideal, and yet one of the most successful approaches is almost accidental: the web.

Programming languages provide us with functions and classes, and plenty of other ways to modularize our code. This allows us to take our large problem, split it into small parts, and solve those small parts without having to worry about the whole. It also makes it easier to reason about our code. So far, so good. But now that we’ve written our small, independent module, say to send out e-mails to my customers, we’d like to reuse it in another application. By creating DLLs, JARs or our platform’s package container of choice, we can do just that – provided our new application is on the same platform. Want to use a Java library from C#? Well, good luck – it might be possible, but it’s not going to be smooth sailing.

Even if a library exists, it doesn’t mean that using it going to be a pleasant experience. Say I want to use Java to write out an XML document to an output stream. You’d imagine this would be a simple one-liner. You’d be wrong:

Most of the time, there is a good chance somebody else has written the code before, but if nobody can understand the interface to that code, nobody’s going to use it. The result is that most of the code we write is just a variation on a theme.

Despite our best efforts, we’ve fallen a little short of our ideal, but the web brings us closer. If we want to send e-mails to our customers, we could write an e-mail-sending library. More likely, we’d use an existing one for our language. Even then, we probably wouldn’t have niceties like A/B testing or DKIM signing. Alternatively, we could just fire some HTTP requests at MailChimp, and get a whole slew of features without getting anywhere near the code that implements them. The web is inherently language agnostic. So long as your language can send and receive text over HTTP, and probably parse some JSON, you’re about as well equipped as anybody. Instead of building libraries for a specific language, we can build a service that almost every language can reuse.

The text-based nature of HTTP also helps to limit the complexity of the API. As SOAP will attest, you can still make a horrible mess using HTTP, but at least it is an obvious horrible mess. Complex data structures are tedious to marshal to and from text, providing a strong incentive to keep things simple. By contrast, spotting the complexities in a class hierarchy is often not as easy.

HTTP doesn’t solve every problem. It probably isn’t such a good idea to use it inside an inner loop that’s executed thousands of times per second. What’s more, the HTTP approach might introduce some new problems. We often need to add a thin shim to each application that we wish to communicate over HTTP. For instance, we might need to write a small plugin in PHP if we want to integrate WordPress into our system. Suddenly, instead of a system written in one language, we’re maintaining a system with several distinct languages and platforms.

Even then, we should strive to avoid re-implementing the same old thing. As programmers, we consistently underestimate both the cost of building a system and the ongoing maintenance. If we allow ourselves to integrate existing applications, even if they’re in unfamiliar languages, we save ourselves those development and maintenance costs, as well as being able to pick the best solution for our problem. Thanks to the web, HTTP is often the easiest way to get there.

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