No Debugging Programming in Elixir

At last I have found a language that I do not need to debug. I can just write the code and have it run on the input data, and it will give me the correct result. The language is This is the Holy Grail!

So this is what happened. I’m studying algorithms and doing a course and one of the assignments was to write a inversion counter. So what’s an inversion? It’s basically where, in a list of numbers, a number is out of sequence with respect to another number in the list.

Example of no inversions


Example of inversion. Here 3 is out of order.


Here there are 6 inversions.


A brute force algorithm that calculates this would have check each number against all the numbers in the list and therefore would be O(n^2) which is inefficient. The trick is to piggyback on mergesort which has a running time of O(nlogn). The reason this works is because during the merge step of the mergesort we detect inversions. When writing the larger array from the two subarrays the process detects inversions every time you find an element in the left array that is larger than one in the right array. At the end of the day a few subtle modifications to the mergesort algorithm is all that’s needed. And that’s what I did in Elixir. I stumbled along and my tired fingers and sore eyes cranked out some Elixir. The biggest surprise was it worked (ignoring compilation errors) right from the start. I didn’t have an input case that produced the wrong answer for the assignment. I didn’t have to go back and rewrite any of the pattern matches. I didn’t have to fix the recursion because I’d put the calls in the right place. Here it is.

The problem with the solution above is it is slow. On an input set of 100000 numbers it took 30 seconds to compute. It contains a hidden operation that makes the summarize function O(n^2). The hidden operation is the ++ that appends the element to the end of the list. To do this it has to walk to the end of the list, which is an O(n) operation thus turning the summarize function from an O(n) operation to an O(n^2) function. The way to fix it is to prepend the head on the list and then reverse the list later as shown below.

Applying algorithms intuitively

Algorithms need to be internalized such that you can produce a solution without conscious effort, similarly to how you produce words without thinking explicitly about them. In fact thoughts only are created in the subconscious and the consciousness becomes aware of them. There’s no conscious control of them. However what you do have control over is what you program into your subconscious via learning and repetition and active problem solving. I believe that this can be applied to different problem domains such that, after training for a period of time, one can intuitively and a subconscious level see a real world problem and map it to a set of algorithms that solve it.

Xnodes – Architecture of a Scalable Distributed System

Note that this document is a work in progress and represent my ideas about how a scalable distributed HA system should work.

What is Xnodes

A distributed highly available heterogeneous manageable system.

  • Distributed. Nodes in the system can be geographically distant. They need not be on the same local area network.
  • Highly Available. Services running in the system are highly available. The loss of one instance of a service does not affect the delivery of the service. Overloading one instance of a service does not block clients from using that service.
  • Heterogeneous. Nodes in the system do not have to be on the same hardware or same version of software.
  • Manageable. Facilities provided for the installation of applications, their upgrade and downgrade with preservation of transforms to that applications configuration.

Availability or 99.9999% uptime
Say we want to have a highly available service. Let’s pretend it’s a database. We want it to tolerate a failure on the host machine so that it is still available. Simplest solution is to have it running on another host machine that acts as a standby. But what if numerous requests come in thus overloading the active database? Well let’s make the standby node active as well. Now we just need a load balancer at the front that round robins connections from clients between the two active databases. Simple. No need for overly complicated redundancy policies. Now what if we want to scale out to three node in our cluster? Easy we just add another node, make it active and configure our load balancer to round robin connections between three nodes in our cluster. If one node dies the other two will pick up the slack. Again no need for complicated redundancy groups. Availabilty is ensured by having multiple instances of the service running at any one time. If the services need some sort of logic to decide who is the master instance they can build themselves or Xnodes can provide a service that makes that decision.

Data consistency
Ok great so we have a cluster of nodes and we have a way to ensure that a service is always available. But what about the configuration data of that service? In other words, which node is the authority about the information stored? And if we have a service running on multiple nodes surely all instances of the same service should share the same view of the data? Surely we need consistency between values between databases? I say rethink that assumption. How do you think Facebook and Amazon ensure such high availability and scalability? (Hint: they don’t ensure consistency, only that eventually the system will tend to a consistent state) It’s up to the application designer to decide which part of their data they definitely want to keep consistent and in the case where there is contention, it’s up to the application to handle it. In short it becomes a user interface problem. This model is not as bad as it sounds and in practice is far better than trying to enforce consistency on a database that has to scale and be available. The alternative, forcing consistency, requires every client application to agree to the transaction that is about to process, thus slowing the responsiveness of every application since they all have to wait. This has the side effect of reducing availability. Even if the client has established a connection with the database service but it’s waiting for the database to answer another clients request, that database is effectively offline. This has been thought through in the past; if it hadn’t Amazon, Google, Facebook etc would not be in business. Even git uses this conceptual model. Every time we use git ( we are sacrificing consistency and gaining availability and scalability. We sacrifice consistency because we can make changes to out local repository without informing the upstream repository. When we commit a change locally, the local and upstream repositories diverge. When someone else commits a change locally, all other local repositories are no longer in sync. Importantly git doesn’t take any steps to enforce consistency. Consistency happens as part of the workflow and as part of the user interface. The users of git bear the responsibilty and do the work required to maintain consistency. We know that our local and upstream repositories will eventually be consistent because after everyone pushes their local commits, and everyone pulls from the upstream repository, all repositories will be consisitent. Similarly Apache Cassandra is a database that does what I’ve just outlined: All nodes will eventually tend towards a consistent state. The has this to say: “Cassandra weak consistency comes in the form of eventual consistency which means the database eventually reaches a consistent state. As the data is replicated, the latest version of something is sitting on some node in the cluster, but older versions are still out there on other nodes, but eventually all nodes will see the latest version.” In Cassandra’s case the applications, and not the user as is the case with git, bear the reposibility of resolving the conflicting case. For another view on the tradeoff between data consistency see

Hypothetical Use Cases

To give you an idea of what Xnodes helps with the following use cases are outlined below as a thought experiment.

Running a web server
The typical scenario is an organization running a web server that delivers content to external clients. Xnodes will manage changes to the configuration of the server. Transforms to the services config are preserved so that a rollback can be performed. Additionally a snapshot of the content associated with that instance of the config is taken. This allows a proper rollback of the data. It’s not sufficient to only record the configuration changes. Dependencies between configuration and associated binaries are also tracked. For example assume that the Apache Web Server (httpd) has a dependency on OpenSSL. The current system is running version A of httpd and version A of libssh2. Then one day OpenSSL implements version 320 of the TLS protocol and release version B of openssl. Later, the Apache developers release a version, B, of httpd that supports version B of openssl. They also add another key in the httpd.conf configuration file. This means that this config can only work with version B of httpd and requires the new version of the openssl shared object on the host machine. Anyway the system admin performs the upgrade, installing version B of httpd and version B of openssl and updating the httpd.conf file to use the new configuration option. A few days later, for some reason, they decided to rollback httpd. Maybe and exploit was discovered in the latest version of httpd, something they couldn’t test for before upgrading. Xnodes allows them to do this safely because the configuration data associated with version A of httpd is preserved. This state becomes the state that all nodes in the system will tend to. Content can also be snapshot to the version of the software installed.

Installing software
Installing a new piece of software changes the configured state of the system. Software is first installed on any node in the system and then the other nodes follow that node automatically install the software. In cases where the installation fails an alarm is raised.

Upgrading changes the configured state of an existing software package. The old state is snapshot (including config data and content), the binaries updated and new config replaced. Configuration transforms are executed. Again this is done on a single node in the xnode system first. All other nodes then tend to this nodes configuration.

The software binaries are downgraded to the previous version. The previous configured state is restored. Other nodes tend to this configuration.

The application binaries are removed from the running instance of the node. Configuration state is preserved. All nodes will tend to this new state. A system admin can always rollback the system config to a time where the application was installed.

In production testing
Say you want to role out the latest version of WordPress. You have an Xnode system running but want to test this latest version of WordPress. Xnodes will allow you to 1) select the nodes to isolate 2) role out the upgrade to WordPress on isolated nodes. Then you can test the new version of WordPress by configuring your network to redirect a percentage of requests to the isolated set of nodes.

Configuration data

The Xnodes database is Riak. It is intended to store system configuration information, like the packages installed on the Xnodes system, their configuration. Changes to the configuration are not immediately synchronized. Instead, because of the way Riak works, the state of the system will eventually become consistent. By trading consistency this allows Xnodes to provide scalabilty and availabilty. The following is a quote from the OpenSAF IMM Programmers Guide and describes a design Xnodes will avoid:

“During the time when sync is in progress, the IMMSv is not writable. The IMMNDs will reject any request that implies a mutation to the repository with SA_AIS_ERR_TRY_AGAIN. Read requests are of course still serviced. Updates to cached non-persistent runtime attributes are also allowed during sync.”

Open Issues

How are services that require redundancy but every instance of the service can’t be in use handled? For example how would Xnodes handle a dhcp service?


Beating the CAP Theorem Checklist[]

Times, Clocks and the Ordering of Events in a Distributed System[]

Byzantine Generals[]

CAP 12 years later[]

People that drag you down …

People that are bad at what they do and don’t know it are funny to laugh at. But imagine having to work with someone like that? Their mistakes might be amusing for a while but it doesn’t take long for it to get tiring and frustrating resulting in me losing my motivation. Additionally, having to work with below average colleagues, who are supposed to be senior fucking developers, doesn’t extend me. I can’t grow and develop if I have to play nanny to questions and thought patterns that a 5 year old could work out. The key here is work out, or solve. It’s not so much the facts that matter in development but how you use them. I have an example like this below:

Wing: I can’t build. It errors with ‘eu-strip not found’.
Me: The error is telling you that you need eu-strip. Install the package that contains eu-strip.

… some time passes….

Wing: ‘apt-get install eu-strip’ doesn’t work.

I’m already annoyed at the first question. But then the second question? Did she even stop to think?

Hell of the North

Hell of the North is a cozy little restaurant with a rustic feel in Fitzroy, Melbourne. The food is French inspired with a fairly straigtforward no fuss menu with words you can recongnize. Chicken, fish, free range pig. I didn’t see ‘jus de ….’ anywhere on the menu. The most foreign thing on it is ‘pomme frites’. Unpretentiousness is a good thing and here they let the food do the talking. The entree was a black inked squid stuffed in a crispy ball and a twice cooked cheese souffle. Although I didn’t like the squid dish, and here I feel it just wasn’t to my taste and is in no way negatively reflective of the quality of the dish, which had a well balanced seafood flavour that never overpowered, it was eclipsed by the twice cooked cheese souffle. I’m an unsophisticated diner so a lot of the subtleties present in the dishes were lost on me. The simplicity of the menu understates the complex nature of the food and was interesting. Overall I thought it was very good.

Cured Kingfish with Apple

Black inked squid balls

MSI Live Update Splash

It’s big, annoying and takes over your Windows desktop. The genius at MSI who thought that this was a good idea should be fired. It pops up randomly and looks like this.


And pops up at awkward moments, like when I’m trying to write code:


Or when I’m playing a game:


Or when watching a movie:


Like a penis that’s in your face when you don’t need it, the MSI live update splash screen is there to help you when you don’t need it.

Thankfully the smart people on the MSI forums have this solution.


The ability to ignore the real problem, which is the usage of popups to get users attention, is commendable. They also assumed that I didn’t try updating when I did but the update didn’t work.


What is the problem with motherboard manufactures and the junk software they ship? Just make the fucking motherboard and piss off. I don’t want to see popup messages from MSI/ASUS/Gigabyte on my computer. Can’t they just use a common notification or logging facility on Windows to let users know what needs attention?

Mergesort in Erlang

Looking around for a language that would make sense for my next project, I’ve decided to look into Erlang.

  • It’s a functional programming language.
  • Predated Scala and the new wave of functional languages. In fact those languages are probably more influenced by Erlang.
  • Inherently designed to support concurrent distributed processing on a large scale, although I doubt it can do the fine grained multicore shared memory stuff Julia could do.
  • More suited to tasks that require parallel processing using message duplication as the primary way to share pass information. Don’t use it for computationally intensive stuff.

So in the tradition of not many other first programs in a new language I wrote a merge sort routine

Some of the funky stuff I bumped up against:

  • Seemingly bizzare usage of ,, ; and . as statement terminators. It reminded me of programming in OCaml.
  • if statements aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen before.
  • Nice pattern matching. Love pattern matching in a language; it lets you break apart the shape of the data structure so easily.
  • Concurrent process handling is so sweet.