Software I’m thankful for

2021-11-25

A few of the things that come to mind, this thanksgiving.

open/read/write/close

Most Unix-ish APIs, from files to sockets are a bit of a mess today. Endless poorly documented sockopts, unexpected changes in write semantics across FSs and OSes, good luck trying to figure out mtimes. But despite the mess, I can generally wrap my head around open/read/write/close. I can strace a binary and figure out the sequence and decipher what’s going on. Sprinkle in some printfs and state is quickly debuggable. Stack traces are useful!

Enormous effort has been spent on many projects to replace this style of I/O programming, for efficiency or aesthetics, often with an asynchronous bent. I am thankful for this old reliable standby of synchronous open/read/write/close, and hope to see it revived and reinvented throughout my career to be cleaner and simpler.

goroutines

Goroutines are coroutines with compiler/runtime optimized yielding, to make them behave like threads. This breathes new life into the previous technology I’m thankful for: simple blocking I/O. With goroutines it becomes cheap to write large-scale blocking servers without running out of OS resources (like heavy threads, on OSes where they’re heavy, or FDs). It also makes it possible to use blocking interfaces between “threads” within a process without paying the ever-growing price of a context switch in the post-spectre world.

Tailscale

This is the first year where the team working on Tailscale has outgrown and eclipsed me to the point where I can be thankful for Tailscale without feeling like I’m thanking myself. Many of the wonderful new features that let me easily wire machines together wherever they are, like userspace networking or MagicDNS, are not my doing. I’m thankful for the product, and the opportunity to work with the best engineering team I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of.

SQLite

Much like open/read/write/close, SQLite is an island of stability in a constantly changing technical landscape. Techniques I learned 10 or 15 years ago using SQLite work today. As a bonus, it does so much more than then: WAL mode for highly-concurrent servers, advanced SQL like window functions, excellent ATTACH semantics. It has done all of this while keeping the number of, in the projects own language, “goofy design” decisions to a minimum and holding true to its mission of being “lite”. I aspire to write such wonderful software.

JSON

JSON is the worst form of encoding — except for all the others that have been tried. It’s complicated, but not too complicated. It’s not easily read by humans, but it can be read by humans. It is possible to extend it in intuitive ways. When it gets printed onto your terminal, you can figure out what’s going on without going and finding the magic decoder ring of the week. It makes some things that are extremely hard with XML or INI easy, without introducing accidental Turing completeness or turning country codes into booleans. Writing software is better for it, and shows the immense effect carefully describing something can do for programming. JSON was everywhere in our JavaScript before the term was defined, the definition let us see it and use it elsewhere.

WireGuard

WireGuard is a great demonstration of why the total complexity of the implementation ends up affecting the UX of the product. In theory I could have been making tunnels between my devices for years with IPSec or TLS, in practice I’d completely given it up until something came along that made it easier. It didn’t make it easier by putting a slick UI over complex technology, it made the underlying technology simpler, so even I could (eventually) figure out the configuration. Most importantly, by not eating my entire complexity budget with its own internals, I could suddenly see it as a building block in larger projects. Complexity makes more things possible, and fewer things possible, simultaneously. WireGuard is a beautiful example of simplicity and I’m thankful for it.

The speed of the Go compiler

Before Go became popular, the fast programming language compilers of the 90s had mostly fallen by the wayside, to be replaced with a bimodal world of interpreters/JITs on one side and creaky slow compilers attempting to produce extremely optimal code on the other. The main Go toolchain found, or rediscovered, a new optimal point in the plane of tradeoffs for programming languages to sit: ahead of time compiled, but with a fast less-than-optimal compiler. It has managed to continue to hold that interesting, unstable equilibrium for a decade now, which is incredibly impressive. (E.g. I personally would love to improve its inliner, but know that it’s nearly impossible to get too far into that project without sacrificing a lot of the compiler’s speed.)

GCC

I’ve always been cranky about GCC: I find its codebase nearly impossible to modify, it’s slow, the associated ducks I need to line up to make it useful (binutils, libc, etc) blow out the complexity budget on any project I try to start before I get far, and it is associated with GNU, which I used to view as an oddity and now view as a millstone around the neck of an otherwise excellent software project.

But these are all the sorts of complaints you only make when using something truly invaluable. GCC is invaluable. I would never have learned to program if a free C compiler hadn’t been available in the 90s, so I owe it my career. To this day, it vies neck-and-neck with LLVM for best performing object code. Without the competition between them, compiler technology would stagnate. And while LLVM now benefits from $10s or $100s of millions a year in Silicon Valley salaries working on it, GCC does it all with far less investment. I’m thankful it keeps on going.

vim

I keep trying to quit vim. I keep ending up inside a terminal, inside vim, writing code. Like SQLite, vim is an island of stability over my career. While I wish IDEs were better, I am extremely thankful for tools that work and respect the effort I have taken to learn them, decade after decade.

ssh

SSH gets me from here to there, and has done since ~1999. There is a lot about ssh that needs reinventing, but I am thankful for stable, reliable tools. It takes a lot of work to keep something like ssh working and secure, and if the maintainers are ever looking for someone to buy them a round they know where to find me.

The public web and search engines

How would I get anything done without all the wonderful information on the public web and search engines to find it? What an amazing achievement.

Thanks everyone, for making computers so great.


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