The age of functional programming is dawning. The hype cycle has heated up, and IT departments are getting both real and perceived benefits out of the idea that a function runs on demand only.
For some, the benefits are very real. Bursty processing, or things that are frequent and quickly resolved, see a benefit from being implemented on functional architectures, and the cost of functional architectures is arguably far better than the cost of cloud instances. I say “arguably” because you can always cram more onto an underused cloud instance, but you pay as you go—even more literally for functional programming, so additions each have an incremental cost. But it is incremental, and you have the power to choose whether functional is right for any given bit of the architecture.
So why the title? Remember The Island of Misfit Toys from the much-beloved Christmas story, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”? They were all just a little off. In a world flooded with perfectly good toys, they were left unattended and unwanted.
That is a risk functional runs in the long run, also. The idea that you can pop a function out there, configure the access point (almost ubiquitously a web application firewall entry point, but things change so we’ll stick with the generic “entry point”), and start sending requests is great. The fact that you only pay for that bit of time when your request is actually being serviced is great, too.
But this ideas assumes security is baked in at the functional level. If you are deploying this function anywhere with a public IP, it assumes hardcore security is baked in.
And failure to have that security baked in is the first reason you might have a misfit toy.
By definition, functional programming-based systems are complex systems. They are the ultimate evolution of microservices. They will suffer all of the headaches and heartaches associated with SOA and add on the issues with REST versioning, etc. There will be 50 or 500 functions, each clipping along and doing its thing, composed to make a single application (in a purist world, composed in a functional programming app).
Some of these functions will become outdated and unused. You can’t leave them laying around, waiting to be abused. Indeed, a new form of financial attack might be to look for just such abandoned toys and start calling them repeatedly and rapidly.
Imagine coming in one day and having Finance ask you why your bill at functional provider X tripled in the last month, only to find a function you left hanging around was being called for no good reason?
But the complexity inherent in lots of small bits of code, each doing a specific task, pretty much guarantees there will be cruft left lying around unless you are very careful.
And that, my friends, is (finally, I know) the point of this blog. Our monitoring tools today lean toward watching the performance of the application, but you need more than that before you go all-in on functional programming. You need build tools that can tell you when a given function is no longer called—from anywhere. That is a tall order which none of the previous distributed methodologies has managed to master, but it is more important in a world where you have functions sitting in various public clouds with public-facing IP addresses.
There also needs to be a definitive source code scanner. Those are slowly getting better, but imagine if a library the build system pulls in and uses for 20 or 30 different functional programming microbits becomes compromised? We’ve seen enough instances of ignoring the problem is begging to be a victim, so scanning on build is more important with more systems using external libraries. Or more accurately, with external libraries being pulled into more microservices. There are companies/service providers that will validate your external dependencies and only let you load open source libraries they have certified as safe. I’ve never used one, but they’re worth looking into.
A list of entry points and places they are accessed from is useful for internal-only applications. You can’t do that with a publicly exposed REST API that anyone can call, of course. I’m a developer and a D&D player, so I’ll use that example: Wizards/Hasbro cannot control where this API is being called from. The same is true for any web services APIs that exist to give others access. But internal APIs that are an integral part of internal systems and not called externally? Those you need an automated way to find references to them in internal source and keep a count. Much like garbage collection, you’ll want to take down ones whose count reaches zero.
The thing is that in many ways functional programming reduces operational complexity. It certainly reduces operational overhead. But that complexity is replaced with a different kind of operational complexity; maintenance becomes a bigger issue, and the already occurring breakup of code into smaller chunks increases, bringing cross-reference complexity along with it.
Keep that in mind. You will have orphaned functions, you will have security concerns, you will have changed operational complexity. Plan for these things from day one. They are not at all deal breakers, and the benefits of functional are already clear in certain verticals with more general benefits being discovered as I type. But they’re the new problems that will require answers in this new architecture.
So, build in oversight and tools from the beginning and go see how functional programming could benefit your project. At this time, it isn’t the answer to every problem, but—like most cool new IT things—it is another tool to have at hand when solving problems for the business.
And don’t let your functional programming microservices end up on the Island of Misfit Functional Programming.