Your basic API: guidelines and best practices

yourbasic.org

Thoughts on effective API design

Finger pushing a go button

Introduction

The aim of this text is to explore API design and try to find strategies and rules that can help us create code libraries that are safe, effective and easy to use.

The text comes with three example libraries:

Most examples are in Go, the language itself being a case study of good API design, with clean and simple interfaces on top of a huge complex implementation. There are also a few examples in Java, a language that has had more time to accumulate crud in the form of superfluous and dysfunctional elements.

The go keyword is particularly striking: the syntax couldn’t be simpler and the semantics are defined in eight lines of text in the language specification. Still, you rarely hear complaints about thread support being limited in Go.

Garbage collection in Go is another impeccable example. The implementation is hideously complicated, while the API is minimal: there is no syntax and the language specification doesn’t even mention the concept explicitly. The runtime library offers a single GC tuning parameter and plenty of memory statistics for those who need it, but mostly it just works.

Even though API design is as much an art as a science, there still are some fundamental rules that you should be aware of. Rules that will cost you dearly if you break them. That’s why the first chapter is called The 5 Commandments.

The 5 Commandments

Let’s start with the basics. The rules never to be broken. The rules that we don’t need to argue about, but that we still need to be reminded of.

law

1. Tell me what this thing is

A software repository should have a README file, and this file should say what the project is about. Preferably in the very first sentence.

If people don’t know what it is, they can’t use it, duh. Still, it’s not uncommon to see a README file that starts with “Candide now supports the Pangloss 3.2 file format”, but never tells what Candide is and what it has to offer.

In the fenwick repo I stick my neck out and try to implement a small library that follows the rules in this chapter. Its README file starts like this.

# Your basic Fenwick tree

### Golang list data structure supporting prefix sums

A Fenwick tree, or binary indexed tree, is a space-efficient
list data structure that can efficiently update elements and
calculate prefix sums in a list of numbers.

2. Tell me what it does

An API should say what the code does.

If a potential user gets past the README file, and dives into the Fenwick documentation, she probably wants the full story. Telling it three times is often a good approach.

First a short sentence stating the purpose of the package.

Package fenwick provides a list data structure supporting prefix sums.

Then a slightly longer explanation.

A Fenwick tree, or binary indexed tree, is a space-efficient
list data structure that can efficiently update elements and
calculate prefix sums in a list of numbers.

And finally, the nitty-gritty for those who want to know it all.

Compared to a common array, a Fenwick tree achieves better
balance between element update and prefix sum calculation –
both operations run in O(log n) time – while using the same
amount of memory. This is achieved by representing the list
as an implicit tree, where the value of each node is the sum
of the numbers in that subtree.

Corollary

The 2nd Commandment comes with an obvious corollary.

An API should say what every exported function does.

Once again, if you don’t know what it does you can’t use it, duh. Undocumented functions are close to worthless. The only way to use them safely is to perform a complete code review, including necessary testing. That tends to be more work than writing the &$#! code yourself.

A descriptive function name is a good start, but only rarely does the name tell the full story. And the full story is what we need. In programming, there is no room for guesswork.

3. Don’t tell me how it works

If at all possible, an API shouldn't reveal any implementation details.

Threading and garbage collection in Go are two examples of interfaces that get this right. In general, a Go programmer doesn’t have to, and doesn’t want to, worry about the intricacies of garbage collection and threading. It just works.

In the fenwick repo I didn’t manage to fully hide the implementation:

However, the documentation of the fenwick.Listdata type and its methods describes what the code does without telling anything about how it works. This has two major benefits:

That’s a nice place to be in.

4. Grant me the right to use it

Every public software project needs a license.

I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but it’s my understanding that code without a license can only be legally used by its own author.

If you’re looking for paying customers, you may want to seek actual legal advice on licensing. However, to turn your project into free and open-source software is easy: just put the proper license text in the right places.

I like the BSD 2-Clause License. Not only does it offer the permissions, conditions and limitations that I want:

It’s also easy to apply: you add a single file to the top directory of your repo.

5. Don’t change it

A software library needs to be backwards compatible. It's fine to improve the documentation, change the implementation, and even introduce new features. But if at all possible, don't change the API.

This is the tough one. There are two major challenges here:

It’s not enough to just follow this rule, you also need to say that you are doing so. As a library provider you’re in the business of trust. This is why your library needs to explain its compatibility policy, and why you should consider using semantic versioning.

Compatibility policies

Fenwick’s compatibility policy is very simple, but still explicitly stated:

### Roadmap

* The API of this library is frozen.
* Version numbers adhere to semantic versioning.

The only accepted reason to modify the API of this package
is to handle issues that can't be resolved in any other
reasonable way.

Go 1 and the Future of Go Programs is a full, detailed compatibility document. It’s required study for anyone working with large-scale library design and maintenance.

For comparison, Compatibility Guide for JDK 8 is an entry point to the complex world of Java compatibility.

Semantic versioning

Semantic versioning is a convention for specifying compatibility using a three-part version number: major.minor.patch. You increment

The semantic versioning specification itself currently sits at version number 2.0.0. This means that it broke The 5th Commandment, and that no new features or patches have been introduced since then. Even so, it’s a good convention to follow. And, once again, the Go project gets it right.

Keep it simple

Even though API design often requires us to make difficult trade-offs, a simpler API tends to be a better API.

Don’t use complicated constructs where simple ones will do

Functions

A function is a simple and beautiful thing. It’s easy to use, easy to understand, easy to test, and it doesn’t come with any hidden side effects. And, perhaps most importantly, functions can be freely composed. The better part of mathematics is built from functions. If you can find a nice design using functions only, good for you.

(I’m talking about pure functions here, the ones that always produce the same output given the same input; not the ones that output the time of day or some other nasty surprise.)

Java detour

The static keyword in Java has got a bad reputation. Probably because it has so many different meanings. A static field is essentially a global variable, and you typically want to avoid those. A static method, however, is Java’s way to declare a function, as opposed to a method. This is a case where Java makes you jump through hoops to do the right thing.

Functions are great also for Java programmers. Don’t be afraid to use them.

Objects

An object, or struct if you like, isn’t quite as simple and beautiful as a function, but it has memory. Many elegant and powerful abstractions consist of a single object with a few attached methods. The very best ones tend to be immutable. At the core this is what object orientation is all about. The rest is mostly bells and whistles.

Inheritance

Inheritance and method overriding is pretty complicated. Fortunately, interfaces and plain old composition can typically get the job done in a simpler and safer way.

Frameworks

Frameworks have steep learning curves and different frameworks rarely play nice together. They are like dictators who can’t cooperate with others and who force you to do everything according to their rules.

Unless you’re building a new programming language, try to design your API as a library rather than a framework. Don’t ask the user to subscribe to your philosophy and to follow your orders. A good API should demand little and offer much.

Don’t use a lot where a little will do

To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat, —
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) — so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

From Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning, 1855.

Adding to Browning’s advice would be a mistake. Instead, a war story:

The java.io, java.nio, java.nio.channels, java.nio.channels.spi, java.nio.file, java.nio.file.attribute, java.nio.file.spi, java.nio.charset, and java.nio.charset.spi packages have many classes and even more methods. In fact, the API is so overwhelming that many of us end up at Stack Overflow trying to move streams of bytes in and out of our Java programs. Unfortunately, many of the friendly people who share code snippets on Stack Overflow didn’t read the full spec either, and got it wrong.

For many years I didn’t know that my Java programs used the platform default character encoding. That’s an ugly bug, and I’m not the only one to fall into this trap.

There probably is no way to design a really good general-purpose IO library at this point. After all, such a library must support low-level operations on many diverse platforms. But please, don’t add more fuel to the fire.

The Go io package is a fresh new start. The library takes some getting used to, but it’s small and manageable and handles common use cases well. Unfortunately, no amount of API design can fully protect us from the thorny history of file systems and fleeting memory technologies.

One package, one idea

Chances are that you have never used the Java Vector class. It was superseded by ArrayList already in Java 1.2. The problem with Vector is that it does two things:

  1. it’s a synchronized data structure, and
  2. it’s a list.

Both of these things are very useful, but most of the time you only want one of them.

There is nothing wrong with putting a lot of good stuff in you library. The trick is to come up with suitable units (classes or packages):

Just say no

An API shouldn't encourage bad design decisions.

The add method in Java’s ArrayList is a case in point:

public void add(int index, E element)

Inserts the specified element at the specified position
in this list. Shifts the element currently at that
position (if any) and any subsequent elements to the
right (adds one to their indices).

This method makes it easy to do the wrong thing. Adding a new element to the middle of an array is really inefficient; something you should typically avoid.

Math is simple

If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.
John von Neumann

If you can model your API on a mathematical abstraction, such as a set or an interval, you’re home free. Mathematical abstractions tend to be atomic, well-specified, independent, composable entities with a long story of use, abuse and improvements along the way.

Take a look at VertexSet, a data structure for specifying a group of vertices in a graph. There are three mathematical abstractions here:

There are two main reasons why I ended up with this API. First, I believe that the included operations are useful, necessary and sufficient. Secondly, they favor designs that can be efficiently implemented in this particular package.

Give it time

The only certain way to know if an API works as intended is to use it over an extended period of time on different types of tasks and projects.

Don’t rush it.

rest

Rest at harvest Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1865.

Eat your own dog food

Eat your own dog food. Lorne Greene said it. Don Knuth did it.

Lorne Greene

Alpo dog food commercial featuring Lorne Greene, 1970s.

Don Knuth

Thus, I came to the conclusion that the designer of a new system must not only be the implementor and the first large-scale user; the designer should also write the first user manual. The separation of any of these four components would have hurt TeX significantly. If I had not participated fully in all these activities, literally hundreds of improvements would never have been made, because I would never have thought of them or perceived why they were important.

The Errors Of TeX Don Knuth, 1989.

Show, don’t tell

Tutorials, examples and quick start guides are great tools for improving an API. The goal is to make it effortless to get started and easy to perform common tasks.

Anton Chekhov

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekhov with Maxim Gorky, Yalta 1900.

Create tutorials

A Tour of Go is a nice example of both a quick start and a tutorial. It’s an interactive online tutorial that let’s you try Go programming inside your browser without installing any software.

Use examples

An example can demonstrate how an API is best used and help clarify subtle points. This Bloom filter example illustrates a typical Bloom filter use case, and it also helps clarify the tricky semantics of a Bloom filter probabilistic membership test.

Once in a while, an example can fully replace a more standard API element. Take a look this DFS implementation example, which shows how to implement a depth-first search. Implementing DFS as a function with callbacks is really messy. There are at least four different points in the code where you may want to insert actions. Let’s face it, occasionally cut and paste is the better approach.

Tools of the trade

Grand ideas and theories aside, human artefacts are built by combining the right bits and pieces. This is a list of tried and trusted API building blocks.

tool

Hobel mit Spänen und Zimmermannsbleistift Photo by Uwe Aranas, 2014.

Keep it consistent

si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Java it’s toString, equals, and size; in Go it’s String, Equal, and Len. Suck it up, and get it right.

Write functions that need little and give much

Java’s System.out.println and Go’s fmt.Println are real workhorses. They’ll take any input and offer lots of important information in return. This is something we should strive for in our own API design.

Discover a well-fitting interface

The reason the print methods in Java and Go are so powerful is not only that they take any input, they are also able to handle that input in a sensible way.

In general, you want to find an interface that accepts everything your code can handle; and little or nothing else. This is typically very hard to do before you’ve had a good helping of your own dog food. That’s why I like the Go approach.

You start by writing concrete code, and in the process you discover interfaces that are increasingly accurate.

The graph.Iterator interface is the result of my longest search for a well-fitting interface so far. I tried numerous graph data structures and implemented even more graph algorithms before finding a proper fit. There is no way I could have designed this up-front.

Make it generic

A library based on a perfectly fitting interface is a perfectly generic library. Think about that.

Names, keep them short and sweet

Short active verbs or verb phrases make for good function names, even though I prefer to use Name rather than GetName. The corresponding setter function, if needed, would still be called SetName. Likewise, Running is a viable alternative to IsRunning.

A pithy noun or noun phrase is often a fitting name for a constant, a type, or a field of an object or a struct, considering that such names often need to be recognized over longer stretches of code.

Here is a first-rate example from Go’s aptly named net/http package.

// A Client is an HTTP client.
type Client struct {
	// Transport specifies the mechanism by which individual
	// HTTP requests are made.
	Transport RoundTripper

	// CheckRedirect specifies the policy for handling redirects.
	CheckRedirect func(req *Request, via []*Request) error

	// Jar specifies the cookie jar.
	Jar CookieJar

	// Timeout specifies a time limit for requests made
	// by this Client.
	Timeout time.Duration
}

When naming interfaces, we’re obliged to do what the Roman’s do. In Java it’s Comparable and Serializable; in Go it’s Reader, Writer, and even a RoundTripper home run.

For completeness, let’s also discuss local variables and function arguments. A short descriptive noun, such as name, path or proc, is often a good choice here.

Here’s a code snippet that follows these naming conventions.

if proc.Running() && proc.Name() != path {
	proc.SetName(path)
}

For comparison, here’s a more verbose version of the same code.

if process.IsRunning() && process.GetProcessName() != pathName {
	process.SetProcessName(pathName)
}

Yikes.

Further reading

Take a look at Inheritance and OOP: Go one better to see how Go uses interfaces and embedding to support code reuse and polymorphism.

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