Software developers should avoid traumatic changes

Published 2019-11-26 on Drew DeVault's blog

A lot of software has gone through changes which, in retrospect, I would describe as “traumatic” to their communities. I recognize these sorts of changes by their effect: we might have pulled through in the end, but only after a lot of heartbreak, struggle, and hours of wasted hacking; but the change left a scar on the community.

There are two common cases in which a change risks introducing this kind of trauma:

  1. It requires everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, to overhaul their code to get it working again
  2. It requires everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, to overhaul their code to get it idiomatic again

Let’s call these cases, respectively, strong and weak trauma. While these are both traumatic changes, the kind of trauma they inflict on the community is different. The first kind is more severe, but the latter is a bad idea, too. We can examine these through two case-studies in Python: the (in)famous transition to Python 3, and the less notorious introduction of asyncio.

In less than one month, Python 2 will reach its end of life, and even as a staunch advocate of Python 3, I too have some software which is not going to make it to the finish line in time1. There’s no doubt that Python 3 is much, much better than Python 2. However, the transition was poorly handled, and upgrading can be no small task for some projects. The result has been hugely divisive and intimately familiar to anyone who works with Python, creating massive rifts in the community and wasting millions of hours of engineer time addressing. This kind of “strong” trauma is fairly easy to spot in advance.

The weaker kind of traumatic change is more subtle, and less talked about. It’s a slow burn, and it takes a long time for its issues to manifest. Consider the case of asyncio: clearly it’s an improvement for Python, whose previous attempts at concurrency have fallen completely flat. The introduction of async/await and coroutines throughout the software ecosystem is something I’m generally very pleased about. You’ll see me reach for threads to solve a problem when hell freezes over, and no earlier, so I’m quite fond of first-class coroutines.

Unfortunately, this has a chilling effect on existing Python code. The introduction of asyncio has made large amounts of code idiomatically obsolete. Requests, the darling of the Python world, is effectively useless in a theoretical idiomatic post-asyncio world. The same is true of Flask, SQLAlchemy, and many, many other projects. Just about anything that does I/O is unidiomatic now.

Since nothing has actually broken with this change, the effects are more subtle than with strong traumatic changes. The effect of asyncio has been to hasten the onset of code rot. Almost all of SourceHut’s code pre-dates asyncio, for example, and I’m starting to feel the limitations of the pre-asyncio model. The opportunity to solve this problem by rewriting with asyncio in mind, however, also presents me a chance to rewrite in anything else, and reevaluate my choice of Python for the project entirely. It’s a tough decision to think about — the mature and diverse ecosystem of libraries that help to make a case for Python is dramatically reduced when asyncio support is a consideration.

It may take years for the trauma to fully manifest, but the rift is still there and can only grow. Large amounts of code is rotting and will have to be thrown away for the brave new asyncio world. The introduction of asyncio has made another clear “before” and “after” in the Python ecosystem. The years in between will be rough, because all new Python code will either leverage the rotting pre-asyncio ecosystem or suffer through an immature post-asyncio ecosystem. It’ll likely turn out for the better — years from now.

And sometimes these changes are for the better, but they should be carefully thought out, and designed to minimize the potential impact. In practical terms, it’s for this reason that I urge caution with ideas like adding generics to Go. In a post-generics world, a large amount of the Go ecosystem will suddenly become unidiomatic, and breaking changes will required to bring it up to spec. Let’s think carefully about it, eh?

  1. Eh, kind of. I’m theoretically behind the effort to drop Python 2 from Alpine Linux, but the overhaul is tons of work and the time I can put into the effort isn’t going to be enough to finish before 2020. 

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