deloominator tech stack

deloominator is a data visualization application for SQL users I published a few weeks ago. You can read the announcement here. This article is meant to be an overview of the technologies with basic information about why I chose them. Here is a list of technologies that deloominator uses at the moment:

Constraints as a design methodology

When I decided to build deloominator, I had to decide which language and frameworks to use, and so on. This is an exciting problem to solve and one of the most interesting phases of building an application. In this phase, I let constraints drive my decision-making process. I categorize constraints in two groups:

  • Inherent constraints
  • Self-set constraints

Using deloominator as an example, I will explain what I mean with these terms:

Inherent constraints are constraints set by the problem you’re trying to solve: I can’t build a data visualization tool for SQL users without choosing which technology will render the visualizations. I can spend some time refining the scope of the question, something like “which framework?” versus “how hard is it to build it from scratch?”. But I can’t move on without knowing how to visualize graphs.

Self-set constraints are more interesting because we define them for ourselves. I decided that deloominator had to have zero dependencies and an image export feature from the start. A data visualization tool doesn’t require you to solve those two problems, therefore I call those constrains self-set.

What we’re used to call “product vision” can be formalized as the set of self-set constraints we choose for the product we’re building. In fact, these constraints define the product itself.

When I started building deloominator, I knew I wanted zero dependencies and an image export right away. Both constraints had interesting implications on the technology stack and turned out to weigh more on my decisions than the inherent constraints. I see it as a common pattern, but I don’t think it has ever been formalized anywhere. Maybe that’s a good topic for a different article.

Zero dependencies

Zero dependencies means designing the easiest installation process I could think of. The idea is that you should be able to go from reading what deloominator is to running deloominator on your machine in two steps:

  1. Download the binary
  2. Start it

“Download the binary” automatically meant Go for me. Go builds statically linked binaries and I really like the language. Moreover, there are already other web applications that ship as self-contained binaries (like the great pgweb), so I could sneak-peak their build process. For those of you who are not familiar with the technique, here is a quick explanation: the binary of the application contains both the API server and the UI application (which in this case is a single page application built with React). The build task does the following:

  • It builds the UI assets (via webpack)
  • Then it embeds the bundle into the binary that contains the API server too

As the building process is not a trivial command, I provided a Makefile and documented it, so that building the project is as easy as typing make build. The effect of this build process on the product is exactly what I was looking for. You can download the binary and start it right away. It doesn’t get easier than that, and I’m committed to keeping it that way as I move forward.

Image export

Before I wrote a single line of code for deloominator, I was 100% sure I was going to use D3 for the data visualization part. D3 can render any visualization you can think of and it has an awesome community. But things changed a little when I started searching for an way to export charts as images. I must say I didn’t really go deep into the research so now I’m not sure how hard (or easy) this feature is with D3. What happened is that I randomly bumped into Vega and immediately fell in love with it. Vega is a data visualization grammar that uses D3 to render graphs (so, ah!, I’m actually using D3 after all). But the difference looks subtle only on the surface. Being a grammar specification, Vega unlocks the door for incredibly powerful tooling I may use in the future. Rendering images in Vega is a built-in functionality. The idea graphs are represented as a JSON specification makes me very comfortable with the future of deloominator. One bonus point is that integrating it with React was really easy (there’s an awesome library for that).

If you’re not familiar with Vega, I recommend you have a look at it. The specification and the tooling around it is great!

Constraints are not everything

Go and Vega were consequences of the only two self-set constraints I had when I started building deloominator. As for the rest of the stack, I followed my heart so to say.

React

React wasn’t even up for discussion in my personal view of the frontend world. I’ve always been unhappy with frontend development (and, partially because of this, not good at it). I’ve always been unhappy because frontend development did not fit my mental model. I think of back-end development as a data pipeline: you have some data and you need part of it somewhere, so you build a pipeline. For example: get data from a db, output it into a JSON format which another service reads, so it can output other data as well. Frontend development has always been one step more than that. You traverse all your pipeline up to your JavaScript code and you’re not done yet. You have to traverse the DOM in some way and update the right thing. That last step has always broken my mental model. React has been life-changing from this perspective. I don’t have to bother with DOM updates anymore, I can finally think about frontend code in the same boring way I think about other programming domains. It’s “just passing data around” from one stage to another.

semantic-ui

I chose to introduce a front-end framework, because I’m not sufficiently fluent at CSS to build a non-trivial UI without one. I would prefer to craft only the UI I really need on my own, but I’m just not good enough with CSS to do so. That was a somewhat personal constraint more than a technical decision, so I can imagine that the day deloominator has a CSS-fluent contributor, we may revert this decision. I thought I’d use bootstrap but, again, while searching for a React library for bootstrap (well, one other way to really love React for me: reusable styled components I can use right away. That’s a dream come true), I ran into semantic-ui and I was very impressed. It’s a good, full-featured UI library with a very active community and a great official React library. I was immediately sold.

graphql

graphql is a fantastic idea and I consider it a clear step forward from the REST approach. It checks very interesting points (like automatic documentation) and I was eager to try it first hand. In this sense, more than a technical decision, this was a personal test. I can already say it’s not paying off well so far. As for what deloominator does right now, two or three endpoints would have simplified the Go part quite a lot. But I don’t intend to revert the decision as I see the value long-term and I can’t wait to write more about it.

Next steps

I hope you enjoyed this quick overview. I will be writing more about Go and GraphQL (somehow I have more to say about those two right now), but please approach me with any feedback, I’d like to write more about this topic!

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