Do you need a Model?

It’s common for graphical programs to work something like this:

  1. Pull data from persistent storage: database, web server and so on
  2. Tuck that data away in a “Model” object
  3. Display the data
  4. Receive updates from either the user interface or the persistent storage
  5. Hope that the screen or the storage also updates, respectively
  6. Goto 4

The role of “hope” in this scenario is played by something often called “Data Bindings.” The problem with this design is that it’s an obviously bad idea: by keeping a Model like this, you’ve created a cache and cache invalidation is known to be a hard problem.

I’ll assume you’re writing a webapp, because, who isn’t? I claim you don’t need any Model client-side at all. If you have a long memory, you might say that I’m just being ornery and yearning for a time when we didn’t need a megabyte of JavaScript to display a form with one field:

Google's homepageYou’ll say you need these Models and Bindings because modern.

You’d be partly right. This does make me ornery, but let’s step back and look at what might be the number one killer of program maintainability: mutable state. A graphical interface is nothing if not a big pile of mutable state and the job of its programmers is to wrangle the ways it mutates.

In a sense, every useful program needs to grapple with this problem. Programs that lack persistent data or ways to display it are pretty useless, in the way that a tree might fall but nobody knows whether it makes noise and most people don’t care.

I advocate that you scrap the client-side Model, but I don’t claim this will make your webapp easy to write. No matter what, you’re dealing with a pile of mutable state and that’s bound to be tricky.

Why make it trickier than necessary? You really do need widgets on the screen: checkboxes that can be checked, or not, spans that could say one thing, or another. Do you need a shadow copy of those things as well?

Now, not all state duplication is called a Model and not everything called a Model is state duplication. Elm, for example, takes the view that Model is the application state but avoids state duplication by virtue of being purely functional.

Most programs aren’t written in purely functional languages, so the Model is state duplication, but users don’t see Models. They see widgets and to them, the state of the widgets is the state of the data. In a programmer’s ivory tower, you might argue that the Model is the source of truth, but your arguments matter not at all to actual people.

So don’t fight it. The path to enlightenment lies in realizing that once you’ve rendered the data, it doesn’t matter anymore. Throw it away.

Wait, that might work for your Web 2.0 site and its DHTML, but I have a Web APP. It’s modern. It has a span over here and a checkbox over there and the span says ‘frobbing’ or ‘unfrobbing’ depending on whether the checkbox is checked.

Ok, but I’m not seeing how Models and magic Bindings are simpler than this:

checkbox.onchange =
  span.textContent = checkbox.checked ? 'frobbing' : 'unfrobbing'

Well, it’s not just this one span, this blink tag over here needs to appear if you’re not frobbing. With your plan, I need to add another line of code to handle that.

True, but you’d have to add something when backing it with Models and Bindings as well. It wouldn’t be less code, just different code and more indirection.

There are more ways frobbingness can change though. I don’t want to copy this logic in every place.

And well you should not, but you already have the tool to solve that problem: a function. Move the interface update logic to a function and call it anytime frobbingness changes.

I see what you’re saying, but I don’t like it. The span and the blink are in logically different components. I’ll end up with a bunch of functions that update both, but don’t sensibly belong to either.

That’s a very good point.

Partly, the appeal of the client-side Model is that it seems we ought to be able to bind all the widgets to the same object, giving us a kind of fan-in-fan-out approach to updating them. In principle, you’d have just one Frobber and you’d change its isFrobbing property, then all the dependent widgets would get notified. People have been trying to implement this concept since the invention of the computer and it’s gone by many names. Recently, the buzzword is “reactive” programming.

This idea can work well in some systems. Spreadsheets and style sheets are examples of very successful reactive programming models, for example. It works well in limited domains with declarative or purely functional languages.

In non-functional practice, the same data structures aren’t convenient for all widgets. Imagine that Frobbers are parts of Whatzits, but in one place you display all your Frobbers and in another you display the content of a select Whatzit. Your Models probably look something like this:

frobbers:
  - id: 1
    isFrobbing: true
  - id: 2
    isFrobbing: false

selectedWhatzit:
  frobbers:
    - id: 1
      isFrobbing: true

Now which copy of Frobber number 1 is the true Frobber? Ideally, you’ll make them point to the same object so it doesn’t matter. Your Binding magic may or may not be able to make sense of that arrangement and the temptation to duplicate data is strong. Models and Bindings just moved the concrete problem of what appears in widgets to the abstract problem of what goes where in the invisible Model.

With or without magic Models, as the application grows, you’ll need to put things in sensible places and call them in sensible ways. That is the whole job of user interface programming.

If you keep doing this for all the data and all the widgets in your app, you’ll notice you keep doing the same kind of tedious things over and over. This thing over here updates some data. Need to show it over there. Where’s the right place to put that code? Here, there, somewhere else? Decide, repeat.

Naturally, as programmers, we think we can automate away the repetition, but some complexity is fundamental.

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