RPCs, Life and All
June 25, 2012

A colleague of mine, Gavrie Philipson, has written an interesting blog post titled Why I Don't Like RPC, in which he explains that transparent/seamless RPCs (a la RPyC) make debugging and reasoning efforts hard. For instance, you might work with an object (a proxy) that points to an object on the server process, which, in turn, is also a proxy that points to an object on yet another server process. Ideally, your local code shouldn't be aware of the complexity ("number of hops") or the details -- but that's not always the case.

Well, he won't allow commenting on his blog, so I'm forced to formulate my response here :) Naturally, I'm biased about this subject, but I thought if I'm on it, why not also cover the broader aspects of the issue... However, it just kept getting longer and longer, until I got this behemoth of a blog post, so I'm attaching a TL;DR info box:

On Transparency

Gavrie's main point is that transparency opens the door to (possibly) unplanned and undesired complexity. When it's "too easy" to spread around, you might be tempted to (or even unknowingly end up with) creating over complicated (and cyclic) dependency graphs, stretching over several processes / machines, where it would be quite a feat to see the whole picture. The nice thing is, when it works - it just works (and you're happy with your design), but when it fails, you want to be able to untangle the mess. As he puts it:

“Seamless” RPC encourages the writing of spaghetti code, because it’s so easy to mix local and remote code. This makes it deceptively easy to write distributed code without thinking about the design of the API and about which parts should reside on each side of the connection

An ideal remoting solution, according to Gavrie,

[...] should make the distinction between local code and remote code crystal clear to the developer.

On Duck Typing

I agree with the key points in Gavrie's argument, and I can assert that debugging RPyC itself, during development, is highly deceptive (hint: never print an object...) and calls for all sorts of creative solutions. But then again, you are using a duck-typed, interpreted language. The "if it walks like a duck" phrase will soon make a more dramatic entrance, but for the time being, suffice it to say we only care for the runtime behavior of an object. Any object that I can .read() from or .write() to, is a "file concept", and thus code should be compatible with any object that "adheres to this concept".

A "file" might be an on-disk file, an in-memory byte stream, a mock object used for testing, or a SCSI device located on a remote storage array. The only natural way to extend the notion of duck-typing to RPCs is via transparent object proxying. If open() doesn't differentiate between local and remote (NFS/SMB) files, and if my code doesn't care for anything other than runtime behavior, such a "file concept" might as well be a proxy object that points to a file object on a remote machine. It's only logical... in fact, it's taking duck typing to its full potential!

On Types

Gavrie wants the RPC framework to "make the distinction between local code and remote code crystal clear to the developer" -- well, Garvie might not have thought about it thoroughly, but what he's actually asking for is a static type system. Types allow us to make distinctions between objects; they partition the "universe of data" into disjoint subsets that we can reason about: integers, floats, strings (to name a few). We can then group several types together, under the notion of a type class. For instance, floats and integers, albeit inherently different, both belong in the type class number, which provides us with additional operational semantics (like ordering relations, etc.).

We use types to partition the universe, because different "things" have different semantics and it doesn't make sense to mix them together (modulo converting data of one type to data of another type). In fact, we normally want to prevent ourselves from mixing incompatible objects (be it integers and strings, or local and remote references) -- that's why we have type systems, and catch type mismatches at compilation time.

When you require a clear distinction between objects, it means you're after a statically typed language; otherwise, you might as well just come up with a naming convention, where all variables that (might) refer to a remote object start with rem_. But if you want this distinction to propagate throughout the code, it must be enforced by a compiler; if you want to keep yourself in the duck-typed world, it doesn't make sense.

Duck-typing (from a type-theoretic perspective) is like saying there's only a single data type, which covers the entire universe; all checking is deferred to runtime, in which case it might (1) work, (2) fail, (3) silently cause corruption (as in a TextToSpeech instance, which may as well expose a .read() method, but it surely won't do what we expect the "file concept" to do).

So asking for a "clear distinction" in a duck typed language is simply out of the question. What we can ask for is distinction in the level of APIs; for instance, write_local_file(filename) vs. write_remote_file(filename), but that breaks the "spirit of duck-typing", where objects are no longer considered equal (even though they provide the desired runtime behavior). It's like pointing out the ugly ducklings and making fun of them... that's not cool.

Just to contrast, an RPyC-like library for Haskell would expose remote references as a distinct type class. You could have a function like remoteSum :: (Num a) => Remote [a] -> a, which takes a reference to a remote list of a's, and returns its sum. Because it knows it operates on remote lists, it might be able to "move" the actual summation remotely, instead of sending the entire list over the network, item by item. I think this qualifies for a "crystal clear distinction", but of course, that's not what the snake teaches.

On Networks

It seems to me that people find it easy to abstract all sorts of concepts, as long as they don't concern networks. When there's network involved, they tend to want to "get a feel of the wire"... so they might use HTTP instead of the NIC directly, but they won't take the next step and treat network resources as first class objects. There's always a gap, between what's here and what's there, and we're still too aware of the how to get there details... a gap that should have been bridged over long ago.

As I see it, it stems from two primal fears, so to speak: networks are hard (timeouts, routing, DNS, reconnects, authentication, compression, tunneling, round-trip time, ...) and unreliable. As far as unreliability goes, there's not much you can do about it; after all, the server is a process like any other, and may crash at any point of time. If that's not enough, the remote machine might freeze or reboot. But then again, your local machine might kernel-panic or just go down with a power failure, losing any unflushed data... but that's life. On the other hand, it seems to me that overall (hardware?) unreliability rates are going down with time, which is a promising outlook.

The "hardness" of network programming, on the other hand, is something we can solve. Good network programming is hard, there's no question there, but for some reason, instead of solving the problem once of for all in a generic manner, it seems that every protocol / network-oriented application seeks to start at square one. Of course, done this way, it only handles the aspects it finds relevant... doing network programming at the socket level is analogous to rewriting the kernel for every desktop application. It doesn't make sense.

I've started (and abandoned) an ambitious project called layer5, which aimed to concentrate all the network-related sorcery in a single place, so that programs on top of it wouldn't have to care. It originated from my frustration with network programming in general (and in RPyC in particular)... things like handling timeouts, reconnects, authentication, negotiation, compression, serialization, load distribution, caching, error reporting -- you name it.

Just to show-off a couple of ideas, consider a socket connection being dropped for some reason: if the network layer knew how to reconnect and resume the session, or automatically resend a request after some timeout (all configurable, of course), there would be no need for the application to be aware of anything. And, once you "lift" your code up from the socket layer, you can enable things like "moving targets", where you may switch an IP address (wifi/3G) and the connection will just "follow you"; the session would not be bound to a "physical endpoint". These are just some of the issues that layer5 attempted to solve.


Let me make a bold claim: everything is RPC. So, by everything I mean virtually all connection-oriented network protocols (e.g., excluding broadcasts / multicasts / streaming), and I take RPC to its broadest sense: an RPC is any message-oriented protocol in which one side makes requests that the other side fulfills: basically invoking a remote function. Naturally, in order to convey a message, the RPC imposes a serialization format, and in order to tell success from failure, it must also define "return codes". Note: I've been planning to write about this topic for a very long time, but never got to it; it surely deserves a post of its own, but until that happens, please consider this a "briefing".

As a case study, let's examine HTTP: there are 4 (or so) methods: GET, PUT, POST and DELETE. Each such method takes arguments, like the URL, cookies, accept-encoding, etc. Some of them are required, some are optional; some pertain to the transport layer (content-length, compression, timeouts) while others to the method itself (URL, cookie, ...). It also defines status codes for distinguishing errors from success (and again, it mixes transport-layer errors like redirect with method-level ones like not found or internal server error). It also defines a (very loose) serialization format for encoding the method's arguments (newline-separated key-value strings) and the payload (multipart/form-data)... So, from an RPC point of view, HTTP is a service that provides 4 functions (methods), whose signature is something like (url, formdata = None, **kwargs).

Another example is tenlet -- it basically provides a function whose signature is void write(char ch); when you type, write is invoked for each key stroke. Aside from sending characters, telnet also provides all sorts of negotiation options or commands, like bool set_binary(), void set_terminal(string), etc.

As with most ad-hoc RPC protocols, the two we've examined make horrible design choices like mixing transport-layer options with "business logic" (HTTP) or sending control in-band with the data (telnet), where a mere \xFF character in the stream marks the beginning of a command, so anyone can (maliciously or accidentally) inject commands into the stream. Yet another pitfall of these protocols is, they begin small, targeting a specific task, but if they're successful, they grow to incorporate many unrelated things, like encryption and proxy support... as if security is something you sprinkle on top.

The main point I'm trying to make here is this: virtually all protocols are basically degenerate forms of RPC. To paraphrase Greenspun, all sufficiently complicated network protocols end up redoing compression, security, authentication, framing, serialization, negotiation / versioning, discovery, you name it (Filiba's Eleventh Rule). This observation has brought me to the conclusion that doing network programming at the "byte level" is wrong, and that a general-purpose RPC layer is the right primitive for this.

A general purpose RPC would be language-agnostic, support only simple by-value types, such as strings, integers and lists (anything more complex can be built on top of that). If would also make no assumptions on how remote functions operate, if would only care for their signature. You can think of it as a more structured message-passing protocol, where you replace the notion of "message codes" by "function names". This way, it's easy to see that one can straight-forwardly emulate any message-passing protocol or more advanced RPC, over this layer. Heck, it's f***ing 2012, I want to GET("/index.html", Agent="Chrome"), not formulate \r\n-separated strings or care about XML/JSON.

Layer5 (mentioned in the previous section) was to expose such a generic RPC, upon which applications would base their protocols. You could always just implement a bytes send(bytes data) RPC (over which would continue to pass your byte-level messages), or implement a more semantic interface -- your choice. Either way, you'd benefit from layer5's handling of reconnects, authentication, and the rest of the list.


Truth is, we sort-of already have such a "general purpose" layer 5 protocol, called HTTP. By a strange twist of fate, HTTP has become the de-facto application layer of choice, over which all kinds of protocols now operate. And we've managed to hide the gruesome details of HTTP under programmer-friendly libraries and APIs, so we are in a "better shape" now. Yet HTTP is such a miserable choice for this purpose (hence abominations like Websockets arose), and we all pay the price (programmatically-speaking, but also in the sense of network bandwidth, CPU time and electricity bills).

In my opinion, HTTP owes its success to another misfortunate happening - firewalls. In the days of yore, people thought they could eliminate threats simply by blocking all TCP ports, except for safe/trusted ones. HTTP was considered safe, as it only transfered "hypertext", so all firewalls allowed port 80 traffic by default. This fact has led to many protocols being designed to work on top of HTTP, to be firewall-friendly... which meant firewalls no longer served the purpose for which they were conceived: blocking ports was not enough, so firewalls had to become content-aware anyway. Long story short -- we've only managed to push the problem one level up: instead of solving it in the forth layer, we now do it in the application layer... no matter what the port number is.

However, this initial edge that HTTP had, helped in making it the de-facto transport layer of choice, which of course had a snowball effect. I'm only happy to see competing protocols like ZeroMQ and AMQP are starting to take some market share. Down with HTTP!


Coming back to Gavrie's post, he brings up two additional points. The first:

In addition, its performance can quickly deteriorate: Objects are being serialized back and forth all the time, and tens of implicit network round-trips introduce latency all around the code.

Performance is a tricky thing. First, RPyC is mostly ever used on local, secure networks, where latency and round-trip time (RTT) are low -- so unless you do something really flawed, you shouldn't experience noticeable degradation. Second, the only places that do suffer from RTT are tight-loops, and to that end, RPyC already has solutions. And thirdly, transparency (like any form of abstraction) hides the underlying complexity, which means you won't be able to optimize all the way. RPyC makes a choice for simplicity and pythonicity every time, at the expense of performance.

From my many years of using RPyC, I must say I've never experienced performance issues that didn't originate from the use of threading and locks in python, or really bad code. And if the times are tough, you can always apply lightweight optimization techniques, such as locally "caching" remote objects that were obtained through a series of lookups, in variables (e.g., myfunc = w.x.y.z.myfunc)... it's normally not that hard. I'm sure Gavrie has experienced performance issues with RPyC, but I can hardly imagine it could not be solved by reasonable amounts of such refactoring.

Which brings us to the last point Gavrie makes:

I don’t like RPC, especially not stateful RPC that supports access of remote objects by reference

I hope we already agreed that a general-purpose RPC is equivalent (if not better than) to any "normal" network protocol, so it's really not RPCs that Gavrie hates but stateful / object-proxying sessions. This invites another, rather philosophic, question: what is state? What does it mean that a protocol is stateless? I'd guess philosophies like REST come to mind, but that's just a buzzword. From the broadest Turing-machine perspective, if REST or any other protocol were truly stateless, they would have no effect on the world and thus would be of little significance (they'd be read-only protocols). Just to stress this point -- PUT/POST-ing to a RESTful interface, adding/altering a record in a database table, is clearly stateful: you changed the state of the DB.

Therefore, these buzzword-rich protocols boast themselves with the term stateless, while they mean something very different. In lack of a better term, I'd use atomicity, durability, and reboot-ability -- which we'll discuss next. And just a last bit of REST: REST has a notion of idempotency, as GET requests for the same URI should always return the same result (but that's not guaranteed). Anyway, the CRUD model which REST employs is quite limited and fits only so many real-life problems (many other problems can be reduced to CRUD, but I don't suppose people would consider this the "right way").

Atomicity and durability come from the ACID philosophy of databases, and are granted to you freely, assuming you use a DB (who doesn't?). They basically mean that a transaction either fully happens (and then its permanently stored), or nothing happens (so that no partial results may exist). Reboot-ability is a term I just made up, and it means your server might crash and be restarted, or your entire lab might burn away, and the client shouldn't be able to detect any difference (other than temporal unavailability, which may be compensated for by a cluster). Inherently, it means you don't trust your server to survive over long periods of time, and therefore prefer to make it (the server process) stateless. In effect, it means the server will never make "changes to the world" outside of DB transaction, so that a failed transaction could be rolled back, and a new server process could resume where the previous one failed. But note the difference: the server process is stateless, not the protocol.

HTTP originally was a connection-less protocol (albeit over TCP), where each request was treated separately from the rest and there was hardly any notion of a session. This meant that every request had to carry along with it any state information it required. In order to prevent requests from growing wildly in size and choking the network, cookies were invented -- which meant the server had to store session data, and the cookie was only a key. This already dents the notion of statelessness, and nowadays, things like websockets break it completely.

RPyC, on the other hand, has a clear notion of a session: on each end of the the connection there's a dictionary of objects referred to by the other side. This means that should a connection drop, there's little chance of restoring the lost session: the dictionaries are lost, and all proxies would be invalidated.

But all is not lost: if you only need references to serializable objects, you might as well keep this dictionary as a DB table. Since the data, including object IDs, would not be lost when the server gets restarted, resuming a dropped session is easy. So, if you could live with limited functionality, you can be backed by a DB -- but it's not that HTTP offers a better solution. At least keep your code pythonic and not full of HTTP curses.

Another alternative, which I'll demonstrate in the next section, is making the changes directly "in the real world": instead of storing state, make the changes on long-living entities, and then read the info back from them. This way, you're always synchronized, and should you be restarted, you'll never use stale data.

On Testing

I'm working now on a testing framework of quite a complicated nature: first, it serves as a resource-allocator for hosts and other testing equipment; second, in order to run tests, it must create a suitable environment for them. But this is where it gets fun: in order to do set up the environment, I must use the utilities that I set out to test... because that's exactly what they do. Chicken and egg, anybody?

After a couple of days to toying with it, I settled for the following architecture:

There are quite a few details, but I hope I managed to make the design clear. On the other hand, it doesn't seem particularly interesting -- until we get to the last bullet-point -- making the resource usable by the host. In order to do that, the server (resource allocator) creates a temporary directory on the host, onto which it copies (over RPyC) several python packages that are required for the task. It then fires up a new RPyC server on the host, and sets its PYTHONPATH to this temporary location. This RPyC server is based on the fresh-from-the-oven OneShotServer, which is capable of serving a single client and then quits. The server chooses a random port and reports it over stdout, to the resource allocator, who then connects to it. Then, the HostViewOfSystem object is given a reference to the newly created RPyC service, and it uses it to manipulate the host machine in order to set up the environment. Here's a sketch:

+---Test Host---+            +---ResAlloc Server---+
|               |            |                     |
|  -----------  |  .-----------> HostViewOfSystem  |
|  | Test    |____/          |     |               |
|  | process |  |            |     |               |
|  -----------  |     _____________/               |
|               |    /       |                     |
|  -----------  |   /        |                     |
|  | Newly   <-----*         |                     |
|  | started |  |            |                     |
|  | RPyC    |  |            +---------------------+ 
|  | server  |  |
|  -----------  |
|               |

This quite tiresome setup actually takes only ~30 lines of code (and around one second to build), and it allows the tested utilities to rely on stable versions of themselves. The stable versions are fetched from the resource allocator server, thus we make absolutely no assumptions on the state of the host. Moreover, when we "allocate" a resource for a specific test, we mark the resource on the system as "in used": it's neither stored in-memory, nor in a DB -- it's marked directly on the resource, as metadata. This way, if the resource allocator is restarted, no state is lost -- the new instance will read the most up-to-date state from the "real world". There -- a semi-stateless testing framework based on RPyC... and now I go to bed.