User:EEvans (WMF)/Scratch/Standards for external services

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Request for comment (RFC)
Standards for external services
Component General
Creation date 2018-11
Author(s) Ian Marlier, Giuseppe Lavagetto
Document status accepted
See Phabricator.

This document is an attempt to formalize the output of the "Architecting Core: Standalone Services" session from the 2018 Wikimedia Technical Conference.


The following proposals aim to set architectural principles and standards for when, how and why to to extend MediaWiki via an external service for use in the WMF production environment.


Standalone services are applications that extended MediaWiki's functionality, but that are operationally distinct in some meaningful way. The mechanism of extension is not specified, beyond saying that it's necessarily inter-process as opposed to intra-process; queues, API calls and other types of RPC mechanisms, XHR from a client, are all valid examples, while shelling out from MediaWiki itself is not. It is important that the core business logic is implemented in the service, rather than within MediaWiki itself.

Selection Criteria: Deciding whether an external service is appropriate[edit]

The properties listed here are intended to be a guide as to whether a given feature can be provided externally to MediaWiki or not. They are intended to be necessary, but not sufficient. If a proposed feature has one or more properties that appear in the left column, but no properties that appear in the right column, then that feature could be implemented as a standalone service. If the proposed feature has one or more properties that appear in the right column, then a wide consensus must be reached before implementing it as a standalone service.

Properties that make a feature suitable for implementation as a standalone service Properties that make a feature unsuitable for implementation as a standalone service
State is independent - the functionality provided does not require view of MediaWiki state that is guaranteed to be current. Feature only works correctly with a consistent and current view of MediaWiki state.
3rd party library or service exists that can provide the needed functionality with minimal integration Feature requires direct access to the MediaWiki database, and cannot use an API to retrieve or update data.
A non-PHP language or framework exists that significantly simplifies implementation Requires features/functionality provided by other MediaWiki extensions that are implemented internally
Functionality gracefully degradates if the external service is unavailable Unavailability of the external service compromises the general availability of the site to the user (e.g. results in a MediaWiki fatal error)
The feature is independently useful, and is likely to have non-MediaWiki use cases The Feature involves directly parsing wikitext, or accessing MediaWiki i18n messages (also wikitext)
Functionality gracefully degrades if the external service is unavailable Unavailability of the external service compromises the general availability of the site to the user (e.g. results in a MediaWiki fatal error)

If any of the following are true, then the feature absolutely should be implemented as an external service, with appropriate architectural changes made elsewhere to eliminate disqualifying properties.

Properties that require that a service is provided externally to MediaWiki
Elevated security need: Due to data isolation or other operational requirements, a given feature cannot be provided in the same operational environment as MediaWiki itself.
Excessive or potentially unbounded resource needs: Image thumbnailing, video transcoding, and machine translation are all examples of features where unpredictable properties such as request rates and input size have a significant impact on the resources required, and based on factors that the operator can't control may result in resource contention and denial of service.
Long-running processes involved.
The feature in question is used to triage or fix MediaWiki in the case of failures
The application is going to be run in a separate environment from MediaWiki itself

Given MediaWiki is not just part of the Wikimedia production infrastructure, but also a software used by many third-parties, we can't just delegate some of its fundamental functions to an external service completely. Whenever an external service provides a functionality, we also need to ask ourselves if said functionality is fundamental or optional to MediaWiki. If the functionality replaced by the external service is fundamental, a fallback solution must be present within MediaWiki that substitutes what is being implemented in the service. As an example: for Wikimedia purposes, async processing for MediaWiki is implemented via a series of external services; for simple installations, a MySQL-backed version of the same mechanism exists and cannot be dropped from MediaWiki. What constitutes core functionality of MediaWiki and what does not will need to be further defined elsewhere, and is beyond the scope of this document.

Architectural Guidelines for external services[edit]

This document only deals with principles (e.g. an application needs to be observable and expose appropriate metrics), not with implementation guidelines. Practical implementation guidelines will be written elsewhere to detail how the principles enumerated in this document are to be applied in technical terms (e.g. the application must expose RED metrics from a /metrics endpoint in Prometheus format, with a precise naming convention). The reason to split the two parts is that while we do not expect the principles to change much over time, we do expect the implementation guidelines to change frequently as technologies evolve.

There are various aspects of the development and usage cycle of a new service, and several of those need to be standardized across the board in order to avoid complexity, and prevent our ecosystem from becoming unmaintainable. In general, adopting a non-monolithic architecture has its costs, and unless standards are maintained regarding how systems interoperate, and how they're developed, these costs could become prohibitive.

There are several aspects of the development of a service that need to be taken into account:

  • Development policies
  • Security/privacy requirements
  • Production deployment

In the next few sections we analyze the requirements a new service must fulfill in each of those categories.

Development policies[edit]

Everything we develop should be free, open to collaboration and useful in itself. So, a new service must:

  • Actually do something
  • Be created only if there is no well crafted, well maintained, architecturally compatible FLOSS software that provides comparable functionality that can be adopted and improved/modified if needed.
  • Avoid needlessly duplicating features or functionality provided in other services
  • Never engage in ad hoc replication of another application or service's data or state
  • Be licensed under an OSI-approved license
  • Provide a configuration mechanism that does not involve changing the distributed code
  • Use a language and tool-set that have been approved by TechCom

While some of our services will be only useful in the WMF context, in other cases the standalone service is intended to be distributed for general use. In that case, it must have the following properties:

  • Have a documented installation and un-installation process that conform to our implementation guidelines
  • Have a documented upgrade process that conforms to our implementation guidelines
  • Be versioned using semver
  • Indicate versions of MediaWiki with which it's compatible
  • Provide a mechanism by which support (community or otherwise) can be requested
  • Provide a mechanism by which patches can be proposed
  • Provide a mechanism by which public security advisories are issued

Security and privacy[edit]

All features implemented as standalone services must have the following properties:

  • Minimize data collection for any type of PII
  • Be compliant with the WMF privacy/data retention policies.
  • Implement privacy controls that are at least equivalent to those of any calling service. For example, if the privacy controls of the calling service specify that IP addresses will not be stored for more than 90 days, the external service may not store IP addresses for longer than that time.
  • Have a privacy policy and privacy practices that are compatible with the WMF/Wikimedia properties
  • Have passed a Security review
  • Have resources allocated so that a prompt response to any security incident is possible

Production deployment[edit]

If the standalone service is intended to be used in the Wikimedia production environment, it should comply with the guidelines above, and in addition must

  • Be deployable with standard WMF tooling (as specified in the implementation guidelines)
  • Have an owner, and a plan for ongoing maintenance. If the owner of a service is missing (because the team is disbanded/has a different focus), a new owner must be found via the code stewardship process
  • Have logging that conforms to the WMF standards - specified in the service implementation guidelines
  • Be able to collect and expose operational metrics according to the current WMF standards specified in the implementation guidelines
  • Have a runbook for operational purposes
  • Support a multi-datacenter active-active (or active-passive) deployment
  • Service Level Indicators must be defined for the service, and Service Level Objectives should be agreed upon. Failure to meet said service level objectives SHOULD result action to bring the service back into operational agreed upon Service Level Objectives. The Service Level Objectives can of course be reevaluated and changed, but preferably not as a result of a violation but rather an informed process
  • Have pinned / pinnable dependencies that don't need to be downloaded at runtime and/or from untrusted source
  • Have backups if the service stores any data
  • Have users, or a plan to acquire users

Service - Service interaction[edit]

Services will likely interact with each other; if that is the case, measures must be taken not to make the whole system dependent on the failure of a single component. Also, increased observability in the flow of requests is needed. So any new service that needs to be deployed in production should:

  • Degrade gracefully its functionality if it can't access another service. If that's not possible, maybe the new service should be logically tied to the other. An exception is explicitly made for the MediaWiki API, given quite a few services might depend on its availability to be useful.
  • Be able to perform requests to a specific hostname/IP address provided via configuration
  • Be able to use infrastructure middle-ware for inter service communication functionalities including, but not limited to, encryption and circuit-breaking. Alternatively, the service SHOULD implement those functionalities internally.
  • Add the appropriate tracing headers to the request, according to the WMF standards specified in the implementation guidelines
  • Log actions via the production logging facilities

Other considerations[edit]

Abstractions: A priori versus a posteriori[edit]

There are many good reasons to build a service abstraction. Creating narrower, or simpler interfaces, or to generalize in order to decouple from non-abstract systems, may be good reasons to consider an abstraction.  However, it is typically a poor use of time to create such abstractions in anticipation of future use-cases (“if you build it, [they] will come”). We seldom understand our problems well at such an early stage, and getting an abstraction wrong can have far reaching impact if consumers design toward an incorrect or inefficient model. Instead, we should practice Just In Time [Engineering], identifying opportunities to abstract when the problem is made clear, or when the economies of scale justify doing so.

Pre-generating page-derived data[edit]

There is some precedent for pre-generating materialized representations of pages on each new edit. This type of preemptive caching is potentially very expensive. It requires resources for the propagation of events, computation, and storage, for every edit, of every document, multiplied by the number of services that do this. Additionally, it opens us up to an entire class of coherency bugs that would not exist otherwise. This is done in anticipation of a subsequent read that may never happen, or that may happen at most once given that responses are still cached at the edge. In the past, this has been rationalized as necessary for performance, despite a lack of latency targets (there is seldom an answer for “How fast must it be?”).

That such preemptive caching is necessary in some circumstances should not be used as justification for applying it indiscriminately. Service-level objectives (SLOs) should always be established during the planning of new systems. Design proposals should take into account the performance expected of them, and employ optimizations in a measured manner.