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Discussion on: Good Bye Web APIs

mvila profile image
Manuel Vila Author

@peerreynders , I admire the effort you put into trying to convince me that an API layer is required to build a SPA but I don't buy it, sorry.

When you build an old-school SSR web app with something like Ruby on Rails or Laravel there is no API layer, right? The UI layer has direct access to the business layer, and it is perfectly fine.

This is the type of architecture I try to achieve with Layr. For me, the fact that the UI layer (the frontend) and the business layer (the backend) are physically separated is an implementation detail.

You mentioned the problem of network errors. It is not difficult to distinguish this type of errors and abstract them away with an automatic retry strategy or a modal dialog offering the user to retry.

The examples I offered (Google Docs, etc.) have of course millions of users. But they are tons of SPAs that have the same characteristics while being far less popular.

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peerreynders profile image
peerreynders

I admire the effort you put into trying to convince me that an API layer is required to build a SPA.

I'm not trying to convince you of anything.

It is clear by the amount of effort you have poured into this that you are convinced that this is the right path for you to pursue - so you need follow your inclination wherever it may lead. With the article however you are also trying to to convince others (possibly less experienced developers) that it is reasonable to expect to embark on building an SPA product with the expectation of not having to design an API - that is irresponsible (unless you are in a situation where you just consume already existing APIs).

  • By definition an SPA is a "client-side application" so the backend is a separate (support) application - so in between there will be an API - it doesn't matter whether you use Layr to build it; if you don't design it and "let it just happen" it typically leads to an undesirable outcome.

  • So if you can't or don't want to commit to the full monty of an SPA + backend via API then you should be looking for another non-SPA solution.

When you build an old-school SSR web app with something like Ruby on Rails or Laravel there is no API layer, right?

First of all the term SSR is typically used for "server-side rendered client-side applications" (as opposed to plain CSR) - stock Ruby on Rails and Laravel have no "client-side application".

  • Stock dynamic web sites and static web sites that deliver pure HTML/CSS to the browser don't need an API because all handling of network requests is the responsibility of the browser. Even pages with JavaScript are OK as long as facilities like fetch, XMLHttpRequest, jQuery.ajax(), etc. are avoided. However with a dynamic web site you could make the argument that the web site itself is the API and the browser is the client and all the interactions are governed by the HTTP protocol. But the "application" lives entirely on the server.

  • The moment any JavaScript uses facilities like fetch, handling of network errors, (timeout, unexpected status codes, etc.) is not the responsibility of the browser but of the code written by the developer. This is the reason why there should never be the opportunity to mistake a remote interaction for a local one.

  • The moment facilities like fetch (aka "ajax") are used to access server-side facilities under your control you are using an API that you are responsible for. So in effect even for something like unpoly, optimizing server responses for fragment updates is building an API - it just happens that the API responds to HTTP headers and the payload is HTML, not JSON.

  • The internet is rife with accounts where RoR installations had a "short time to initial success" but invariably maintenance-wise descended into a Big Ball of Mud - so you may want to be careful what you compare your approach to. Active Record is at the core of many Rails application's DB interaction - and many consider it an anti-pattern with regard to application-to-database interaction (Repository being preferred - essentially the API to your persistence layer). So Rails isn't the best source for architectural solution best practices.

  • The design philosophy behind RoR essentially enabled quick transformation of database tables to web based entry forms for CRUD applications - hardly something you should be juxtaposing to "a product" or "domain" claiming to be so complex that it requires an SPA application/architecture.

So in conclusion - your comparison with Ruby on Rails or Laravel doesn't work on any level.

This is the type of architecture I try to achieve with Layr.

Again - with a dynamic web site the browser is the client, HTML/CSS the data, and the interactions are governed by the HTTP protocol (which is a REST architecture); with an SPA your client-side application is the client (which just happens to run inside a browser) taking on all sorts of responsibilities handled by the browser in the former case; and while interactions with the backend go over HTTP there is a lot more latitude regarding the semantics of the interactions - which is where the API design comes in. Apples and Oranges are more similar than those two scenarios.

For me, the fact that the UI layer (the frontend) and the business layer (the backend) are physically separated is an implementation detail.

The backend isn't the business layer. It's largely infrastructure that allows the frontend to interact with the business logic via the web (i.e. API support). Conflation of the delivery system and the business logic is one of the core issues with many Rails applications (Bring clarity to your monolith with Bounded Contexts, Architecture the Lost Years ) - and is exactly the concern I would have with mindless application of a technology like Layr.

Also "physical separation" is never an implementation detail - it's the "laws of physics" that get in the way - the ones responsible for the fallacies of distributed computing, well, being fallacies.

It is not difficult to distinguish this type of errors and abstract them away with an automatic retry strategy or a modal dialog offering the user to retry.

There's a whole mountain of literature dedicated to the fact that these type of errors aren't easy to abstract away (and often modal boxes are bad UX).

But they are tons of SPAs that have the same characteristics while being far less popular.

And my point is that successful SPAs are lot more resource intensive than other approaches - making their ROI dubious in many situations - they shouldn't be attempted on a shoestring budget or with constrained resources and time. PWAs don't have to be implemented as SPAs and if you truly need native-like-capabilities commit and go native.

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mvila profile image
Manuel Vila Author • Edited

Again, thanks a lot for your detailed answer but I am afraid we will never agree.

It's like a left brain speaking to a right brain:

  • You are obsessed with architecture flexibility.
  • I am obsessed with development velocity.

Both approaches are valuable and choosing one over the other really depends on the project you are working on.

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peerreynders profile image
peerreynders
  • You are obsessed with architecture flexibility.
  • I am obsessed with development velocity.

My mindset:

"Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live" (link)

And from my experience software products are annoyingly long lived while needing to be continuously adapted to ever changing circumstances in order to remain valuable.

The type of development velocity you seem to be interested in is referred by J.B. Rainsberger as "the scam":

The cost of the first few features is actually quite a bit higher than it is doing it the "not so careful way" ... eventually you reach the point where the cost of getting out of the blocks quickly and not worrying about the design is about the same as the cost of being careful from the beginning ... and after this being careful is nothing but profit.

He acknowledges that "the scam" is initially incredibly seductive - and the approach that you describe in the article has that same seductive appeal. The velocity of that approach moves quickly to the point where the cost of continuing is higher than the cost of starting again.

So the value of that approach can only be realized if the product is decommissioned before the "breakeven point" (my guess less than two years, possibly less, depending on project type). The only other option is to make the product "somebody else's problem" before that breakeven point is reached (which obviously isn't doing them any favours).

I'm only interested in going faster than "so called fast" - going well for long enough so that I'll beat fast all the time.