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Lessons from rewriting POP Forums for MVC, open source-like

It has been a ton of work, interrupted over the last two years by unemployment, moving, a baby, failing to sell houses and other life events, but it's really exciting to see POP Forums v9 coming together. I'm not even sure when I decided to really commit to it as an open source project, but working on the same team as the CodePlex folks probably had something to do with it. Moving along the roadmap I set for myself, the app is now running on a quasi-production site... we launched MouseZoom last weekend. (That's a post-beta 1 build of the forum. There's also some nifty Silverlight DeepZoom goodness on that site.)

I have to make a point to illustrate just how important starting over was for me. I started this forum thing for my sites in old ASP more than ten years ago. What a mess that stuff was, including SQL injection vulnerabilities and all kinds of crap. It went to ASP.NET in 2002, but even then, it felt a little too much like script. More than a year later, in 2003, I did an honest to goodness rewrite. If you've been in this business of writing code for any amount of time, you know how much you hate what you wrote a month ago, so just imagine that with seven years in between. The subsequent versions still carried a fair amount of crap, and that's why I had to start over, to make a clean break. Mind you, much of that crap is still running on some of my production sites in a stable manner, but it's a pain in the ass to maintain.

So with that clean break, there is much that I have learned. These are a few of those lessons, in no particular order...

Avoid shiny object syndrome
Over the years, I've embraced new things without bothering to ask myself why. I remember spending the better part of a year trying to adapt this app to use the membership and profile API's in ASP.NET, just because they were there. They didn't solve any known problem. Early on in this version, I dabbled in exotic ORM's, even though I already had the fundamental SQL that I knew worked. I bloated up the client side code with all kinds of jQuery UI and plugins just because, and it got in the way. All the new shiny can be distracting, and I've come to realize that I've allowed it to be a distraction most of my professional life.

Just query what you need
I've spent a lot of time over-thinking how to query data. In the SQL world, this means exotic joins, special caches, the read-update-commit loop of ORM's, etc. There are times when you have to remind yourself that you aren't Facebook, you'll never be Facebook, and that databases are in fact intended to serve data. In a lot of projects, back in the day, I used to have these big, rich data objects and pass them all over the place, through various application tiers, when in reality, all I needed was some ID from the entity. I try to be mindful of how many queries hit the database on a given request, but I don't obsess over it. I just get what I need.

Don't spend too much time worrying about your unit tests
If you've looked at any of the tests for POP Forums, you might offer an audible WTF. That's OK. There's a whole lot of mocking going on. In some cases, it points out where you're doing too much, and that's good for improving your design. In other cases it shows where your design sucks. But the biggest trap of unit testing is that you worry it should be prettier. That's a waste of time. When you write a test, in many cases before the production code, the important part is that you're testing the right thing. If you have to mock up a bunch of stuff to test the outcome, so be it, but it's not wasted time. You're still doing up the typical arrange-action-assert deal, and you'll be able to read that later if you need to.

Get back to your HTTP roots
ASP.NET Webforms did a reasonably decent job at abstracting us away from the stateless nature of the Web. A lot of people criticize it, but I think it all worked pretty well. These days, with MVC, jQuery, REST services, and what not, we've gone back to thinking about the wire. The nuts and bolts passing between our Web browser and server matters. This doesn't make things harder, in my opinion, it makes them easier. There is something incredibly freeing about how we approach development of Web apps now. HTTP is a really simple protocol, and the stuff we push through it, in particular HTML and JSON, are pretty simple too. The debugging points are really easy to trap and trace.

Premature optimization is premature
I'll go back to the data thing for a moment. I've been known to look at a particular action or use case and stress about the number of calls that are made to the database. I'm not suggesting that it's a bad thing to keep these in mind, but if you worry about it outside of the context of the actual impact, you're wasting time. For example, I query the database for last read times in a forum separately of the user and the list of forums. The impact on performance barely exists. If I put it under load, exceeding the kind of load I expect, it still barely has an impact. Then consider it only counts for logged in users. The context of this "inefficient" action is that it doesn't matter. Did I mention I won't be Facebook?

Solve your own problems first
This is another trap I've fallen into. I've often thought about what other people might need for some feature or aspect of the app. In other words, I was willing to make design decisions based on non-existent data. How stupid is that? When I decided to truly open source this thing, building for myself first was a stated design goal. This app has to server the audiences of CoasterBuzz, MouseZoom and other sites first. In this development scenario, you don't have access to mountains of usability studies or user focus groups. You have to start with what you know.

I'm sure there are other points I could make too. It has been a lot of fun to work on, and I look forward to evolving the UI as time goes on. That's where I hope to see more magic in the future.

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