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All about Catalyst – interview of Matt S. Trout (Part 2 of 3)

2014 January 20

Does all that flexibility come at a price?

The key price is that while there are common ways to do things, you’re rarely going to find One True Way to solve any given problem. It’s more likely to be “here’s half a dozen perfectly reasonable ways, which one is best probably depends on what the rest of your code looks like”, plus while there’s generally not much integration specific code involved, everything else is a little more DIY than most frameworks seem to require.

I can put together a catalyst app that does something at least vaguely interesting in a couple hours, but doing the sort of 5 minute wow moment thing that intro screencasts and marketing copy seem to aim for just doesn’t happen, and often when people first approach catalyst they tend to get a bit overwhelmed by the various features and the way you can put them together.

There’s a reflex of “this is too much, I don’t need this!”. But then a fair percentage of them come back two or three years later, have another look and go “ah, I see why I want all these features now: I’d’ve written half as much code since I thought I didn’t need all Catalyst features”. Similarly the wow moment is usually three months or six months into a project, when you realise that adding features is still going quickly because the code’s naturally shaken out into a sensible structure

So, there’s quite a bit of learning, and it’s pretty easy for it to look like overkill if you haven’t already experienced the pain involved. It’s a lot like the use strict problem writ large – declaring variables with my inappropriate scopes rather than making it up as you go along is more thinking and more effort to begin with, so it’s not always easy to get across that it’s worth it until the prospective user has had blue daemons fly out of his nose a couple of times from mistakes a more structured approach would’ve avoided.

So, it’s flexibility at the expense of a steep learning curve, but apart from that, if I could compare Catalyst to Rails, I would say that Rails tries to be more like a shepherd guiding the herd the way it thinks is the right one or the way they should go, while Catalyst allows room to move and make your own decisions. Is that a valid interpretation ?

It seems to me that Rails is very much focused on having opinions, so there’s a single obvious answer for all the common cases. Where you choose not to use a chunk of the stack, whatever replaces it is similarly a different set of opinions, whereas Catalyst definitely focuses on apps that are going to end up large enough to have enough weird corners that you’re going to end up needing to take your own choices. So Rails is significantly better at making easy things as easy as possible but Catalyst seems to do better at making hard things reasonably natural if you’re willing to sit down and think about it.

I remember talking to a really smart Rails guy over beer at a conference (possibly in Italy) and the two things I remember the most were him saying “my customers’ business logic just isn’t that complicated and Rails makes it easy to get it out of the way so I can focus on the UI”, and when I talked about some of the complexities I was dealing with, his first response was, “wait, you had HOW many tables?”.

So while they share, at least very roughly, the same sort of view of MVC, they’re optimised very differently in terms of user affordances for developers working with them. It wasn’t so long back somebody I know who’s familiar with Perl and Ruby was talking to me about a new project. I ended up saying: “Build the proof of concept with rails, and then if the logic’s complicated enough to make you want to club people to death with a baby seal, point the DBIx::Class schema introspection tool at your database and switch to Catalyst at that point”.

But surely, like Rails, Catalyst offers functionality out of the box too. What tasks does Catalyst take care of for me and which ones require manual wiring?

There’s a huge ecosystem of plugins, extensions and so forth in both cases but there’s a stylistic difference involved. Let me talk about the database side of things a sec, because I’m less likely to get the Rails-side part completely wrong.

Every Rails tutorial I’ve ever seen begins “first, you write a migration script that creates your table” … and then once you’ve got the table, your class should just pick up the right attributes because of the columns in the database, and that’s … that’s how you start, unless you want to do something non-standard (which I’m sure plenty of people do, but it’s an active deviation from the default), whereas you start a catalyst app, and your first question is “do I even want to use a database here?”

Then, assuming you do, DBIx::Class is probably a default choice, but if you’ve got a stored procedure oriented database to interface to, you probably don’t need it, and for code that’s almost all insanely complex aggregates, objects really aren’t a huge win but let’s assume you’ve gone for DBIx::Class

Now you ask yourself “do I want Perl to own the database, or SQL?” In the former case you’ll write a bunch of DBIx::Class code representing your tables, and then tell it to create them in the database; in the latter you’ll create the tables yourself and then generate the DBIx::Class code from the database. There’s not exactly an opinion of which is best: generally, I find that if a single application owns the database then letting the DBIx::Class code generate the schema is ideal, but if you’ve got a database that already exists that a bunch of other apps talk to as well, you’re probably better having the schema managed some way between the teams for all those apps and generating the DBIx::Class code from a scratch database.

Both of those are pretty much first class approaches, and y’know, if your app owns the database but you’ve already got a way of versioning the schema that works, then I don’t see why I should stop you from doing that and generating the DBIC code anyway. So it’s not so much about whether manual wiring is required for a particular task or not but how much freedom you have to pick an approach to a task, and how many decisions does that freedom require before you know how to fire off the relevant code to set things up. I mean, whether you classify code as boilerplate or not depends on whether you ever foresee wanting to change it.

So when you first create a catalyst controller, you often end up with methods that participate in dispatch – have routing information attached to them – but are completely empty of code which tends to look a little bit odd, so you often get questions from newbies of “why do I need to have a method there when it doesn’t do anything?”, but then you look at this code again when you’re getting close to feature complete, and almost all of those methods have code in them now because that’s how the logic tends to fall out.

There’s two reasons why that’s actively a good thing: first, that because there was already a method there even if it was a no-op to begin with, the fact it’s a method is a big sign saying “it’s totally OK to put code here if it makes sense”, which is a nice reminder, and makes it quite natural to structure your code in a way that flow nicely and secondly, once you figure it out in total, any other approach would involve time to declare non-method route plus time to redeclare all routes that got logic as methods and if most of your methods end up with code in them then that means that overall, for reasonably complex stuff, the Catalyst style ends up being less typing than anything else would be. But again we’re consciously paying a little bit more in terms of upfront effort as you’re starting to enable maintainability down the road

It’s easy to forget that Catalyst is not just a way of building sites, but also a big, big project in software architecture/engineering terms, built with best practices in mind.

Well, it is and it isn’t: there’s quite a lot of code in there that’s actually there to support not best practices, but not forcing people to rewrite code until they’re adding features to it, since if you’ve got six years’ worth of development and a couple hundred tables’ worth of business model, “surprise! we deleted a bunch of features you were using!” isn’t that useful, even when those features only existed because our design sucks (in hindsight, at least).

I’d say, yeah, that things like Chained dispatch and the adaptor model and the support for roles and traits pretty much everywhere enables best practices as we currently understand them. But there’s also a strong commitment to only making backwards incompatible changes when we really have to, because the more of those we make, the less likely people are to upgrade to a version of Catalyst that makes it easy to write new code in a way that sucks less (or, at least, differently).

But there’s a strong sense in the ecosystem and in the way the community tends to do things of trying to make it possible to do things as elegantly as possible even with a definition of elegant that evolves over time. So you might wish that your code from, say, 2008, looked a lot more like the code you’re writing in 2013, but they can coexist just fine until there’s a big features push on the code from 2008 and then you refactor and modernise as you and we’ve always had a bias towards modernization, so things can be done as extensions, and prioritising making it more possible to do more things as extensions, than adding things into the core.

So, for example, is a catalyst app using elasticsearch as a backend and people are using assorted other non-relational things and getting on just fine … and back in 2006, the usual ORM switched from Class::DBI to DBIx::Class and it wasn’t a big deal (though DBIx::Class got featureful enough that people’s attempts to obsolete it have probably resulted in more psychiatric holds than they have CPAN releases) and a while back we swapped out our own Catalyst::Engine:: system for Plack code implementing the PSGI spec, and that wasn’t horribly painful and opened up a whole extra ecosystem (system for handling HTTP environment abstraction).

Even in companies conservative enough to be still running 5.8.x Perl, most of the time you still tend to find that they’ve updated the ecosystem to reasonably recent versions, so they’re sharing the same associated toolkits as the new build code in Greenfield projects. So we try and avoid ending up too out of date without breaking existing production code gratuitously, and nudge people towards more modern patterns of use and not interfere with people who love the bleeding edge, but not force that on the users we have who don’t either. So sometimes things take longer to land than people might like. There’s a lot of stuff to understand, but if you’re thinking in terms of core business technology rather than hacking something out that you’ll rewrite entirely in a year when Google buys you or whatever, I think it’s a pretty reasonable set of trade-offs.

In the forthcoming third and last part of the interview, we talk about the the other Perl frameworks Dancer and Mojolicious, in which direction is the project moving, and whether Perl 6 is a viable option for Web development


nikosNikos Vaggalis has a BSc in Computer Science and a MSc in Interactive Multimedia. He works as a Database Developer with Linux and Ingres, and programms in both Perl and C#. He is interested in anything related to the RDBMS and loves crafting complex SQL queries for generating reports. As a journalist, he writes articles, conducts interviews and reviews technical IT books

2 Responses Post a comment
  1. avatar
    Dave Baker permalink
    April 14, 2014

    “with my inappropriate scopes” should read “with ‘my’ and appropriate scopes”

    (‘my’ is a Perl keyword)

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