Authentication, state and single-page apps in ClojureScript

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on a single-page app in ClojureScript, most recently using the recently-released, and impressive, re-frame project, which builds an FRPish unidirectional data flow on top of the ClojureScript react interface reagent. By a single page app, I mean one with almost no server-side code, which could theoretically be served from a static HTML page, and which only lives at a single URL (modifying the #fragment part of the URL to navigate between logical “pages” in the app, as is the vogue these days).

I’ve tried out a few different approaches to writing this app, including with Om and plain reagent, and re-frame seems to have just the right combination of simplicity and abstraction for my taste. With reagent I sometimes get the feeling I’ve had in backbone (JavaScript) projects, that there’s not really very much structure in the framework and I have to make a lot of stuff up on my own, which is fine but raises the question of why I’m using a framework at all. Om seems pretty neat, and definitely has a structure to it, but I’m not crazy about the ways it relies on async channels to communicate things between components. (In fairness, I’ve probably spent the least amount of time with Om, partly because the tutorials for it seem a little esoteric.)

At any rate, the app as it currently exists is pretty simple. There is a home page, from which the user is prompted to log into an OAuth service (in my case, foursquare). When the user hits the link, he or she will be redirected to foursquare to authorize my app, after which he or she will arrive back at my site with an authorization token in the URL (this is the “callback URL”, cf foursquare). I need the token in order to pass it along to foursquare for API requests I subsequently make to get the user’s check-in history and so forth.

With a full-stack application this would be pretty easy – my server-side code could look for the callback URL, and when it’s found it could grab the token, redirect the user to a known “thanks for logging in” page, and pass the token along to the user’s browser in a cookie, or embedded on the page, or though any number of other well-known server/browser mechanisms.

With a purely client-side app, however, the situation is trickier. In general, the user is expected to stay on a single web page the entire time he or she is using the app, without refreshing; application state sort of accumulates over time in the DOM and JavaScript object models on the page. But since the user needs to redirect to foursquare’s site in order to authenticate, my application now effectively has two entry-points: one when the user first navigates there, and one when the user returns from authentication. Indeed, since in the long term I want my app to authenticate against at least one more OAuth service, and probably several (spotify, twitter, etc), it will have an arbitrary number of entry points.

This complicates managing user state, since the user’s previous state (as reflected in the page’s object model) will be completely destroyed when he or she leaves the site for authentication. Upon the user’s return, the sum total of his or her state will essentially consist of the callback URL, including the authentication token. This is somewhat manageable with a single OAuth provider; when the user hits the callback URL, our client-side code can stash the token in the page’s object model somewhere and then use something like history.replaceState() to modify the URL back to the landing page. With more than one OAuth provider this approach is problematic, since the state will disappear when the user hits the second provider.

So we need a way to persist information between page refreshes. The two most obvious methods are cookies and HTML5 localStorage, and I will be using localStorage (or sessionStorage) because it is new and shiny. With that said, there are still two viable approaches I can see to this.

  1. User chooses to authenticate to foursquare, is redirected to foursquare, and then arrives back at the site with an empty app state and an auth token in the URL. The client-side code stashes the auth state in localStorage and uses replaceState() to navigate back to the home page.
  2. When the user hits the “log in” button, we open a popup. In the popup, the user is redirected to foursquare. When the user comes back to the popup page after authentication, the popup sets the token value in localStorage and closes itself. When localStorage is set, this will trigger a "storage" event in the parent window, which can then react by updating its state (to say “thanks for logging in” or the like).

There are a lot of things I like about the second approach. Because the original page persists while the popup is open, it can just trundle along as it had before, waiting for the storage event to fire; this simplifies state management in the parent window. However, it has a two considerable drawbacks:

Firstly, desktop browsers tend to block popups invoked from javascript these days, and honestly, thank god they do. There is probably a way to work around this, maybe by using an <a target="_blank"> tag or the like, but most of my experiments so far have triggered the popup blocker in my browser.

Secondly, popups kind of suck in mobile browsers. They work, more or less, but they don’t feel native to the mobile experience.

In passing, I’ll note that using an iframe might also be a technical solution to the two above problems, but I don’t really want to because (a) the user should see the address bar in an OAuth situation to validate that they’re not on a phishing site, and (b) ick, iframes.

So it seems like a straightforward redirect is the way to go. In my next installment, I’ll dig a little deeper into what this means for state management in the app, how that works with re-frame, and into client-side routing in ClojureScript generally.

Yet another language

In the interest in keeping this blog somewhat regularly filled with content, I should note that I’ve been working on an interesting new project at work in my spare time. It’s a little game and I’m writing the back-end in Clojure, using http-kit for its websockets capability. I’m trying to figure out the best way to shoehorn core.async into it – it seems like a natural fit for websockets.

I also gave a little introduction to Clojure and ClojureScript to a technical user group at my job; the slides are up on github (well, really the source to the slides in AsciiDoc, but there are build instructions on the site, or you can just view the deck as markdown on github).

It’s interesting to me how different the programming approaches of Clojure and Scala are, despite them sharing a great deal of aesthetic ideals (in particular, immutability and good interoperability with the JVM platform).

Three quick Scala plugs

I’m still thinking about the dependency-injection and Akka stuff and will have at least one more longish post on the subject, but I’ve recently become distracted by refactoring some of my old JavaScript code into ClojureScript and figuring out Clojure’s new core.async library (ultimately I hope to form all of these distractions into a ring instead of a straight line, at which time I will be the acme of productivity, but that’s another story). But before I get too deep into Clojure land I wanted to plug a few Scala-related things I’ve come across recently.

Firstly, Derek Wyatt’s book Akka Concurrency: Building reliable software in a multi-core world is excellent, covering a great many Akka topics in an enjoyable style. In particular, his chapter on testing seems profoundly relevant to the mock injection topics I’ve been thinking about, but I haven’t quite absorbed it yet. The whole thing is refreshingly up to date, too (which makes sense since it was only published a month or two ago), and it doesn’t pad out its length with a lot of “learn Scala in 30 days” remedial material. Anyways, I recommend it thoroughly.

Secondly, John Sullivan’s long post about the cake pattern is by far the best treatment I’ve seen of it online, and is required reading for anyone interested in dependency injection in Scala. (It’s been up for several months now but somehow I missed it until recently.) John has written a dependency-injection framework, congeal, which makes instant intuitive sense for me as someone coming from a Java / Spring background; unfortunately it depends on some macro stuff which won’t make it into Scala’s mainline, so it isn’t ready for prime time and will need to be rewritten down the road once Scala’s macros reach their next stable state. There’s a video from ScalaDays 2013 describing the framework.

And finally, following up on the subject of the cake pattern, Daniel Spiewak’s keynote from NEScala, “The Bakery from the Black Lagoon,” is an excellent talk which made me think about the cake pattern in a new way (as more of a compiler-enforced module system than as a form of dependency injection). His implementation of the cake pattern is also interestingly different from most examples I’ve seen online – in particular, he mostly eschews self-types, with the exception of needing one for a virtual class.

More on Akka and dependency injection

Just as a quick follow-up to my previous post, I thought I’d note that the official Akka blog has published a post regarding Akka and dependency injection (kind of weirdly expressed as a mini white paper, as though the internet at large had issued an RFP for an actor-based concurrency system with dependency injection).

While, as I mentioned before, I should emphasize that I’m by no means an expert in Akka or actor best practices, I’m not convinced that this document addresses my particular concerns with the intersection of Akka and dependency injection. I’m still thinking about a larger post breaking down the approaches to this topic that I’ve seen online, but this one sort of falls into the “mock stuff outside of Akka” camp.

The document has two main points: firstly, if you have an existing dependency-injected service, you can pass along a factory which knows where to find it to the Props constructor of an actor, and there’s a way to attach a DI application context to an ActorSystem to support this, in what seems like a pretty convenient way. Secondly, if you need to expose an interface from actors to an existing system based on a DI framework, you can include an ActorSystem singleton in your DI object graph, and then expose a sort of regular-object facade over it which finds specific actors and returns either ActorRefs or futures resulting from sending ask messages to them.

That’s all well and good, but it seems more like a way to integrate between Akka and an existing synchronous DI-based system than anything that makes dependency injection useful or usable inside a purely Akka-based system. (In particular, the document’s unfortunate final section seems to be aimed squarely at recalcitrant middle managers who need to be convinced that a move to Akka will not result in a whole bunch of now-legacy code needing to be tossed out.) While I’m not incredibly interested in this topic myself, I thought Akka already had a talking point for this integration problem in the form of “typed actors“.

The bit that I still haven’t seen addressed is that if Akka likes actors to explicitly manage the lifecycles of other actors they supervise, there doesn’t seem to be any room for the inversion of control that is the hallmark of dependency injection frameworks in the first place. To put it in more concrete terms, if I’m running a partial integration test of my simple notification service and I want it to have a real database actor and mock REST web service actors, how can I tell the actor that supervises all the HTTP worker actors to create mock actors instead of live ones?

I have a half-formed idea of how this could work that involves having a sort of service locator / factory actor which is responsible for actor instantiation, but the idea in my head doesn’t particularly jibe with Akka’s supervision hierarchy, which as far as I can tell is coupled very tightly to actor instantiation.

Testing Akka: actors, dependency injection and mocks

I’ve been digging into what the expected way is to test my small Akka system, as described in my previous post on the subject. I think my problem partially arises from being unclear as to the proper mode of dependency injection in Akka. In other words, I don’t know what the proper way is for my Root actor to obtain a reference to its Database and HTTP sub-actors. Does it create them itself? Look them up from a service locator? And what if I need to inject mock actors into the system in some parts in order to test it?

Various bits of Akka documentation suggest different approaches to wiring actors together; for instance, this page in the official docs suggests either passing dependent actors as constructor arguments, creating them in a preStart() method, or passing them to their referring actors in a message and using become() to switch between initialization states. This example from the testkit docs takes the latter approach, but I can’t say I like the result:

class MyDoubleEcho extends Actor {
  var dest1: ActorRef = _
  var dest2: ActorRef = _
  def receive = {
    case (d1: ActorRef, d2: ActorRef) =&gt;
      dest1 = d1
      dest2 = d2
    case x =&gt;
      dest1 ! x
      dest2 ! x
/* ... */

val probe1 = TestProbe()
val probe2 = TestProbe()
val actor = system.actorOf(Props[MyDoubleEcho])
actor ! (probe1.ref, probe2.ref)
actor ! "hello"
probe1.expectMsg(500 millis, "hello")
probe2.expectMsg(500 millis, "hello")

This does seem to work, but it seems to me that it pollutes the actor with a bunch of test-related code that probably doesn’t belong in production (by which I mean the receive pattern which takes the two dest parameters).

I have found an interesting take on this question in this presentation by Roland Kuhn, introducing akka-testkit from Scala Days 2012—the entire presentation is worth watching, but the part I’m interested in starts at around 22:05 or so.  After a not terribly helpful note about how if you have difficulty injecting mocks into your code, then there is probably something wrong with your design (there may be something to that, but it’s not all that helpful to hear when you’re looking for a solution for injection), Mr. Kuhn mentions a third option for users of the (then-new) Akka 2.0: actors can use actor path naming to look up their dependent actors; the test ActorSystem can then supplant the real implementations with mocks at the same locations.

Of course, all of this sort of assumes that you have a way of separating out actor creation and lifecycle control from dependency injection itself. A lot of the other Akka literature I’ve read seems to posit the integrated lifecycle management bits of Akka as a feature, right down to the “Let It Crash” maxim on the public Akka blog, and all of these features seem to be in direct opposition to the inversion of control notions that most dependency injection systems are founded on. In the last part of Mr. Kuhn’s talk above, he suggests breaking up actor models into somewhat discrete trees, which then use service locators or similar things to find one another; this might be something I can look into.

There was also a talk at this year’s Scala Days about integrating Spring and Akka, which might have some merit for this purpose, and I recently ran across this promising post which describes an approach to autowiring actors with Spring and Akka 2.2 (in Java). Overall, though, this doesn’t seem to be a problem with a clear solution.

Adventures in Akka

My current technical interest, mercurial as ever, is in Akka. My present employer is mostly a java shop, but they are open-minded and I have a notion to prototype out a rewrite of a simple system there into Akka and Scala.  The system is probably one of the simpler ones we have, known as the “notification service.” It periodically checks for new rows in a particular database table.  If it finds any, it fires off a JSON-formatted request to a REST web service, the “delivery service”; if it gets a successful response from this service it will mark the message as delivered in the database. There are a few wrinkles related to locking, and there are actually a few different web services involved, but that’s pretty much the basics. Something possessed me to make a diagram of the existing flow: 



The purpose of this system is to deliver notifications to particular users, with the idea being that any subsystem which needs to send a notification to someone can put the right data in the database, where this system will pick up up and hand it off to an existing REST service which winds up doing most of the heavy lifting.  The existing service is implemented in Java and Spring, using Quartz as a cron job to kick off a polling method once every 30 minutes or so (we don’t need this service to run particularly swiftly).

It’s not really hard to see how this would translate into a message-based actor model in Scala.  You’d probably have one root actor coordinating things.  You’d have an actor talking to the database, maybe with a supervisor to restart it as needed, and you’d have another actor to handle the HTTP client calls.  Most likely the client actor would spawn off a new actor per individual row of data, and have each of these worker actors make a single HTTP request. On a success, the worker would send a message back to the database actor to update the database row as “completed”; on a failure the worker might just log an error and die.

A rough sketch of that might look like this (pardon my sub-par OmniGraffle skills):


Note that the single-line arrows here represent the actor supervision hierarchy, not message-passing.  I’m also not positive that the “DB Worker” actor needs to exist, versus just having the “Database” actor do the work, but it simplifies things to do it this way and I suppose there might be more than one of those (more on this later).

I’m been struggling a bit to come up with a good way to represent message passing in a diagram, but I think I’ve got the gist of the design in this one:


Everything is started by Tick messages which are sent to the root object every 5 seconds via Akka’s scheduler interface (this would be more like 15-30 minutes in production).  This causes the root actor to pass a PollDatabase message to the Database actor; the message includes a reference to the HTTP Client actor.  For each notification row the Database actor finds in the database, it sends a Notify message to the HttpClient actor.  This actor composes a MakeRequest message to one of a pool of Worker actors, including the data from the database and a reference to the Database actor.  The Worker performs the HTTP request; if it is successful it sends a RequestSucceeded message to the Database actor, which will ask a DB Worker thread to update the database to mark the relevant row as successfully delivered.  If the Worker gets an error, it sends a RequestFailed message to the HTTP Client actor, which at this point will just log the error and continue on.

I will have more to say about this, but this post is already decently long, so maybe I’ll leave this here so I can refer back to it later. There are a few things I’m struggling with:

  • Despite having read a lot of articles and blog posts on the subject, it’s not obvious to me what the correct way to instantiate and connect these actors is (constructor arguments, preStart() methods, dependency injection, etc).
  • Related to the above, it’s not clear to me how to test this system without mixing up test code and business logic.  In particular I’d like to replace the nodes in yellow above with mock objects and verify that the system still works properly.
  • I would like to have a reasonable interface to Oracle, without needing to include Spring or something in the project. The Typesafe, Inc solution is to use Slick, but I don’t have a burning desire to sell my co-workers on closed-source, commercial software in addition to a new language and framework. 

I’ll have more to say about all this in the days to come.


It’s been a busy several weeks for me, mostly in my work-related universe.  I haven’t been completely disregarding the public sphere, though, and managed to get a CBR / CBZ utility script working, to wit cbfix.  Currently it only does one thing, but having the scaffolding around to open up CBR / CBZ files, mess with them, and replace them presents a lot of possibilities. In the meantime I still have a bunch of CoffeeScript and Scala stuff simmering on the back burner.

Well, that took a while

It’s been a minute since my last update, during which time I’ve learnt a great deal about node.js as well as the whole AMD / CommonJS mess mentioned in my last post. Without drowning in detail, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve made the switch to CoffeeScript for a good deal of my Javascript code, mostly because I was worried about wearing out the keys on my keyboard which comprise the phrase function(){}. I rather enjoy CoffeeScript’s cleaned-up syntax, at least for now, and I like how it hews to Javascript’s essential character while smoothing out its rougher bits. I’ve still got plenty of reservations about it, and it sometimes errs a bit too far on the loosey-goosey side of the syntax fence for my taste, but anything that will save me from the ongoing insults to programming-language aesthetics coming out of the Javascript world has my sincere gratitude. (The latest of these I’ve had to endure is the comma-first style, which is just one of the awful emergent results from the most-used data transport format of our day, the JSON spec, needing to fit into three quarters of a page of EBNF for some reason. Why complicate it with an optional comma at the end, or optional quotes around key values? But that’s a rant for another day.)

Meanwhile I also went down a fairly long rabbit hole in learning about electronics – this started with getting a Raspberry Pi and then got a little more low-level with some Ardiuno stuff, and by now I’ve got a bunch of nascent electronics projects in the offing, mostly concerning various robots. The Pi in particular has a robust Python infrastructure, and I have a pretty good imaging-related project in mind, but in the course of writing the software for it I decided that this would be a good opportunity to experiment with node.js development, and so I’ve since ported the stuff I’d written from Python to CoffeeScript and node.js.

More is surely to come about all that, and as usual I ought to have some code available on github before too long. In the course of all this I’ve also learned a great deal more about the server-side javascript ecosystem, and I think I should actually be ready to get the weighted-probability list library into much better shape.

Initial Jasmine impressions

Ok, I must confess that midway into my half-baked project of comparing Javascript testing frameworks, I’m getting a little bored with the entire project. Largely this is due to the fact that of the three major BDD-oriented frameworks I’ve seen so far, the syntax and semantics are roughly the same. Really the only major difference I’ve seen so far is that Mocha warns me about global namespace pollution, and the other frameworks do not.

As a point of reference, I was able to take the nascent set of tests I’d come up with for BusterJS and port them over virtually unchanged to Jasmine, with a few simple syntax changes relating to the setup / teardown methods. I’ll probably finish out the tests in one framework or the other and then move on to more interesting things, like figuring out the whole module mess that seems to be the current state of the art.

BusterJS vs Chai/Mocha

BusterJS, a node.js-oriented test framework, is notable for having a lot of ways to run tests, including one where it fires up an HTTP server that your browser connects to, as well as a way, seemingly, to attach several browsers to a single running test harness. Having opted against exploring the whole node.js / browser module dichotomy up until now, I skipped all of that stuff and went straight to the instructions for just running the thing in a browser. (I should note in passing that the test-runner Mocha, covered earlier, also has a lot of non-browser-focussed running modes which I didn’t cover, among which the most intriguing is the Nyan Runner).

Anyways, the browser stuff was quite easy to set up, and I returned my focus to writing tests in the BusterJS idiom.  As it turned out, there wasn’t all that much different about it.  BusterJS comes with a BDD-oriented test mode which functions almost exactly like Mocha’s does, and it also sports a BDD-flavored assertion style which is very similar, if a bit less tricksy in its syntax.

To illustrate, here’s a snippet of the Mocha/Chai tests:

describe('WeightedList', function() {

  describe('Constructor', function() {

    it('should succeed with no arguments', function() {
      expect(new WeightedList());

    it('should throw errors on bad inputs', function() {
      var badConstructor = function() {
        return new WeightedList( {'wrong': 'field names'} );

And here is their BusterJS equivalent:

var spec = describe("Weighted Lists", function() {

  describe('Constructor', function() {

    it('should succeed with no arguments', function() {
      expect(new WeightedList()).toBeDefined();

    it('should throw errors on bad inputs', function() {
      var badConstructor = function() {
        return new WeightedList( {'wrong': 'field names'} );


As you can see, the broad strokes are virtually identical. The main difference I’ve noticed is that Chai uses a little more trickery to get its assertions into a quasi-DSL style, with statements like result.should.have.length(1); and new WeightedList(); as opposed to BusterJS’s more conventional expect(result.length).toEqual(1); and expect(new WeightedList()).toBeDefined();.  While I appreciate the vigor with which the Chai folks were able to bend Javascript’s syntax to their will, I actually find the more conventional BusterJS syntax to be a little easier to read, since it looks basically like I expect Javascript to look.

Overall, these assertion frameworks both seem adequate for testing Javascript code. I’m really not thrilled about the way one tests code for exceptions in either language, where it’s necessary to pass in a function which is expected to throw an error, but I can’t really think of a better way to do it in Javascript. I’m going to continue porting the tests over to BusterJS, but I don’t know that I’ll have all that much more that’s interesting to say about it. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty, the details can be found by contrasting the Chai and BusterJS assertion documentation.

I should probably also note in passing that the particular uses I’m putting the testing frameworks through are a little unusual. Most people writing tests won’t be testing a pure-javascript library with no user-interface whatsoever, and a lot of the appeal of the various frameworks seems to be the integration they offer with various other pieces of the Javascript ecosystem.

With that in mind, my next task is to finally figure out what the whole Javascript module system is all about, and likewise to figure out how I can package the library I’ve got into something usable in a node.js context. Meanwhile, based on a preliminary reading of the AMD vs CommonJS pedagogy in the blogosphere, my idea of just including the library code on a web page via a <script type="text/javascript" src="js-weighted-list.js"/> tag is laughably naive, and I’ll need to add a compilation step in there, because what is Javascript if not an Ada-style B&D language which benefits from the intense scrutiny of static program analysis?

In any event, adding a compilation step will probably give me a ready excuse to jump over to CoffeeScript.


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