Software development tools are in a state of flux. There are two competing directions towards which static analysis tools—like linters and type checkers—are heading.

The traditional direction is to operate in a batch model. Fire up, perform analysis, report results, and die. This is a proven method. Batch-oriented software has been around for ages, and it works really well if the data you’re working with isn’t large.

The new direction is an online model: an analysis tool starts, calculates its data, reports results, and then stays on, monitoring for changes. When changes occur, the program analyzes the changes, and recomputes the effects. This execution model is efficient: incremental updates are easier to calculate than starting from scratch. This approach is arguably more modern1, since we’re leveraging the full potential of a client-server model.

The obvious caveat is such a process will eat up memory. These days this is becoming less and less of a problem, since a gigabyte of desktop-quality DDR3 memory costs about US$5.

However, if the workload is large, say 100k-1M lines, it actually makes more sense to compute an initial “model” of the system, and then incrementally update the model when the system changes.

My line of reasoning was inspired by this comment on Hacker News:

Over and over I see reports of iteration speed being critical to real-world projects, and that’s certainly my experience.

But it’s something I rarely see featured in tool design. So many of our tools are still batch oriented: they start from scratch, read everything, process everything, and then exit. That made sense in an era where RAM and CPU were expensive. But now that they’re cheap, I want tools that I start when I arrive in the morning and kill when I go home. In between, they should work hard to make my life easy.

If I’m going to use a type checker, I want it to load the AST once, continuously monitor for changes, and be optimized for incremental changes. Ditto compilers, syntax checkers, linters, test runners, debugging tools. Everything that matters to me in my core feedback loop of writing a bit of code and seeing that it works.

For 4% of my annual salary, I can get a machine with 128GB of RAM and 8 3.1 GHz cores. Please god somebody build tools that take advantage of that.

Arguably, the batch mode made sense in the past, when resources weren’t as plentiful as they are now. Now, we can afford a type checker that sits in the background, eating up half a gigabyte memory, and most of us won’t even blink at that, as long as it helps us write better code—and runs quickly.

To this end, one could call such software start-once software2, which

  1. Is launched once, via some mechanism and given a target, e.g. a codebase, to monitor for changes
  2. Computes an initial model, the analysis, of the target
  3. Whenever changes occur it instantly recomputes a new model and informs the user of the effects of the changes.

In this case, the target could be a collection of source files (a “project”), the model the compilation errors present in the source files, and the relevance is a way of communicating those errors to the user.

The basic idea can be taken from Facebook’s Flow which does exactly this when you launch it initially, it boots up a server that keeps the state of the AST in memory. The server runs the analysis and the client reports the results. There’s an initial up-front cost to all of this from starting the server but subsequent calls are fast.

There are some pseudo-implementations of this paradigm: you can have a batch process that is run every time the target changes, and then do effectively what is done in step three above. This is kind of what I described above, but the difference is that any model is lost inbetween batch runs.

In fact, file system notification based batch processes remind3 me of the the Chinese room experiment: such tools don’t really have an understanding of the model that is persistent, but due to a simultaneously crude and brilliant approach, we get the subtle impression that such a persistent, evolving understanding actually exists.

In start-once software, the goal is to always keep the model in working memory and update it incrementally. Such a program can react quickly to massive codebase changes. Naturally, speed comes at the cost of memory, but as mentioned in the quote, if it makes development faster, I think this is a perfectly justifiable cost.

This line of thinking doesn’t apply only to static analysis tools. It can work with any streaming data. Memory is cheap, but speed always isn’t. A good example is a log processor that computes the state of some system based on the content of some logs. A start-once processor would continuously monitor the log inputs and update its model of the system. If it has to churn through a lot of logs at the start, it may have an initial delay but because the model is persistent, any changes to the model can be computed quickly.

Storing the model can be done in two ways. If RAM becomes a limitation (will it?), a fast database should be used. AFter all, databases solely exist because of the prohibitively high cost of ephemeral memory compared to the cost of non-volatile memory. Traditionally!

Previously, because of the cost of ephemeral memory, we had to invent a cheaper form of storage. Now that memory is cheap, this isn’t so much of a threat anymore.

When it comes to fault-tolerance, precautions can be taken. The model could be stored as a persistent image—yes, raw memory or an accurate representation thereof, or a database. Once the program recovers, it restores the model immediately, reducing the boot time.

This model also be extended to web servers: instead of recompiling everything at every request (hello PHP), one could compile once and then compile changes incrementally. This idea isn’t new: hot swapping has been around for decades, and its advantages are obvious. Heavy-duty services that take a while to reload and restore benefit massively of hot swapping. This is routine in the JVM, Erlang and Lisp worlds.

Instead of shutting down your engine to upgrade it, you simply replace the parts to be upgraded with new ones.

Extending this to static analysis tools isn’t a massive step. If the philosophy works with server programs I see no reason why it couldn’t work with data analysis tools. At the cost of ephemeral resources like memory, I want static analysis tools that can handle large codebases and compute any change big or small in a fraction of a section.

I hope more tools will adopt this model. We certainly do have the resources now.

Addendum: examples of start-once static analysis tools

Flow

A static analysis tool for JavaScript by Facebook, written in OCaml. Upon launch, it starts a server that runs initial analysis and monitors for changes.

Hack

A PHP-inspired gradually typed programming language for the HHVM virtual machine. It runs a type checker in the background in the same way as Flow does. Also in OCaml!

gocode

Auto-completion service for Go. It uses a client-server model where completion requests are sent to the completion server via a JSON-based RPC. Conversely, every other Go-related static analysis tool (there are lots) is using the batch approach. That’s fine, since Go seems to be vehemently opposed to anything modern and advanced, and sometimes justifiably so. In this regard Gocode is a rare gem among the Go tooling ecosystem.

  1. Yes, I know REPLs have been around since the eighties, but this isn’t exactly the same thing. 

  2. Facebook uses the term “online” when describing Flow 

  3. They aren’t exactly the same thing. Since I’m talking about computer programs performing some kind of data analysis, and mentioning the Chinese room experiment, I realize that I’m opening a massive can of worms; the comparison is a mere simile here. The users of continuous (i.e. inotify-based) batch analysis tools are on the observing end of the Chinese room experiment. 



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