Adopt and not assess OpenAPI linters and other thoughts reading Thoughtworks Technology Radar 24
By Arnaud Lauret, April 28, 2021
Thoughtworks Technology Radar 24, an “opinionated guide to technology frontiers”, came out last 15th of April, 2021 and I thought it could be interesting to read it from an API perspective, hence this post sharing my thoughts on it. As always it is really interesting and full of valuable insights, though I nearly fell off my chair while reading the Tools section which talks about OpenAPI linters (if it’s not a click bait, I don’t know what it is).
What is Thoughtworks Technology Radar
Thoughtworks is a quite famous software consultancy company, brilliant minds such as Martin Fowler are working there. Every 6 months, they publish their Technology Radar:
The Radar is a document that sets out the changes that we think are currently interesting in software development - things in motion that we think you should pay attention to and consider using in your projects. It reflects the idiosyncratic opinion of a bunch of senior technologists and is based on our day-to-day work and experiences. While we think this is interesting, it shouldn’t be taken as a deep market analysis.
- Radar FAQ
- Latest Thoughtworks Technology Radar
- Thoughtworks Technology Radar Volume 24 (PDF version)
While authors claim it’s not a deep market analysis, it’s still full of highly valuable insights that you, as a developer, architect, CTO or whatever is your title should have in mind for your next tech related decisions or simply to discover new tools, language, trends, …
In what follows, I picked up a few topics of the 24th edition of this radar that raise my interest from an API perspective (and if you can’t wait to know why I nearly fell off my chair, you can jump to the last section).
Reminder, there are no silver bullets in architecture
The Discerning the Context for Architectural Coupling theme is a gentle reminder of what I called “design in context”. Never choose a solution just because this is “the” solution, because depending on the context it could be totally wrong. That works for anything in general and in the API architecture world, that works for instance for “BFF or not” and “REST ot GraphQL or gRPC”.
Smoothly evolve your APIs
The radar authors strongly think that people should be adopting the 1. API expand-contract technique (also called parallel change). The API expand pattern allows to introduce a breaking in 3 steps:
- Add element
- Deprecate what added element replace
- Remove once consumers have switched
While it’s a totally valid technique, the last step can be tricky if there are many consumers or if there are far from you. You should read what Sam Newman said about the cost of change at API Days Interface 2020. In my humble opinion, working seriously on design and thinking about how your API may evolve will help you avoid having to use this technique.
I will not say more for now, writing one or more posts about API change and versioning is on my to-do list.
Share between UI and BFF when owning both
The radar states that the use of 16. UI/BFF shared types is increasing and that companies should try this technique on a project that can handle the risk (trial). That looks like a very good idea as long as both UI and BFF belong to the same team. So don’t ever think about using this technique between UI and regular API, you should be decoupled as much as you can from elements you don’t own.
Compute encrypted data to preserve privacy
The first time I heard about the 20. Homomorphic encryption (technique section) was in 2016 at an API conference: The Česká spořitelna bank was using it experimentally to share data with third party. The idea is that using this technique, the encrypted data are still computable. You can send them to an untrusted third party who will do some calculation with them and return you the results that you will decrypt. According to the radar, it became fairly easy to use it. But while having this technique in mind since 2016 and working in the financial industry, I’m still longing to work an API that will allow me to use it.
Unleash the power of APIs (while it’s possible)
If you want to build an event-driven architecture, you should take a look at Apache Kafka. While being a widely adopted distributed event streaming platform, actually managing it does not seem quite simple. That’s why some companies launch their Kafka as a service offers, they run it, you use it. But as stated in the radar, some companies have gone a little farther and started to offer “Kafka without Kafka”. How is this possible? Only thanks to APIs.
APIs (whatever their nature, web, messaging or whatever) offer amazing possibilities when it comes to replace the engine behind the interface. Thanks to these 45. Kafka API without Kafka describes in the Platforms section, you use a service that looks like Kafka but that is actually not. It allows companies to provide their technology similar to kafka to people who are used to it without any modification. From my perspective, the main to understand point here is not about Kafka (though it is actually interesting) but how anyone can provide a service compatible with an existing solution. What is needed is to simply offer the same interface. And, for now, that’s still “possible but check your lawyers are ready” thanks to the recent legal decision in the Google vs Oracle API Copyright case.
Beware that Kafka API without Kafka is in “Assess”, it’s worth exploring to understand how it could affect you. Note also that such solutions may not be fully compatible all Kafka features
Let’s give a try to Fast API Python framework
I work with data scientists to help them build APIs and they obviously use Python. So, discovering in the Languages & Frameworks section of the radar, a new Python web API framework such Fast API having Thoughtworks seal of approval (86. FastAPI), made my day. Beware, Fast API is still on “Trial” for Thoughtworks, that means “Enterprises should try this technology on a project that can handle the risk”. As I’m starting to work with Python for a complete overhaul of the API Stylebook, a personal project that perfectly can handle such risk, I may give it a try.
Adopt and not assess OpenAPI linting (and why I nearly fell off my chair)
And last but not least, the radar mentions 2 OpenAPI linters in the tools section:
The OpenAPI Specification (fka. the Swagger Specification) is a format allowing you to describe a web API contract. An OpenAPI linter will help you to ensure that the design of an API conforms to your guidelines (or style guide).
I know both of these tools for quite a long time now. Zally was the first industrial/high quality OpenAPI linter I encountered but I find it quite complex to use, there’s a cli, a server, you need to use Kotlin to write your rules. And once I discovered Spectral, I totally forgot Zally.
npm install -g @stoplight/spectral and you can start.
Writing rules is quite simple, though like any “code”, you definitely need to test them.
I use it extensively every day while doing API design reviews, check my Augmented API Design Reviewer talk to learn more about it.
Note that I prefer Spectral in my context, I find it simpler, I could simply achieve what I wanted easily, it’s integration with Stoplight Studio is very convenient and it constantly evolves. But remember, there are no silver bullets, so test those 2 and choose the one that suits you.
While being quite happy to see those 2 OpenAPI linters in the radar, there are 2 problems regarding how this topic is presented in my humble opinion.
First, they are in “assess” (worth exploring to see how it will affect you), while I can understand that classification probably based on “how many companies use them”, I definitely think they should be in “adopt” (industry should adopt these items). Designing API is hard, ensuring consistency is hard and such linters participate in simplifying designers job and ensure a certain level of consistency in your API surface. Note that such tools will never, ever replace a human powered API design review.
The second problem in the radar is what is said about “specs” and OpenAPI in the Spectral description, and especially this:
While this tool is a welcome addition to the API development workflow, it does raise the question of whether a non-executable specification should be so complex as to require an error-checking technique designed for programming languages. Perhaps developers should be writing code instead of specs?
I nearly fell off my chair.
This completely misses the point. It leaves readers totally unaware of API design questions and do not help to grasp how they can take advantage of the OpenAPI specification and such a linter to design consistent APIs. That gives a totally wrong perspective of OpenAPI and OpenAPI linters in general, and Spectral in particular. While I met and still meet people who actually are in such state of mind, even don’t giving a 💩 about API design and everything around, I wouldn’t have expected that from a company such as Thoughtworks. I usually succeed to change people mind about this topic, they realize API design and everything around is a thing, but if Thoughtworks tells something different that will make my work more complicated 😅. I would love to know how the authors came to writing this, did I missed something?
Hopefully, I was glad to see the discourse about OpenAPI linters is totally different in the Zally’s description and offers the right perspective on the topic.
As the API specification ecosystem matures, we’re seeing more tools built to automate style checks. Zally is a minimalist OpenAPI linter that helps to ensure an API conforms to the team’s API style guide.
Maybe it’s due to these particular pandemic times, but it seems that there’s a lack of alignment between the 2 authors of these advices. That second advice on OpenAPI linters is far much better, consider it applies to Spectral too.
And if I can add my opinionated 2 cents about API design, OpenAPI and linters:
- You MUST have an API design first approach
- You MUST write API design guidelines (or style guide) describe the look and feel of your APIs
- You MUST use the OpenAPI (or whatever) specification to describe the result of your work on design
- You MUST use an OpenAPI (or whatever) linter to ensure your APIs conform to your style guides (and Spectral is a very good tool to do that)
- You MUST do an API design review with human beings
Consider all those items should be “Adopt” according to Thoughtworks classification.
If you want to learn more about the OpenAPI Specification, API guidelines, API design reviews and Spectral, you should look at my following talks: