Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

If It Looks Like Crap…

It never ceases to amaze me what a difference “presentation” makes.

Pizza Hut is airing a commercial around here about their “Tuscani” menu. In the commercial, they show people doing the old “Surprise! Your coffee is Folgers Crystals!” trick in a fancy restaurant, except they’re serving Pizza Hut food in an “Olive Garden”-style venue.

It clearly shows my point, and that the point applies to anything… books, food, appliances, vehicles, and software, just to name the first few things that pop to mind. You can have the greatest product in the world… it exceeds expectations in every functional way… but any adjective that is instantly applied to the visual presentation (including the environment it’s presented in) will be applied to the content.

If it looks like crap, that’s what people will think of it.

(Of course, there are two sides to the coin… What really kills me are the times when a really polished application really IS crap… it’s UI is very appealing, but not thought out. It crashes at every click. But it looks BEAUTIFUL. And so people love it, at least enough to be sucked into buying it.)

Good engineers don’t go for the adage “It’s better to look good than to be good.” We know far better than that. You can’t judge the power of a car by its steering wheel. Granite countertops look great, but they’re typically hard to keep sanitary.

When it comes to application user interfaces, engineers tend to make it function great… it gives you the ability to control every nuance of the solution without allowing invalid input… but if it looks kludgy, cheap, complex, or gives hard-to-resolve error messages, you get those adjectives applied to the whole system.

So what I’m talking about, really, is a risk… and it’s a significant risk to any project. For that reason, appearance litterally becomes a business risk.

For any non-trivial application, a significant risk is end-user rejection. The application can do exactly what it’s designed to do, but if it is not presented well in the UI, the user will typically tend to reject the application sumarily.

That’s one thing that I was always happy about with the ISIS project. (I’ve blogged about our use of XAML and WPF tools in it, before.) The project was solid, AND it presented well. Part of it was that the users loved the interface. Using Windows Presentation Foundation, it was easy to add just enough chrome to impress the customers without adding undo complexity.

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Jimmy SuDoku 3.0 Released

Those of you who have worked with me on a project in the past few years probably know of my hobby project. It’s an implementation of SuDoku. It’s made for Windows Mobile devices (cell phones, etc.), but it also runs on Windows XP (et al).

The old version, 2.5, had been published on PocketGear. This last update was published in January, 2007, just before I started with Edgewater.

I’ve been hacking at it here & there since then, but the project suffered from lots of maladies… most significantly lack of time.

So after more than a year and a half, I’m happy to finally announce Jimmy SuDoku 3.0!

3.0 has a whole new game state model, based on CLR classes rather than an XML DOM. This means the puzzle generator’s fast enough on hand-held devices that it doesn’t need a web service to do the work for it. Another side-effect of this change is a smaller run-time memory footprint, though I’m not sure by exactly how much.

I also figured out how to leverage the hardware controls on WM6.0 & 6.1 devices so that non-touchscreen devices can play, too.

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

SSIS: Unit Testing

I’ve spent the past couple days putting together unit tests for SSIS packages. It’s not as easy to do as it is to write unit & integration tests for, say, typical C# projects.

SSIS Data flows can be really complex. Worse, you really can’t execute portions of a single data flow separately and get meaninful results.

Further, one of the key features of SSIS is the fact that the built-in data flow toolbox items can be equated to framework functionality. There’s not so much value in unit testing the framework.

Excuses come easy, but really, unit testing in SSIS is not impossible…

So meaningful unit testing of SSIS packages really comes down to testing of Executables in a control flow, and particularly executables with a high degree of programability. The two most significant control flow executable types are Script Task executables and Data Flow executables.

Ultimately, the solution to SSIS unit testing becomes package execution automation.

There are a certain number of things you have to do before you can start writing C# to test your scripts and data flows, though. I’ll go through my experience with it, so far.

In order to automate SSIS package execution for unit testing, you must have Visual Studio 2005 (or greater) with the language of your choice installed (I chose C#).

Interestingly, while you can develop and debug SSIS in the Business Intelligence Development System (BIDS, a subset of Visual Studio), you cannot execute SSIS packages from C# without SQL Server 2005 Developer or Enterprise edition installed (“go Microsoft!”).

Another important caveat… you CAN have your unit test project in the same solution as your SSIS project. Due to over-excessive design time validation of SSIS packages, you can’t effectively execute the SSIS packages from your unit test code if you have the SSIS project loaded at the same time. I’ve found that the only way I can safely run my unit tests is to “Unload Project” on the SSIS project before attempting to execute the unit test host app. Even then, Visual Studio occassionally holds locks on files that force me to close and re-open Visual Studio in order to release them.

Anyway, I chose to use a console application as the host app. There’s some info out there on the ‘net about how to configure a .config file borrowing from dtexec.exe.config, the SSIS command line utility, but I didn’t see anything special in there that I had to include.

The only reference you need to add to your project is a ref to Microsoft.SqlServer.ManagedDTS. The core namespace you’ll need is

using Microsoft.SqlServer.Dts.Runtime;

In my first case, most of my unit testing is variations on a single input file. The package validates the input and produces three outputs: a table that contains source records which have passed validation, a flat output file that contains source records that failed validation, and a target table that contains transformed results.

What I ended up doing was creating a very small framework that allowed me to declare a test and some metadata about it. The metadata associates a group of resources that include a test input, and the three baseline outputs by a common URN. Once I have my input and baselines established, I can circumvent downloading the “real” source file, inject my test source into the process, and compare the results with my baselines.

Here’s an example Unit test of a Validation executable within my SSIS package:

[TestInfo(Name = "Unit: Validate Source, duplicated line in source", TestURN = "Dupes")]
public void ValidationUnitDupeLineTest()
{
using (Package thePackage = _dtsApp.LoadPackage(packageFilePath, this))
{
thePackage.DelayValidation = true;
DisableAllExecutables(thePackage);
EnableValidationExecutable(thePackage);
InjectBaselineSource(GetBaselineResource("Stage_1_Source_" + TestURN), thePackage.Variables["SourceFilePath"]);
thePackage.Execute(null, null, this, null, null);
string errorFilePath = thePackage.Variables["ErrorLogFilePath"].Value as string;
//throw new AbortTestingException();
AssertPackageExecutionResult(thePackage, DTSExecResult.Failure);
AssertBaselineAdjustSource(TestURN);
AssertBaselineFile(GetBaselineResourceString("Baseline_Stage1_" + TestURN), errorFilePath);
}
}

Here’s the code that does some of the SSIS Package manipulation referenced above:


#region Utilities
protected virtual void DisableAllExecutables(Package thePackage)
{
Sequence aContainer = thePackage.Executables["Adjustments, Stage 1"] as Sequence;
(aContainer.Executables["Download Source From SharePoint"] as TaskHost).Disable = true;
(aContainer.Executables["Prep Target Tables"] as TaskHost).Disable = true;
(aContainer.Executables["Validate Source Data"] as TaskHost).Disable = true;
(aContainer.Executables["Process Source Data"] as TaskHost).Disable = true;
(aContainer.Executables["Source Validation Failure Sequence"] as Sequence).Disable = true;
(aContainer.Executables["Execute Report Subscription"] as TaskHost).Disable = true;
(thePackage.Executables["Package Success Sequence"] as Sequence).Disable = true;
(thePackage.Executables["Package Failure Sequence"] as Sequence).Disable = true;
}


protected virtual void DisableDownloadExecutable(Package thePackage)
{
Sequence aContainer = thePackage.Executables["Adjustments, Stage 1"] as Sequence;
TaskHost dLScriptTask = aContainer.Executables["Download Source From SharePoint"] as TaskHost;
dLScriptTask.Disable = true;
}


protected virtual void EnableValidationExecutable(Package thePackage)
{
Sequence aContainer = thePackage.Executables["Adjustments, Stage 1"] as Sequence;
TaskHost validationFlow = aContainer.Executables["Validate Source Data"] as TaskHost;
validationFlow.Disable = false;
}

protected virtual void EnableValidationExecutable(Package thePackage)
{
Sequence aContainer = thePackage.Executables["Adjustments, Stage 1"] as Sequence;
TaskHost validationFlow = aContainer.Executables["Validate Source Data"] as TaskHost;
validationFlow.Disable = false;
}

Another really handy thing to be aware of…

IDTSEvents

I highly recommend you implement this interface and pass it into your packages. Of course, in each event handler in the interface, implement code to send reasonable information to an output stream. Notice the call to thePackage.Execute, way up in the first code snippet… the class that contains that method implements that interface, so I can manipulate (when necessary) how to handle certain events.

Interestingly, I haven’t needed to do anything fancy with that so far, but I can imagine that functionality being very important in future unit tests that I write.

Here’s a visual on all the resources… the image shows SSMS over VS, with both database tables and project resources with common URNs to relate them.

I won’t get into the details of the framework functionality, but I found it useful to be able to do things like set a flag to rebuild baseline resources from current outputs, and such.

I modeled some of my framework (very loosely) functionality on the Visual Studio Team System Edition for Testers, which we used on the TWM ISIS project.

Another interesting lesson learned: I can see that the folks who built SSIS were not avid unit testers themselves. SSIS Executables have a “Validate()” method. I encountered lots of problems when I tried to use it. Hangs, intermittent errors, all that stuff that testing should have ironed out.

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Functional Expression

So one more thing crossed my mind about implementing code with respect to art & science, and I had to express it…

I looked up the term “Art” in the dictionary. The first definition is:

  • the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

For me, regarding coding, it’s a matter of remembering a few points:

  1. implementation is expression
  2. significance is subjective
  3. beauty is in the eye of the beholder

So code can be expressed, fundamentally, in a bunch of ways:

  • Electronically,
  • Numerically,
  • mnemonically,
  • symbolically,
  • graphically,
  • gesturally,
  • audibly,
  • visually,
  • etc… ?

Simple, clever, elegant, seemingly natural expressions of all kinds are typically beautiful to a programmer, when they function correctly.

Of course, to me, the most beautiful implementations are implementations that elegantly express its business in a way that’s very clear to anyone familiar with the problem domain at that abstraction level, and to the target platform(s).

See also:
politechnosis: Art & Science

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Artless Programming

So maybe I am strange… I actually have printed snips of source code and UML diagrams and hung them on my office wall because I found them inspirational.

Reminds me of a quote from The Matrix movies…
Cypher [to Neo]: “I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head.” 🙂

It’s not quite like that, but you get the point. There’s gotta be a back-story behind the witty writing. I suspect it has something to do with a programmer appreciating particularly elegant solutions.

One of the hard parts about knowing that programming is an artful craft is being forced to write artless code. It happens all the time. Risks get in the way… a risk of going over budget, blowing the schedule, adding complexity, breaking something else.

It all builds up. The reality is, as much as we software implementers really want application development to be an art, our business sponsors really want it to be a defined process.

The good news for programmers is that every application is a custom application.

It really sucks when you’re surgically injecting a single new business rule into an existing, ancient system.

This is the case with one of my current clients. At every corner, there’s a constraint limiting me. One false move, and whole subsystems could fail… I have such limited visibility into those subsystems, I won’t know until after I deploy to their QA systems and let them discover it. If I ask for more visibility, we risk scope creep. The risks pile up, force my hand, and I end up pushed into a very tightly confined implementation. The end result is awkward, at best. It’s arguably even more unmaintainable.

These are the types of projects that remind me to appreciate those snips of inspirational code.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy there’s a fitting solution within scope at all. I’m very happy that the client’s happy… the project’s under budget and ahead of schedule.

The “fun” in this case, has been facing the Class 5 rapids, and finding that one navigable path to a solution.

See also:
politechnosis: Art & Science

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Art & Science

Fire & Ice… Day & Night…

This question, Art vs. Science, has come up a million times in software development circles. Reading Paul Johnson’s (Paul’s Pontifications) blog post, in conjunction with a discussion in the Tech Mill at Edgewater, (thanks, Jason!) I have come to see that art and science are not as opposite as I once viewed them to be.

What hit me was that Paul makes the statement that there’s no process to implementing software. I still disagree. There are many processes.

The number of processes that an implementer can choose from to write his/her code is often vast, and depends on the problem set. A problem set includes many things, including requirements, tools, target platform, development platform, existing code, and even the implementer’s mood and frame of mind. That is what makes implementing code, like painting, or creating a recipe, an art.

Within a common implementation problem set, there can be a large number of processes which can be applied to derive valid solutions. In fact, there are so many, that some distinct processes may actually render the very same code. So, to be more clear, it’s not that there’s no process… it’s that there’s no single valid process.

Knowing that there’s no one single valid process doesn’t mean that we can’t pick a needle from the haystack… if the process produces a solution within the problem set, it’s good.

Now consider what happens when you start to narrow a problem set. There’s lots of things you can do. Frameworks, platforms, clear-specific requirements, best practices, coding standards, well structured architectures… these things are all factors that limit the problem set. By narrowing a problem set, you narrow the number of valid processes. By narrowing the number of valid processes that a developer can choose from, lots of interesting things start to happen. You achieve more predictable results, and are more likely to achieve repeatable schedules… and you reduce overall project risk.

This is what’s so interesting about contemporary trends in software development, such as Ruby on Rails… use of these tools narrows problem sets that developers face. This means the implementer can spend less time figuring out where the blanks are, and more time filling them.

Now let’s take this further. What happens when you reduce the problem set dramatically…? Take a single, relatively well known problem, on a very specific platform, using a very small set of unambiguous expressions. You get a very tightly defined process. By doing this, you wring the art out of creating something, to the point where it becomes machinable. The process becomes realized as a factory.

So to answer the question… Art or Science?

It’s a trick question… art and science are not exclusive opposites. Art is about freedom to choose your creative process. Science is about knowing what processes are available, and the pros and cons of each. So programming, like all creative activities, is usually art (except in single-processed cases), and usually science (except in cases of serendipity and true miracles).

Paul’s Pontifications: An Under-Appreciated Fact: We Don’t Know How We Program