Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

The Non-Relational DB Strikes Back!

When I started at Jot, one of the things I fell most in love with about the platform was the way that application developers on the system never, ever had to think about "the database". You just had nodes (JS objects which could serialize themselves to XML) and nodes had properties. Setting a property on the node persisted it and created a new version of the node.

Instead of thinking about how you were going to represent your problem in objects and then figuring out some way to map them to an RDBMS, you just started figuring out your problem in code, letting the normal development cycle iterations of what a "thing" is continue without stopping after every change to babysit the database or perform some sort of lame (or brittle) "migration". Recently I've been excited to see this kind of work start to evolve in the Django world while aspects of the non-relational data store have been finding more mindshare through projects like CouchDB and ERlang's built-in Mnesia persistence layer, although they all still feel relatively primitive in comparison to the "experimentation is free" environment that Jot offered. Sometimes folks ask my why I don't get into RoR, and every time I look into it again I'm alway struck how....backward it is. Hopefully the rumored gemstone port to ruby will plug up some of the remaining conceptual leaks that the RDBMS addiction has tortured the RoR and DJango app development process with.

Adding to the non-RDBMS data storage action is the announcement by Amazon of their SimpleDB service. It shares some of the best features of the Jot model (easy key/value setting, no schema, query anything) but doesn't yet seem to have the ability to version individual records. Even if SimpleDB doesn't do it, I expect it to pop up in another form somewhere else soon.

I'm tremendously excited about these sorts of services and data stores. It's been clear for some time that most data storage tasks for even departmental applications are main-memory tasks. It'll be interesting to see how the language environments respond to these changes. Microsoft's LINQ integration into .NET languages is the first major stab in this direction, and I expect the next up-and-coming language will probably develop something similar in order to one-up Java and Ruby by making "schema evolution" look more like adding properties to an object or a class prototype (in JS parlance).

Hopefully soon all of this work will soon yield a web framework for general consumption that will show the rest of the world what Jot got dead right: that when your data and your program can evolve in harmony and without friction or risk, you are truly liberated. When storage is free (and it nearly is), "screwing up" should mean starting a fire in your data center. Everything else is just a version rollback.

If You're Not Already Subscribed To Mike Shaver's Blog...

...this would be a good time to go add it to your feed reader of choice. His latest post on Adobe's attempts to increase the social acceptability of their closed platform does a great job at distilling some of the history and strategies being employed.

DWR Joins The Dojo Foundation, Joe Walker Joins SitePen

Dylan has the short-and-sweet writeup of what's happening with DWR and the Dojo Foundation and Joe Walker has a bit more Q&A. I can't really add much to the "news" bit of the news other than to say that I'm tremendously excited about it. The DWR community has been amazingly level-headed in its deliberations, and I can't wait to work with them in the future.

I've been concerned a bit that it may appear as though Joe joining SitePen may carry with it the perception that the Dojo Foundation is an arm of SitePen in some way or that DWR will now need to become Dojo-centric. Luckily neither is the case, although reading assurances to that effect on this blog should be taken with a grain of salt. The Foundation has an open door for deserving projects which need a good legal umbrella and don't want a lot of process or formality, and we've extended personal invitations to many non-Dojo-centric projects over the years to join (including direct competitors).

For anyone still worried about the DWR/DF arrangement, working it backwards from both perspectives should yield some comfort. It does very little good for Dojo to be shoved down someone's throat by the choice of some orthogonal tool in the same way that it would be tremendously foolhardy for the Foundation to lose its independence in any way. Neither would be very meritocratic and in particular the independence of the Foundation and its track record of providing a level playing field is most of what it has going for it. To that end, putting DWR at the Foundation and not under the getahead legal entity should help to make the distinction between commercial interest and community development even clearer than it previously was.

An umbrella organization to help support projects in meeting their goals is the under-appreciated bit of what separates successful stand-alone projects from projects which can't escape the yolk of either a closed development process or a sponsoring company that just can't let go of assumed control or brand affinity. Having your work backed by a legal entity is essential if you're not going to pick a GPL-ish license, but having that entity be a brand-neutral known quantity helps get projects adopted by organizations which have both lawyers and some experience with OSS. For component software like DWR, Cometd, and Dojo that's nearly all of the users which an OSS license alone won't convince. The independent nature of the Foundation also isolates users from the employment decisions of key contributors. Through the Foundation, Dojo's licensing has survived wholly in-tact through changes in employment status of nearly all of its most prolific contributors.

Having "external" committers, a reasonable process for minting new ones, and a peaceful atmosphere where developers can build trust along with software isn't rocket science but it does require some amount of prioritization of those concerns over personal and corporate directives. We're not perfect at this at the Dojo Foundation, and we haven't yet encountered the wrenching attempts at "brand drafting" which Apache deals with on a regular basis, but we're committed to keeping the process as hands-off as we can and working to ensure that the umbrella doesn't imply more than it really provides.

Our door is open. All that we require of new projects is that all committers on the project sign a CLA, that the lineage of the code be "clean" (within reason), that the project community is relatively healthy, and that you can convince the existing committers that yours is worthy of Foundation support. It has always been the intent of the Foundation to host projects that have nothing to do whatsoever with Dojo and it's my sincere hope that the DWR announcement drives this home, but we're not going to leave it to chance. More on this in a forthcoming post.

Until then, my congrats again to Joe and the entire DWR community. Thanks for giving the Foundation the opportunity to make good on the trust you've invested in us.

Go Molly! Go!

Finally, some progress from IE thanks to Molly's tenaciousness.

It's sad that it took Molly rhetorically tackling BillG on the topic to get more than witty asides out of the IE team, but beggars can't be choosers. To that end, we (the web development world at large) need to continue to follow up, not by asking for particular features, but by demanding continued openness and progress. We developers have suffered many broken promises and decrepit stewardship when it mattered most and the IE team has been harshly rebuked as a result. It's no wonder, then, that they're circumspect about promising anything concrete. To that end, I'm going to be focusing my questions to the IE team on some that I've previously blogged here. Namely:

  1. When will your next beta or alpha be available?
  2. What about the version after that?
  3. Is your organization standardizing the new stuff you added in the last stable release? Where?

These questions are explicitly designed to avoid trapping IE (or any other browser vendor) in a set of promises which they can't keep or forcing them to run laps in a standards body before they are ever allowed to try out anything new. Instead these questions focus on what we most fundamentally need: to know that the web will improve in a fashion relatively in line with past beneficial improvements.

Invent. Deploy. Standardize. In that order.

With that as the central goal, these questions also explicitly de-prioritize standards compliance in favor of larger improvements to the fabric of the web. A fully standards compliant IE8 won't buy the web any serious ammunition in the war to be the continued platform of choice for building new classes of applications. Only invention and real competition can spur those kinds of advances, and prioritizing standards compliance of any renderer above more radical and powerful forms of simplification (new tags, other HTML 5 features, Gears, etc.) seriously harms the web's chances against obvious closed-platform plays like Flex and Silverlight. We'll need standardization to solidify gains introduce in new renderers from any vendor, but without deployed solutions, the standards process is adrift in a sea of vaguely good ideas without market forces providing a prioritizing force.

This isn't to say that standards aren't important (or even critical), only to say that for the web development community to insist on that above all else is to miss the forest for the trees. Once we get answers on progress, we must obviously begin to ask about specifics, but the web development world must come to understand that without a commitment to real future progress, even amazing point releases or full standards compliance won't get us to where we want to go. We owe the IE team the breathing space to deliver something great, and they owe us a commitment to real, hands-on stewardship of their rendering engine.

Lets not miss an opportunity to move forward because we're stuck on the past, lest we all wake up one day to realize that in bickering about the late 90's we lost the important battles of the '00's by default.

@Media Ajax Wrap-Up

I've uploaded the slides for my talk from Day 2 of @Media Ajax, which was a refreshingly focused and high-quality conference. The single-track format combined with some really excellent speakers made me really regret missing any part of it. Huge congrats to Patrick and the Vivabit for putting on such a great couple of days.

On Slideshare

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