Real World Clojure

You may have heard already that Clojure is great and going to dominate the world this year. But will it? In this article I will dig deep into one of our Clojure projects so that you can see what a real world Clojure project looks like and decide for yourself. I will try to offer as objective a view on the matter as I can, but I will cover many things where we benefit from the Clojure way of doing things.

This is not a huge project, but not a trivial example either. Our software, Aitu, is a practical and pretty straightforward web project. You can view the full source code as Aitu lives in Github. In addition to actual web software there are database configurations etc. so you can set it up in a matter of minutes with the help of Vagrant and VirtualBox should you want to play with it.

Clojure programmers are happier

There are a number of things that are different with Clojure that don't directly affect the code, but greatly improve the efficiency of a seasoned programmer's workflow. Programming feels good because there are benefits such as:

In general I consider the Clojure community as one of the finest programming language communities. The libraries are of high quality and the attitude is to do things properly. Libraries and frameworks are focused and modular. This is no small feat. Being able to trust and understand third party libraries makes programming in Clojure feel good.

AOP is just three letters put together

I have never quite understood AOP in the first place. I have used it a few times but I don't think it is a valid or very useful idea. It feels like a dirty patch to fix some issues with object oriented programming (or Class Oriented Programming if you do Java). Let's see what we did in Clojure.

We wanted to append current user and HTTP request id to log messages to track them. As the messages from various threads may appear in arbitrary order in the log file the request id is the only way to track the processing of a single request over the log messages. We could have written a custom wrapper over the standard logging framework to do this and then make sure we never ever call the real logging framework directly. And change every line of code already written to call this wrapper.

We came out with a solution which has ideas similar to that of an "aspect" and a "pointcut" but completely different implementation mechanics to do "weaving".

Here's the code (translated to english)

(ns aitu.log
    (:require aitu.infra.print-wrapper
        oph.korma.korma-auth
        [clojure.tools.logging]
        [robert.hooke :refer [add-hook]]))

    (def ^:dynamic *add-uid-and-request-id?* true)

    (defn add-uid-and-requestid
        [f logger level throwable message]
            (let [uid (if (bound? #'oph.korma.korma-auth/*current-user-uid*)
                oph.korma.korma-auth/*current-user-uid*
                  "-")
              requestid (if (bound? #'aitu.infra.print-wrapper/*requestid*)
                    aitu.infra.print-wrapper/*requestid*
                    "-")
        message-with-id (str "[User: " uid ", request: " requestid "] " message)]
        (cond 
            *add-uid-and-request-id?* (f logger level throwable message-with-id)
            (false? *add-uid-and-request-id?*) (f logger level throwable message))))

    (defn add-uid-and-requestid-hook []
        (add-hook #'clojure.tools.logging/log* #'add-uid-and-requestid))

That's it. It's possible to turn off the wrapper at runtime per thread as necessary. The add-hook delegates the weaving trick to Robert Hooke library which is a tiny but clever library that can alter arbitrary Clojure functions without being intrusive. The "pointcut" is simply defined with a reference to our Clojure function and a reference to the standard logging function which we don't directly control.

Clojure takes on PostgreSQL

Currently there is no established de facto library for relational database access. There is the clj-jdbc wrapper for low level needs, but higher level abstractions are still under construction. In September we chose to use SQL Korma for our project.

It has turned out to be somewhat frustrating. We are still using Korma, but there are some issues:

Still, Korma is better than nothing and the source code is reasonable. We have read it through a couple of times.

Testing with Clojure

In principle, testing with Clojure is similar to what one would do with Java or any other programming language. But unlike most others, Clojure ships with a full blown test framework out of the box. And this covers anything from unit testing to fixtures and BDD. I'll skip the obvious and cover some things I consider to be particularly interesting.

Still using asserts?

There is proper support for design by contract with preconditions and postconditions. As an abstraction postconditions and preconditions are an order of magnitude more powerful than old school assertions. You certainly can still write on occasional assert, but there is no state which you would check with assert in OOP and imperative programming.

Dissect your source code, I dare you

However, if you make a small mistake in your syntax with preconditions, there will not be any compiler warning. This is unfortunate and may change in some future version of Clojure. For the meantime, we wrote a separate test to ensure that our postconditions and preconditions are actually used as the programmer has intended. Full source_test.clj contains util functions omitted here. The code here has been translated to english.

(defn pre-post [form]
    (when (= 'defn (nth form 0))
        (some #(and (map? %)
            (or (contains? % :pre)
                (contains? % :post))
            %)
      form)))

(defn pre-post-in-wrong-place? [form]
    (when-let [pp (pre-post form)]
        (not (or (and (symbol? (nth form 1))
                  (vector? (nth form 2))
                  (= pp (nth form 3)))
             (and (symbol? (nth form 1))
                  (string? (nth form 2))
                 (vector? (nth form 3))
                 (= pp (nth form 4)))))))

(defn pre-post-not-vector? [form]
    (when-let [pp (pre-post form)]
        (not (every? vector? (vals pp)))))


(deftest pre-post-at-right-place-test
    (is (empty? (matching-forms "src/clj" pre-post-in-wrong-place?))))

(deftest pre-post-vector-test
    (is (empty? (matching-forms "src/clj" pre-post-not-vector?))))

This code takes advantage of homoiconocity and Clojure's reader. The source code is parsed by the reader, and our test examines it. We are using basic data structures and standard algorithm predicates like when, some and map. On the other hand, we are searching for a Clojure code structure defn which is used to define a function. This sort of test would be extremely difficult to do in almost any other language.

Static checking with steroids

This approach can be applied to many other static checks. Clojure is intentionally built with dynamic typing, but writing your own static checks is quite easy when you need them. You need custom static checks in any case because type systems in general are limited. Even Haskell will not tell you if you accidentally messed up the encoding of a properties file. But it's not difficult to check:

(deftest properties-encoding-test
    "Find characters which are not 'printable characters'. There shouldn't be any."
    (is (empty? (matching-lines "resources/i18n"
                                #".*\.properties"
                                [#"[^\p{Print}\p{Space}]+"]))))

We rely on a generic function which recursively iterates over the files matching the directory and name pattern (here, i18n properties files) and matches each line in each file with some regular expression. In this case we search for unprintable characters. One could argue that it's easy to write this in Java. Having done that, I consider Clojure a much more efficient tool in this respect.

In our project we have not written pre-emptive checks for all imaginable scenarios, but rather followed the Lean path of poka-yoke. After one of us messed up the encoding, I wrote that test to make sure it doesn't happen again. The temptation to cut corners is smaller when the language empowers the programmer and enables doing the right thing.

Isolating for maximum gain

Due to it's functional nature, Clojure is great at isolating things. Since there is no state, almost anything can be tested with a unit test. This doesn't mean that every single function should have a unit test, but rather that any important function can always be isolated for testing.

Even functions with side effects can be tested relatively easily. Consider this auditlog test.

The actual test looks pretty straightforward (code translated to english):

(deftest test-contract-update
    (testing "logs properly an update to a contract"
    (log-validate
         #(auditlog/contract-update! 123 "12/12")
        [[:info "uid: T-X oper: update target: contract meta: ({:contractid 123, :diaryidentifier \"12/12\"})"]])))

With a few lines of code I set up a mock to capture the logging output in a non-intrusive manner, mock the authentication framework and test that the piece of code responsible for formatting the audit log messages works. The test checks these things:

  1. The audit log formatter calls the logging framework with properly formatted messages.
  2. It properly attaches the "current user" id to the log messages.

No need to start up and configure services and figure out a way to create a test application context. Just write the test for whatever piece of code you wish to test. Maybe add a few lines for plumbing.

Play it again, Sam?

To put it bluntly, yes. I would still prefer to write this application in Clojure if I could go back in time with the information I have now. I do believe this would be in the best interest of our client as well.

To summarize, here's my current advice for crafting a "professional" Clojure application:

  • Use component or something like that to manage application life cycle.
  • Use schema or something similar to define important interfaces through the data structures
  • Use Korma or something else, but be wary when combining Clojure and relational databases.
  • Take full advantage of Clojure's special strengths. Otherwise, what's the point?
  • Avoid macro wankery. Macros offer Turing complete power and should be used sparingly.
  • Apply dynamic binding thoughtfully. Dynamic variables scattered around the code are antithesis of Clojure's principles.
  • Be critical about book examples. They leave out "details" which turn out to be important.
  • Be prepared to add functionality to libraries. We had to write HTTP logging middleware though it's a pretty obvious feature.
  • Java interop is great, but keep it simple. Generating Java classes with gen-class was painful. reify was easy.
  • Keep it small and contained. We used http-kit as our embedded HTTP server. Small and focused is the Clojure way.
  • Clojure is dynamic and powerful. Refactor or enjoy your dish of spaghetti code.

The final verdict

Clojure is still an infant taking it's first steps in the world of Real Applications. This is evident as some popular libraries are lacking essential functionality. But as a language it is mature and stable. The language has deep roots and powerful ideas backing it up. A fine community is growing daily. The world domination is commencing.