We can answer on question what is VPS? and what is cheap dedicated servers?

April 2010

Silver Lining: More People!

OK… so I said before Silver Lining is for collaborators not users. And that’s still true… it’s not a polished experience where you can confidently ignore the innards of the tool. But it does stuff, and it works, and you can use it. So… I encourage some more of you to do so.

Now would be a perfectly good time, for instance, to port an application you use to the system. Almost all Python applications should be portable. The requirements are fairly simple:

  1. The application needs a WSGI interface.
  2. It needs to be Python 2.6 compatible.
  3. Any libraries that aren’t pure-Python need to be available as deb packages in some form.
  4. Any persistence needs to be provided as a service; if the appropriate service isn’t already available you may need to write some code.

Also PHP applications should work (though you may encounter more rough edges), with these constraints:

  1. No .htaccess files, so you have to implement any URL rewriting in PHP (e.g., for WordPress).
  2. Source code is not writable, so self-installers that write files won’t work. (Self-installing plugins might be workable, but that hasn’t been worked out yet.)
  3. And the same constraints for services.

So… take an application, give it a try, and tell me what you encounter.

Also I’d love to get feedback and ideas from people with more sysadmin background, or who know Ubuntu/Debian tricks. For instance, I’d like to handle some of the questions packages ask about on installation (right now they are all left as defaults, not always the right answer). I imagine there’s some non-interactive way to handle those questions but I haven’t been able to find it.

Silver Lining

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Core Competencies, Silver Lining, Packaging

I’ve been leaning heavily on Ubuntu and Debian packages for Silver Lining. Lots of "configuration management" problems are easy when you rely on the system packages… not for any magical reason, but because the package maintainers have done the configuration management for me. This includes dependencies, but also things like starting up services in the right order, and of course upgrades and security fixes. For this reason I really want everything that isn’t part of Silver Lining’s core to be in the form of a package.

But then, why isn’t everything a package? Arguably some pieces really should be, I’m just too lazy and developing those pieces too quickly to do it. But more specifically, why aren’t applications packages? It’s not the complexity really — the tool could encapsulate all the complexity of packaging if I chose. I always knew intuitively it didn’t make sense, but it took me a while to decide quite why.

There are a lot of specific reasons, but the overriding reason is that I don’t want to outsource a core function. Silver Lining isn’t a tool to install database servers. That is something it does, but that’s not its purpose, and so it can install a server with apt-get install mysql-server-5.1. In doing so it’s saving a lot of work, it’s building on the knowledge of people more interested in MySQL than I, but it’s also deferring a lot of control. When it comes to actually deploying applications I’m not willing to have Silver Lining defer to another system, because deploying applications is the entire point of the tool.

There are many specific reasons. I want multiple instances of an application deployed simultaneously. I can optimize the actual code delivery (using rsync) instead of delivering an entire bundle of code. The setup is specific to the environment and configuration I’ve set up on servers, it’s not a generic package that makes sense on a generic Ubuntu system. I don’t want any central repository of packages or a single place where releases have to go through. I want to allow for the possibility of multiple versions of an application running simultaneously. I’m coordinating services even as I deploy the application, something which Debian packages try to do a little, but don’t do consistently or well. But while there’s a list of reasons, it doesn’t matter that much — there’s no particular size of list that scared me off, and if I’m misinformed about the way packages work or if there are techniques to avoid these problems it doesn’t really matter to me… the real reason is that I don’t want to defer control over the one thing that Silver Lining must do well.

Silver Lining

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WebTest HTTP testing

I’ve yet to see another testing system for local web testing that I like as much as WebTest… which is perhaps personal bias for something I wrote, but then I don’t have that same bias towards everything I’ve written. Many frameworks build in their own testing systems but I don’t like the abstractions — they touch lots of internal things, or skip important steps of the request, or mock out things that don’t need to be mocked out. WSGI can make this testing easy.

There’s also a hidden feature here: because WSGI is basically just describing HTTP, it can be a means of representing not just incoming HTTP requests, but also outgoing HTTP requests. If you are running local tests against your application using WebTest, with just a little tweaking you can turn those tests into HTTP tests (i.e., actually connect to a socket). But doing this is admittedly not obvious; hence this post!

Here’s what a basic WebTest test looks like:

from webtest import TestApp
import json

wsgi_app = acquire_wsgi_application_somehow()
app = TestApp(wsgi_app)

def test_login():
    resp = app.post('/login', dict(username='guest', password='guest'))
    resp.mustcontain('login successful')
    resp = resp.click('home')
    resp.mustcontain('<a href="/profile">guest</a>')
    # Or with a little framework integration:
    assert resp.templatevars.get('username') == 'guest'

# Or an API test:
def test_user_query():
    resp = app.get('/users.json')
    assert 'guest' in resp.json['userList']
    user_info = dict(username='guest2', password='guest2', name='Guest')
    resp = app.post('/users.json', content_type='application/json',
    assert resp.json == user_info

The app object is a wrapper around the WSGI application, and each of those methods runs a request and gets the response. The response object is a WebOb response with several additional helpers for testing (things like .click() which finds a link in HTML and follows it, or .json which loads the body as JSON).

You don’t have to be using a WSGI-centric framework like Pylons to use WebTest, it works fine with anything with a WSGI frontend, which is just about everything. But the point of my post: you don’t have to use it with a WSGI application at all. Using WSGIProxy:

import os
import urlparse

if os.environ.get('TEST_REMOTE'):
    from wsgiproxy.exactproxy import proxy_exact_request
    wsgi_app = proxy_exact_request
    parsed = urlparse.urlsplit(os.environ['TEST_REMOTE'])
    app = TestApp(proxy_exact_request, extra_environ={
                  'wsgi.scheme': parsed.scheme,
                  'HTTP_HOST': parsed.netloc,
                  'SERVER_NAME': parsed.netloc})
    wsgi_app = acquire_wsgi_application_somehow()
    app = TestApp(wsgi_app)

It’s a little crude to control this with an environmental variable ($TEST_REMOTE), but it’s an easy way to pass an option in when there’s no better way (and many test runners don’t make options easy). The extra_environ option puts in the host and scheme information into each request (the default host WebTest puts in is http://localhost). WSGIProxy lets you send a request to any host, kind of bypassing DNS, so SERVER_NAME is actually the server the request goes to, while HTTP_HOST is the value of the Host header.

Going over HTTP there are a couple features that won’t work. For instance, you can pass information about your application back to the test code by putting values in environ['paste.testing_variables'] (which is how you’d make resp.templatevars work in the first example). It’s also possible to use extra_environ to pass information into your application, for example to get your application to mock out user authentication; this is fairly safe because in production no request can put those same special keys into the environment (using custom HTTP headers means you must carefully filter requests in production). But custom environ values won’t work over HTTP.

The thing that got me thinking about this is the work I’m doing on Silver Lining, where I am taking apps and rearranging the code and modifying the database configuration ad setup to fit this deployment system. It would be really nice having done that to be able to run some functional tests, and I really want to run them over HTTP. If an application has tests using something like Selenium or Windmill that would also work great, but those tools can be a bit more challenging to work with and applications still need smaller tests anyway, so being able to reuse tests like these would be most useful.


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More Sentinels

I’ve been casually perusing Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming: Case Studies in Common Lisp. One of the things I am noticing is that Lisp traditionally has a terrible lack of sentinels: special objects denoting some kind of meaning. Specifically in Common Lisp the empty list and false and nil are all the same thing. As a result there’s all these cases where you want to distinguish false from empty, especially when false represents a failure of some sort. In these AI examples, usually a failure to find something, while in many cases the empty list could mean "the thing is already found, no need to look". But there’s also lots of other examples when this causes problems.

More modern languages usually distinguish between these objects. Python for instance has [], False and None. They might all test as "falsish", but if you care to tell the difference it is easy to do; especially common is a test for x is None. Modern Lisps also stopped folding together all these notions (Scheme for example has #f for false as a completely distinct object, though null and the empty list are still the same). XML-RPC is an example of a language missing null… and though JSON is almost the same data model, it is a great deal superior for having null. In comparison no one seems to care much one way or the other about making a strong distinction between True/False and 1/0.

These are all examples of sentinels: special objects that represent some state. None doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it means lots of things specifically. Maybe it means "not found" in one place, or "give me anything I don’t care" in another. But sometimes you need more than one of these in the same place, or None isn’t entirely clear.

One thing I noticed while reading some Perl 6 examples is that they’ve added a number of new sentinels. One is *. So you could write something like item(*) to mean "give me any item, your choice". While the Perl tendency to use punctuation is legend, words work too.

I wonder if we need a few more sentinel conventions? If so what?

Of course any object can become a sentinel if you use it like that, None isn’t more unique than any other object. (None is conveniently available everywhere.)

Any seems useful, ala Perl’s *. But… there’s already an any available everywhere as well. It happens to be a function, but it’s also a unique named object… would it be entirely too weird to do obj is any? And there’s very few cases where the actual function any would be an appropriate input, making it a good sentinel.


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