Wednesday, March 24, 2010

5Tech - Week 1: Google App Engine

For the first of the five technologies in five weeks, I picked something easy - Google App Engine using Python and Django. As someone who's been using Python for 15 years, there was no language learning curve. And using the Django helper for app engine package allowed me to leverage my Django experience. So with a minimal learning curve, the results were basically all good.

The project involved creating a simple application to monitor web sites to check if they are up or down and notify the user about status changes. As such, the core of the application isn't even a web app. In fact, I've implemented the same thing a couple of different times as a standalone program in Python or Java. However, to run a standalone application like that requires a server where it can run, and that's not something I've always had access to. GAE's cron service provides the ability to run checks periodically - just like the main loop in my standalone applications, and GAE provides a large number of notification options, although I only used email initially. The application does have a web interface for configuring checks and viewing the status

Project Analysis

My biggest problem developing the application was the fact that I was working with three separate but overlapping tools/frameworks: GAE, Django, and the Django helper. These all worked fine, but when I wanted to do some task, I didn't know where to look for the "right" way to do it. After wasting a bunch of time searching for things only to find that the Django way was the right way, I just quit asking and adopted the "try Django first" strategy. And then, the first time I went to apply that I got burned - there are some slight differences in how the filter method is handled in Django helper versus "native" Django. But for the most part, Django first is the way to go. In addition to the online documentation for these three tools/frameworks , I used Programming Google App Engine by Sanderson, which covers all of them - I highly recommend it.

Although my plan with Five Technologies is to use best practices, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't practice much test driven development on this project despite having "home field advantage" with the technology - Django. Some of that is due to the exploratory nature of the programming - just figuring out which end is up, and some of it was the confusion over how to do tests - as noted above, the answer is "the Django way". Also, I found a bug in the app engine helper when loading a fixture, which hung me up - I'll be submitting a patch shortly.

One (non-technical) practice that I adopted was the Pomodoro Technique, and that worked pretty well. The 25 minute mini-sprints were really nice to contain technology-induced ADD. However, the watch I was using as my timer died during a pomodoro which lead to a very long and productive pomodoro.

In terms of the bigger goals of Five Technologies, I have another confession: I did not restrict myself to one week. I created version 0.1 and deployed it to the cloud within one week, but the week following this project I went to the Java Posse Roundup, and I kept working on the Django app, even though I should have been focusing on Java. It's just that after a week of working on GAE, I had built up some good momentum and didn't want to quit. I fear that this will be a real problem for the next projects because I won't have the luxury of continuing to work on whatever technology when I begin the next project.

In conclusion, the first technology experiment was a success, even if I wasn't dogmatic. What's next? Most likely Grails. Stay tuned.

Update:  I forgot to mention something cool I learned about - schema migration, or the lack thereof.  Before I began the project I was fretting about schema migration on GAE because I've been too lazy to learn something like South, and therefore I do schema migrations at a SQL command prompt.  Obviously, there is no SQL problem for a NoSQL database like Google's BigTable.  Then I forgot about the issue, but half way through I looked up and said, "hey, I haven't been doing any migrations, but this all works."  Duh! -  like many NoSQL databases, BigTable is schema-less, so there is no schema to migrate.  Problem solved.  OK, the application has to be prepared to do with an attribute on a record/row that isn't present, but that code is basically the same as dealing with a NULL value that you might specify as the default value when you issue an ALTER TABLE to add a column.  Also, you can still imagine scenarios where you might still have to do some sort of schema/data conversion, but without even consciously thinking about it, I managed to avoid those.  That was cool.


Kenny said...

As I don't have the Django background, all my GAE work will be (has been) from the ground up in a GAE style. I'd be interested to hear what the differences are. Do you feel like you encountered limitations by trying to do it the Django way or just stylistic differences?

Charles Anderson said...

I wouldn't say that the Django way was limited in anyway, but it is different from "native" Django, and it's potentially very different from using straight webapp. Some of the differences from native Django are artifacts of the fact that BigTable is NoSQL, although there is a django-nosql project in progress. Others seem stylistic, although they may be additional limitations of the webapp/Python platform.

It's really hard to compare Django on GAE to the "GAE style" (i.e., webapp) because webapp is not as complete as Django, but it allows you to use things Django templates or another templating system. By the time you add enough additional functionality to facilitate an apples-to-apples comparison, either you have the Django helper app, or you have something else which is just as functional, but not Django.

I think you're question is really asking, is the Django helper app on GAE worth using for someone with no previous investment in Django? I'd say, "yes". Django and the helper app make a lot of decisions for you which gets you up and running quickly. Later on, some people chafe at the decisions made by Django, in which case you can tweak things, if you like. But, if you start with a totally clean slate and build everything from scratch on top of webapp, by the time you have your environment set up and are ready to start development, I'd have my whole app up and deployed

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