Posts tagged Iodide

Mozilla, Iodide

New ideas, old buildings

Mar 22nd, 2019

Last week, Brendan Colloran announced Iodide, a new take on scientific collaboration and reporting that I’ve been really happy to contribute to over the past year-and-a-bit. I’ve been describing it to people I meet as kind of "glitch meets jupyter " but that doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d recommend reading Brendan’s blog post (and taking a look at our demonstration site) to get the full picture.

One question that I’ve heard asked (including on Brendan’s post) is why we chose a rather conventional and old technology (Django) for the server backend. Certainly, Iodide has not been shy about building with relatively new or experimental technologies for other parts (e.g. Python on WebAssembly for the notebooks, React/Redux for the frontend). Why not complete the cycle by using a new-fangled JavaScript web server like, I don’t know, NestJS? And while we’re at it, what’s with iodide’s ridiculous REST API? Don’t you know GraphQL is the only legitimate way to expose your backend to the world in 2019?

The great urban theorist of the twentieth century, Jane Jacobs has a quote I love:

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

Laura Thompson (an engineering director at Mozilla) has restated this wisdom in a software development context as “Build exciting things with boring technologies”.

It so happened that the server was not an area Iodide was focusing on for innovation (at least initially), so it made much, much more sense to use something proven and battle-tested for the server side deployment. I’d used Django for a number of projects at Mozilla before this one (Treeherder/Perfherder and Mission Control) and have been wildly impressed by the project’s excellent documentation, database access layer, and support for building a standardized API via the Django REST Framework add-on. Not to mention the fact that so much of Mozilla’s in-house ops and web development expertise is based around this framework (I could name off probably 5 or 6 internal business systems based around the Django stack, in addition to Treeherder), so deploying Iodide and getting help building it would be something of a known quantity.

Only slightly more than half a year since I began work on the iodide server, we now have both a publicly accessible site for others to experiment with and an internal one for Mozilla’s business needs. It’s hard to say what would have happened had I chosen something more experimental to build Iodide’s server piece, but at the very least there would have been a substantial learning curve involved — in addition to engineering effort to fill in the gaps where the new technology is not yet complete — which would have meant less time to innovate where it really mattered. Django’s database migration system, for example, took years to come to fruition and I’m not aware of anything comparable in the world of JavaScript web frameworks.

As we move ahead, we may find places where applying new backend server technologies makes sense. Heck, maybe we’ll chose to rewrite the whole thing at some point. But to get to launch, chosing a bunch of boring, tested software for this portion of Iodide was (in my view) absolutely the right decision and I make no apologies for it.