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First-Class Failure

As a developer, nothing makes me more nervous than third-party dependencies and things that can fail in unpredictable ways1. More often than not, these two go hand-in-hand, taking our elegant, robust applications and dragging them down to the lowest common denominator of the services they depend upon. A recent internal project called for slurping in and then reporting against data from Harvest, our time tracking service of choice and a fickle beast on its very best days.

I knew that both components (/(im|re)porting/) were prone to failure. How to handle that failure in a graceful way, so that our users see something more meaningful than a 500 page, and our developers have a fighting chance at tracking and fixing the problem? Here’s the approach we took.

Step 1: Model the processes

Rather than importing the data or generating the report with procedural code, create ActiveRecord models for them. In our case, the models are HarvestImport and Report. When a user initiates a data import or a report generation, save a new record to the database immediately, before doing any work.

Step 2: Give ’em status

These models have a status column. We default it to “queued,” since we offload most of the work to a series of Resque tasks, but you can use “pending” or somesuch if that’s more your speed. They also have an error field for reasons that will become apparent shortly.

Step 3: Define an interface

Into both of these models, we include the following module:

module ProcessingStatus
  def mark_processing
    update_attributes(status: "processing")
  end

  def mark_successful
    update_attributes(status: "success", error: nil)
  end

  def mark_failure(error)
    update_attributes(status: "failed", error: error.to_s)
  end

  def process(cleanup = nil)
    mark_processing
    yield
    mark_successful
  rescue => ex
    mark_failure(ex)
  ensure
    cleanup.try(:call)
  end
end

Lines 2–12 should be self-explanatory: methods for setting the object’s status. The mark_failure method takes an exception object, which it stores in the model’s error field, and mark_successful clears said error.

Line 14 (the process method) is where things get interesting. Calling this method immediately marks the object “processing,” and then yields to the provided block. If the block executes without error, the object is marked “success.” If any2 exception is thrown, the object marked “failure” and the error message is logged. Either way, if a cleanup lambda is provided, we call it (courtesy of Ruby’s ensure keyword).

Step 4: Wrap it up

Now we can wrap our nasty, fail-prone reporting code in a process call for great justice.

class ReportGenerator
  attr_accessor :report

  def generate_report
    report.process -> { File.delete(file_path) } do
      # do some fail-prone work
    end
  end

  # ...
end

The benefits are almost too numerous to count: 1) no 500 pages, 2) meaningful feedback for users, and 3) super detailed diagnostic info for developers – better than something like Honeybadger, which doesn’t provide nearly the same level of context. (-> { File.delete(file_path) } is just a little bit of file cleanup that should happen regardless of outcome.)

* * *

I’ve always found it an exercise in futility to try to predict all the ways a system can fail when integrating with an external dependency. Being able to blanket rescue any exception and store it in a way that’s meaningful to users and developers has been hugely liberating and has contributed to a seriously robust platform. This technique may not be applicable in every case, but when it fits, it’s good.


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