8. Design Notes

This section describes some design decisions in the ThingFlow API that are or were under discussion.

Closed Issues

These issues have already been decided, and any recommended changes implemented in the ThingFlow API. The text for each issue still uses the future tense, but we provide the outcome of the decision at the end of each section.

Basic Terminology

The terminology has evolved twice, once from the original observer and observable terms used by Mirosoft’s RxPy to subscribers and publishers. Our underling communication model is really an internal publish/subscribe between the “things”. This was the terminology used in our AntEvents framework.

We still found that a bit confusing and changed to the current terminology of input things and output things. Rather than topics, we have ports, which are connected rather than subscribed to. We think this better reflects the dataflow programming style.

** Outcome**: Changed

Output Things, Sensors, and the Scheduler

Today, sensors are just a special kind of output thing. Depending on whether it is intended to be blocking or non-blocking, it implements _observe or observe_and_enqueue. The reasoning behind this was to make it impossible to schedule a blocking sensor on the main thread. Perhaps this is not so important. If we relaxed this restriction, we could move the dispatch logic to the scheduler or the the base OutputThing class.

This change would also allow a single output thing implementation to be used with most sensors. We could then build a separate common interface for sensors, perhaps modeled after the Adafruit Unified Sensor Driver (https://github.com/adafruit/Adafruit_Sensor).

Outcome: Changed

We created the sensor abstraction and the SensorAsOutputThing wrapper class to adapt any sensor to the output thing API. We left the original output thing API, as there are still cases (e.g. adapters) that do not fit into the sensor sampling model.

Open Issues

At the end of each issue, there is a line that indicates the current bias for a decision, either Keep as is or Change.


In the current system, the OutputThing.connect method returns a “disconnect” thunk that can be used to undo the connection. This is modeled after the subscribe method in Microsoft’s Rx framework. Does this unnecessarily complicate the design? Will real dataflows use this to change their structure dynamically? If we eventually implement some kind of de-virtualization, it would be difficult to support disconnecting. Also, it might be more convenient for connect to return either the connected object or the output thing, to allow for method chaining like we do for filters (or is that going to be too confusing?).

As an argument for keeping the disconnect functionality, we may want to change scheduled output things so that, if they have no connections, they are unscheduled (or we could make it an option). That would make it easy to stop a sensor after a certain number of calls by disconnecting from it.

Bias: Keep as is

Terminology: Reader/Writer vs. Source/Sink

We introduced the reader and writer terms to refer to output things that introduce event streams into the system and input things that consume event streams with no output, respectively. A thing that accepts messages from an external source is a output thing in our system and an thing that emits messages to an external distination is an input thing. That is really confusing!

Reader/writer is better, but it might still be confusion that a reader is injecting messages into an ThingFlow dataflow. Perhaps the terms source and sink would be more obvious. Is it worth the change?

Bias: Keep as is

The on_error Callback

Borrowing from Microsoft’s Rx framework, ThingFlow has three callbacks on each subscriber: on_next, on_completed, and on_error. The on_error callback is kind of strange: since it is defined to be called at most once, it is really only useful for fatal errors. A potentially intermittent sensor error would have to to be propagated in-band (or via another topic in ThingFlow). In that case, what is the value of an on_error callback over just throwing a fatal exception? ThingFlow does provide a FatalError exception class. Relying just on the on_error callbacks makes it too easy to accidently swallow a fatal error.

There are two reasons I can think of for on_error:

  1. Provide downstream components a chance to release resources. However, if we going to stop operation due to a fatal error, we would probably just want to call it for all active things in the system (e.g. an unrelated thing may need to save some internal state). We could let the system keep running, but that may lead to a zombie situation. It is probably better to fail fast and let some higher level component resolve the issue (e.g. via a process restart).
  2. If a sensor fails, we may want to just keep running and provide best guess data going forward in place of that sensor. The on_error callback gives us the opportunity to do that without impacting the downstream things. However, I am not sure how likely this use case is compared to the case where we have an intermittent error (e.g. a connection to a sensor node is lost, but we will keep retrying the connection).

In general, error handling needs more experience and thought.

Bias: Change, but not sure what to