Reactive Programming and the Flux Architecture

Reactive programming, including functional reactive programming as will be discussed later, is a programming paradigm that can be used in multiparadigm languages such as JavaScript, Python, Scala, and many more. It is primarily distinguished from imperative programming, in which a statement does something by what are called side effects, in literature, about functional and reactive programming. Please note, though, that side effects here are not what they are in common English, where all medications have some effects, which are the point of taking the medication, and some other effects are unwanted but are tolerated for the main benefit. For example, Benadryl is taken for the express purpose of reducing symptoms of airborne allergies, and the fact that Benadryl, in a way similar to some other allergy medicines, can also cause drowsiness is (or at least was; now it is also sold as a sleeping aid) a side effect. This is unwelcome but tolerated as the lesser of two evils by people, who would rather be somewhat tired and not bothered by allergies than be alert but bothered by frequent sneezing. Medication side effects are rarely the only thing that would ordinarily be considered side effects by a programmer. For them, side effects are the primary intended purpose and effect of a statement, often implemented through changes in the stored state for a program.

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Reactive programming has its roots in the observer pattern, as discussed in Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides's classic book Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (the authors of this book are commonly called GoF or Gang of Four). In the observer pattern, there is an observable subject. It has a list of listeners, and notifies all of them when it has something to publish. This is somewhat simpler than the publisher/subscriber (PubSub) pattern, not having potentially intricate filtering of which messages reach which subscriber which is a normal feature to include.

Reactive programming has developed a life of its own, a bit like the MVC pattern-turned-buzzword, but it is best taken in connection with the broader context explored in GoF. Reactive programming, including the ReactJS framework (which is explored in this title), is intended to avoid the shared mutable state and be idempotent. This means that, as with RESTful web services, you will get the same result from a function whether you call it once or a hundred times. Pete Hunt formerly of Facebook—perhaps the face of ReactJS as it now exists—has said that he would rather be predictable than right. If there is a bug in his code, Hunt would rather have the interface fail the same way every single time than go on elaborate hunts for heisenbugs. These are bugs that manifest only in some special and slippery edge cases, and are explored later in this book.

ReactJS is called the V of MVC. That is, it is intended for user interface work and has little intentions of offering other standard features. But just as the painter Charles Cézanne said about the impressionist painter Claude Monet, "Monet is only an eye, but what an eye!" about MVC and ReactJS, we can say, "ReactJS is only a view, but what a view!"

In this chapter, we will be covering the following topics:

  • Declarative programming
  • The war on heisenbugs
  • The Flux Architecture
  • From pit of despair to the pit of success
  • A complete UI teardown and rebuild
  • JavaScript as a Domain-specific Language (DSL)
  • Big-Coffee Notation

ReactJS, the library explored in this book, was developed by Facebook and made open source in the not-too-distant past. It is shaped by some of Facebook's concerns about making a large-scale site that is safe to debug and work on, and also allowing a large number of programmers to work on different components without having to store brain-bending levels of complexity in their heads. The quotation "Simplicity is the lack of interleaving," which can be found in the videos at http://facebook.github.io/react, is not about how much or how little stuff there is on an absolute scale, but about how many moving parts you need to juggle simultaneously to work on a system (See the section on Big-Coffee Notation for further reflections).

Declarative programming

Probably, the biggest theoretical advantage of the ReactJS framework is that the programming is declarative rather than imperative. In imperative programming, you specify what steps need to be done; declarative programming is the programming in which you specify what needs to be accomplished without telling how it needs to be done. It may be difficult at first to shift from an imperative paradigm to a declarative paradigm, but once the shift has been made, it is well worth the effort involved to
get there.

Familiar examples of declarative paradigms, as opposed to imperative paradigms, include both SQL and HTML. An SQL query would be much more verbose if you had to specify how exactly to find records and filter them appropriately, let alone say how indices are to be used, and HTML would be much more verbose if, instead of having an IMG tag, you had to specify how to render an image. Many libraries, for instance, are more declarative than a rolling of your own solution from scratch. With a library, you are more likely to specify only what needs to be done and not—in addition to this—how to do it. ReactJS is not in any sense the only library or framework that is intended to provide a more declarative JavaScript, but this is one of its selling points, along with other better specifics that it offers to help teams work together and be productive. And again, ReactJS has emerged from some of Facebook's efforts in managing bugs and cognitive load while enabling developers to contribute a lot to a large-scale project.

The war on Heisenbugs

In modern physics, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle loosely says that there is an absolute theoretical limit to how well a particle's position and velocity can be known. Regardless of how good a laboratory's measuring equipment gets, funny things will always happen when you try to pin things down too far.

Heisenbugs, loosely speaking, are subtle, slippery bugs that can be very hard to pin down. They only manifest under very specific conditions and may even fail to manifest when one attempts to investigate them (note that this definition is slightly different from the jargon file's narrower and more specific definition at http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/heisenbug.html, which specifies that attempting to measure a heisenbug may suppress its manifestation). This motive—of declaring war on heisenbugs—stems from Facebook's own woes and experiences in working at scale and seeing heisenbugs keep popping up. One thing that Pete Hunt mentioned, in not a flattering light at all, was a point where Facebook's advertisement system was only understood by two engineers well enough who were comfortable with modifying it. This is an example of something to avoid.

By contrast, looking at Pete Hunt's remark that he would "rather be predictable than right" is a statement that if a defectively designed lamp can catch fire and burn, his much, much rather have it catch fire and burn immediately, the same way, every single time, than at just the wrong point of the moon phase have something burn. In the first case, the lamp will fail testing while the manufacturer is testing, the problem will be noticed and addressed, and lamps will not be shipped out to the public until the defect has been property addressed. The opposite Heisenbug case is one where the lamp will spark and catch fire under just the wrong conditions, which means that a defect will not be caught until the laps have shipped and started burning customers' homes down. "Predictable" means "fail the same way, every time, if it's going to fail at all." "Right means "passes testing successfully, but we don't know whether they're safe to use [probably they aren't]." Now, he ultimately does, in fact, care about being right, but the choices that Facebook has made surrounding React stem from a realization that being predictable is a means to being right. It's not acceptable for a manufacturer to ship something that will always spark and catch fire when a consumer plugs it in. However, being predictable moves the problems to the front and the center, rather than being the occasional result of subtle, hard-to-pin-down interactions that will have unacceptable consequences in some rare circumstances. The choices in Flux and ReactJS are designed to make failures obvious and bring them to the surface, rather than them being manifested only in the nooks and crannies of a software labyrinth.

Facebook's war on the shared mutable state is illustrated in the experience that they had regarding a chat bug. The chat bug became an overarching concern for its users. One crucial moment of enlightenment for Facebook came when they announced a completely unrelated feature, and the first comment on this feature was a request to fix the chat; it got 898 likes. Also, they commented that this was one of the more polite requests. The problem was that the indicator for unread messages could have a phantom positive message count when there were no messages available. Things came to a point where people seemed not to care about what improvements or new features Facebook was adding, but just wanted them to fix the phantom message count. And they kept investigating and kept addressing edge cases, but the phantom message count kept on recurring.

The solution, besides ReactJS, was found in the flux pattern, or architecture, which is discussed in the next section. After a situation where not too many people felt comfortable making changes, all of a sudden, many more people felt comfortable making changes. These things simplified matters enough that new developers tended not to really need the ramp-up time and treatment that had previously been given. Furthermore, when there was a bug, the more experienced developers could guess with reasonable accuracy what part of the system was the culprit, and the newer developers, after working on a bug, tended to feel confident and have a general sense of how the system worked.

The Flux Architecture

One of the ways in which Facebook, in relation to ReactJS, has declared war on heisenbugs is by declaring war on the mutable state. Flux is an architecture and a pattern, rather than a specific technology, and it can be used (or not used) with ReactJS. It is somewhat like MVC, equivalent to a loose competitor to that approach, but it is very different from a simple MVC variant and is designed to have a pit of success that provides unidirectional data flow like this: from the action to the dispatcher, then to the store, and finally to the view (but some people have said that these two are so different that a direct comparison between Flux and MVC, in terms of trying to identify what part of Flux corresponds to what conceptual hook in MVC, is not really that helpful). Actions are like events—they are fed into a top funnel. Dispatchers go through the funnels and can not only pass actions but also make sure that no additional actions are dispatched until the previous one has completely settled out. Stores have similarities and difference to models. They are like models in that they keep track of state. They are unlike models in that they have only getters, not setters, which stops the effect of any part of the program with access to a model being able to change anything in its setters. Stores can accept input, but in a very controlled way, and in general a store is not at the mercy of anything possessing a reference to it. A view is what displays the current output based on what is obtained from stores. Stores, compared to models in some respects, have getters but not setters. This helps foster a kind of data flow that is not at the mercy of anyone who has access to a setter. It is possible for events to be percolated as actions, but the dispatcher acts as a traffic cop and ensures that new actions are processed only after the stores are completely settled. This de-escalates the complexity considerably.

Flux simplified interactions so that Facebook developers no longer had subtle edge cases and bug that kept coming back—the chat bug was finally dead and has not come back.

Summary

We just took a whirlwind tour of some of the theory surrounding reactive programming with ReactJS. This includes declarative programming, one of the selling points of ReactJS that offers something easier to work with at the end than imperative programming. The war on heisenbugs, is an overriding concern surrounding decisions made by Facebook, including ReactJS. This takes place through Facebook's declared war on the shared mutable state. The Flux Architecture is used by Facebook with ReactJS to avoid some nasty classes of bugs. To learn more about Reactive Programming and the Flux Architecture, the following books published by Packt Publishing (https://www.packtpub.com/) are recommended:

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