Modern Ruby Serializers

Long time no see! This time I would like to write about a library I was working about a couple years ago, a serializers library in Ruby. I have actually finished it about a year ago and I always wanted to create this blog post but last year has been super busy for me so never got the chance to present it properly :)

But first I would like to talk about serializers in Ruby from a historical perspective :)

Ruby serializers in 2013-2014

Back in 2014, when I started working with APIs, go-to library for serializing Ruby classes was ActiveModelSerializers, the newly published 0.9.x version. Back then, with this awesome library we were building basic GraphQL-like structures, before GraphQL was even announced! It was a joy working with a such powerful tool where the client could specify which fields it needs from a specific resource but also which relations. You could inject exactly what you needed when you were actually rendering the serializer which meant that you could take a union of client’s desired fields/associations, the default fields/associations (if client’s input was empty), and what client was allowed to access. The result was a super flexible API.

Apart from AMS, there was Oat a pretty nice little library which supported out of the box HAL, Siren and JSON:API, and jbuilder which for some reason felt like Godzilla to me at that point, but to be honest it’s a completely proper way of building hypermedia APIs in Ruby since you can do a lot of cool stuff with caching. However the catch is that you can’t create reusable adapters, basically it’s like Rails views, everything needs to be implemented from scratch.

Ruby serializers in 2015-2016

Going forward, in 2015, the AMS rewrite had already begun since 2014 for the 0.10.x version. For various reasons, in the company I was working at that time, it was decided to go with the 0.10.x and of course we completely regretted it. At that point it was 0.10.RC4 that we were using, just 1 RC release before the 0.10.0. Now you can tell me, “of course what do you expect? You were using an RC version” and you might be right. Only that the frustration didn’t come from things that weren’t polished 100%. I would be fine with that and I was eager to help out. The frustration came from the fact that the architecture was a completely different beast from 0.9 and 0.8 versions, everything were different, code and (the sparse) documentation. And I am saying this because I did try to help out sending pull requests, and the more I was working with the code, the more frustrated I got.

Here are some things that come to my mind:

  • both 0.8/0.9 and 0.10.x are using the same repo, although they share completely different API/code, making things extremely confusing from a API developer perspective, but also very difficult to manage as well from a contributor’s perspective
  • super complex overall architecture
  • the gem made JSON:API as first citizen. That’s inflexible to build adapters for different specs and has affected pretty much everything in the code. The previous versions were using the AMS API style (mostly json with some very basic patterns). 0.10.x version also supported that style but the code for that was like a completely different branch inside the code (not sure if it’s still like that but I guess it is). I understand that JSON:API is a quite popular spec, but tight the whole generic library to that spec is a bad design, I think.
  • too many dependencies (requires ActiveSupport..)
  • tightly coupled to ActiveRecord (at least at that time, not sure if now has changed..)
  • caching was implemented in the same library. I really thing that’s a completely different concern..
  • some parts did not match the Ruby coding style (like include: ‘a,string,of,resources’, default_includes ‘**’)
  • maintainers were reluctant to merge pull requests, because even in the Github issues was an extreme confusion of what’s implemented, what’s missing, what bugs exists etc

In one word it was a failure. Like, imagine the most popular Serializers gem in Ruby, Rails team was pushing them to finish in-time before the release of Rails 5 so they can include it in the same release (although completely different gem, I guess they would make a note about it), maintainers were struggling to make this happen and of course it didn’t.

Now I should also pause a bit and say that I have nothing against the commiters/maintainers. They definitely did their best, and the problem wasn’t lying there. It’s just that sometimes Open Source projects fail. And in my experience they fail, when there isn’t a very tight core team that has the same vision, coding style and are gatekeepers in pull requests, until the library has proved itself. Then, any new pull request will probably respect the existing code and won’t challenge it. Merging code will be much easier, at that point.

Instead with AMS, different people started the rework, different people took over and did their best to finish it, and for the whole time, various people were sending pull requests for various features and bugs, of course to help out, but what happened was a very complex architecture with no clear design and vision. Actually it would be a great idea to take some interviews by the project contributors at that time. I think they will have some insights to contribute regarding to what happened :)

During my frustration with AMS I always wondered: how difficult can it be to build a feature-complete Ruby Serializers ? Well, it turned out to be a bit more complex than I initially thought. Way more complex :)

Ruby serializers in 2017-2018

I guess I wasn’t the one who was a bit frustrated with AMS. beauby, an AMS core member went off and created a JSON:API specific serializers gem, the jsonapi-rb. It follows spec pretty well and should be fine using it. It’s also dependency free.

On the other hand, a year later (2018) Netflix came over and published their own JSON:API serializers gem which is extremely fast to be honest. Like SUPER FAST. Unfortunately it requires ActiveSupport as a dependency (not sure why, earlier releases didn’t) and that could be a bummer for some applications. Also it might not be as flexible as AMS or jsonapi-rb (although latest releases have closed the gap A LOT), but in my experience it’s flexible enough that you will almost never need to look for something else.

Ruby serializers today

Today, if someone asked me which Serializers gem should I use, I would tell him/her go for the fast_jsonapi gem. It’s super fast, it supports a quite popular API spec and you must have a really good reason to not use it.

Personally, I am a bit against of having links inside the response, treating the client as plain stupid. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like JSON:API. I think it’s just too verbose. (The other reason is the naming: they picked up the 2 most popular words regarding APIs, JSON and API, glued them together and made the name, feels so much cheating..) I like to load off some work to the client using introspective methods. I have talked about it some time ago. But if anyone came and asked me what I would suggest for a brand new API, my answer would be pretty straightforward: JSON:API, unless you have good reasons not to.

It’s the more experienced API designers that might want to implement something more versatile and more advanced, tailored to a specific use case. Or might want to experiment a bit. For instance, another cool API spec that’s in the same philosophy as JSON:API is Ion. Not as popular as JSON:API but worth checking it out! Problem is that when you need to implement something different from JSON:API, in Ruby you don’t really have much options. Well you have, it’s AMS but it will be pain in the ass to create a custom serializer from that one. And it will be painstakingly slow. And you can’t have more advanced concepts, like forms, relations on collections etc. Or you could use jbuilder, but the problem with jbuilder is that it can’t have the notion of adapters, hence you always need to build the final result from scratch. Not fun.

SimpleAMS: Modern Ruby Serializers

When I started working on the prototype of SimpleAMS, I set a couple of goals.

  • I wanted the library to be super simple, easy to use with injectable API and clean code. Have you seen pundit? I want a pundit for serializing.
  • One of the things that I sometimes don’t like in Ruby coding style, is the level of assumptions that the code makes on behalf of you. It had been a quite common pattern in Ruby/Rails that lead to many confusion of what exactly the API is while at the same time such patterns reduce the flexibility. The code is trying to act smart, but the drawbacks of such smartness overweight the gains. I feel some basic assumptions which can be overridden at anytime is the ideal. Embracing clean, explicit code is what I want, so that you can understand what’s happening instantly.
  • I wanted to create a generic abstraction as a first class citizen. From there you should be able to implement any serializer needed, but that abstraction should be powerful enough to cover even the most extreme corner cases. After all, it’s tough to beat fast_jsonapi, that’s shouldn’t be my goal ;)
  • I wanted super clean code, no smarty complex meta thingies inside the code. I also wanted expected behavior on the internals and how it works when someone started looking in the codebase. Of course except the DSL part, which uses some advanced Ruby metaprogramming concepts, but that’s necessary if we want it to work with just an include.
  • Much faster than AMS, it’s well known that AMS is quite slow so that should be easy :)

The API

Before starting on any new project, I like to put my imagination and come up with a useful API and use cases. Being in god mode, and leaving all the constraints on the side, you can come up with some really cool APIs.

DSL based API

So how would you use a serializers library in Ruby? I want to avoid any inheritance in order to use SimpleAMS, because it puts many restrictions (given that you can inherit only from 1 class in Ruby). It’s better to include a regular module and let it do all the necessary work needed using Ruby’s hooks (which is a lot of work). In SimpleAMS, the DSL is very expressive, similar to the DSLs of the other gems:

class UserSerializer
  include SimpleAMS::DSL

  adapter SimpleAMS::Adapters::JSONAPI

  attributes :id, :name, :email, :created_at, :role

  type :user
  collection :users

  has_many :microposts
end

Some notes:

  • the adapter takes a class, which means, you can inject your custom adapter (which might inherit from JSON:API default adapter).
  • SimpleAMS is dependency-free, that’s why you also need to specify the name of the collection (which is what collection :users does). This is needed, unless we want to bring in an inflector library (like ActiveSupport), but I really don’t see the point of bringing yet another dependency, especially a dependency that is as large as ActiveSupport.

That’s a simple example but SimpleAMS DSL boils down to the following patterns:

value-hashmap type of directives

These are directives like adapter. They take a value, and optionally a hashmap, which are options to be passed down straight to the adapter, hence they are adapter specific. For instance:

adapter SimpleAMS::Adapters::JSONAPI, {root: false}

here the root option is passed down to the adapter specified, and is specific to the adapter. Such options are adapter, type and primary_id.

Of course, since we are talking about Ruby here, it would be a huge restriction to not allow dynamic value/hashmap combination. Basically any such directive can accept a lambda (generally anything that responds to call) and should return an array where the first part is the value and the second part is the options. There is an argument that is passed down to the function/lambda, and that’s the actual resource. It would be pointless however to change the adapter when trying to render a collection of resources (that’s the definition of undefined behavior) so for that specific directive the lambda will fail. But for primary_id or more importantly type, that’s a life saver because it’s the only way to render polymorphic associations:

type ->(obj){ obj.class.to_s.downcase }

As I said previously value-hashmap directives are adapter, type and primary_id.

name-value-hashmap type of directives

These are similar to the above, only that they also have an actual value, which is converted to a representation through the adapter.

For instance, think about a links. According to RFC 8288, a link has

  • a link context,
  • a link relation type,
  • a link target, and
  • optionally, target attributes

Now, if we wanted to translate that to our serializers, a link could look like:

link :feed, '/api/v1/me/feed', {style: :compact}

Here obviously the link context is the serializer itself, the link relation is the feed, and the value is /api/v1/me/feed. Now you can say, feed should be the name of the link which is different from the relation type. The relation type could be microposts. And actually, that’s the case for JSONAPI v1.1. In that case, the feed should be treated barely as a name (whatever that means) and relation type will be put inside the link options like:

link :feed, '/api/v1/me/feed', {rel: :microposts, style: :compact}

SimpleAMS has various such options like: link, meta, form, and the more abstract generic, where all the rest inherit from and is intended to be used for adapter-specific scenarios or things we haven’t figured out yet in APIs.

And I believe that that’s the true power of libraries: don’t presume anything, sure give some facilitators, but in the end, let the developer decide how to build upon your library. Because there will be use cases that you haven’t even thought and restricting those would be a bad design.

fields directive

That’s the usual attributes directive

attributes :id, :name, :email, :created_at, :role

I have kept attributes for historical reasons, however using fields is also valid, it’s just an alias after all:

fields :id, :name, :email, :created_at, :role

Of course, any field can be overridden by defining a method of the same name inside the serializer. In there, you can have access to a method called object which holds the actual resource to be serialized:

def name
  "#{object.first_name} #{object.last_name}"
end
Relations (has_many/has_one/belongs_to)

These directives allow us to append relations in a resource. has_one is just an alias of belongs_to since there is no real difference in APIs.

has_many :microposts

Again, it can be overridden by defining a method of the same name:

def microposts
  Post.where(user_id: object.id).order(:created_at, :desc).limit(10)
end

Relations are a bit more complex actually. Specifically, what is microposts, the symbol ? Is it the relation name? Is it the relation type? And how can you specify that you want specific attributes for that relation.

Turns out, if you think about it, that relations is just a recursive thingie. Let me explain myself: behind the scenes, the relation above tries to render the method result using a serializer called MicropostsSerializer. If such serializer doesn’t exist it will fail throwing an error. Let’s say that you have your own serializer that looks like that:

class MicropostsSerializer
  fields :id, :content, :created_at, :updated_at

  type :micropost
  collection :microposts
end

And here starts the interesting part: you are able to override any directive defined in the serializer to acquire a subset but never a superset. For instance, if you want to show only the content, you could do the following:

has_many :microposts, serializer: MicropostsSerializer, fields: [:content]

but then, sometimes, an annoying spec might define parts of a relation in the main body, while parts of the relation somewhere else. For instance, JSON:API does that by having some links in the main body and the rest in the included section. That’s also possible if you pass a block in the relation directive:

has_many :microposts, serializer: MicropostsSerializer, fields: [:content] do
  #these goes to a class named `Embedded`, attached to the relation
  link :self, ->(obj){ "/api/v1/users/#{obj.id}/relationships/microposts" }
  link :related, ->(obj){ ["/api/v1/users/1", rel: :user] }
end

Inside that block, you can pass any parameter the original DSL supports and will be stored in an Embedded class under MicropostsSerializer.

Btw SimpleAMS is smart enough (one of the very few cases that acts like that) to figure out that if a lambda returns something that’s not an array, then this must be the value, while options are just empty.

Another thing, is that sometimes, we want to detach the relation’s name from the type. microposts here is the relation name (again, whatever that means), while the type is defined by the MicropostsSerializer, unless we override it, which can be done either in the relation serializer itself, or when we use the relation from the parent serializer:

has_many :microposts, serializer: MicropostsSerializer, fields: [:content], type: :feed do
  link :self, ->(obj){ "/api/v1/users/#{obj.id}/relationships/microposts" }
  link :related, ->(obj){ ["/api/v1/users/1", rel: :user] }
end

Internally SimpleAMS, differentiates type from name, and usually type is something that’s semantically stronger (like a relation type) than name. You can even inject the name of the relation using the name option:

has_many :microposts, serializer: MicropostsSerializer, fields: [:content], type: :feed, name: :posts do
  link :self, ->(obj){ "/api/v1/users/#{obj.id}/relationships/microposts" }
  link :related, ->(obj){ ["/api/v1/users/1", rel: :user] }
end

As I said, the name, which is usually the name of the attribute that includes the relation in the JSON format, doesn’t really have any semantic meaning in most specs. At least I haven’t seen any spec to depend on the root attribute name of the relation. Instead it’s the type that’s important, because type is what the web linking RFC defines. However, being able to specify such things like name, is crucial for cases that go beyond the trivial boundaries of a usual API because it enables the API or SimpleAMS adapter developer to achieve exactly what’s needed (using a public, stable API as we will see later).

collection directive

The collection directive is yet another thing that I haven’t seen in any other serializers library. We saw it previously as:

collection :users

It basically tells the name of the resource in plural. It’s needed, if your adapter serializes the collection using a root element. But it can do much more than that: it allows you to define directives on the collection level. For instance, if you want to have a link that should be applied to the collection and not to each resource of the collection, then you need to define it inside the collection’s block:

collection :users do
  link :self, "/api/v1/users"
end

Or if we also want to have the total count of the collection, that should go in there actually:

collection :users do
  link :self, "/api/v1/users"
  meta :count, ->(collection, s) { collection.count }
end

Again, inside that block you can define using the regular DSL, whatever you would define in the resource level. It’s just yet another level of recursion since, the same things that I show you here can be applied in the collection level inside the block. For instance, in theory (and if the adapter supports it), you can specify relations that apply only to the collection level:

class UserSerializer
  include SimpleAMS::DSL

  adapter SimpleAMS::Adapters::JSONAPI

  attributes :id, :name, :email, :created_at, :role

  type :user
  collection :users do
    link :self, "/api/v1/users"
    meta :count, ->(collection, s) { collection.count }

    has_one :s3_uploader #whatever that means :P
  end

  has_many :microposts
end

I think that such designs make things quite robust since you don’t have corner cases and iffy situations. SimpleAMS defines a robust DSL that can be applied in many parts. Until now we have seen that it can be applied in the Serializer itself, in the relations and inside the collections. As we will see, there is one more place that can be applied: when trying to render a resource using a serializer.

Rendering

When rendering a resource, it should be straightforward:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer,
}).to_json

All you need is to specify a serializer. In the example above, the resulted resource is a reflection of what is defined inside the serializer. However, as we have said previously, the serializer acts as a filtering mechanism, meaning that you can override anything the serializer defines, given that the result creates a subset and not a superset (any superset options will be ignored).

For instance, you can override the type dynamically:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, type: :person
}).to_json

or you can override the relations, and specify that you don’t want to include any relation defined in the serializer:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, includes: []
}).to_json

or specify exactly what fields you want:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at]
}).to_json

or even specify the links subset that you want:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at],
  links: [:self, :comments, :posts]
}).to_json

Note that there is no only or except that used to be in some AMS versions. Although handy, these create more complexity (= more bugs) in the serializing library and the real benefit is very small (in fact, only except functionality is missing here).

As we have noted, you cannot override fields, relations, links etc in a way that the end results has more links that are not defined by the serializer. Internally, even if you add extra fields at the time you render the resource, these will be ignored by SimpleAMS. A better, more defensive, practice would be to throw an error, maybe a feature for the next release :)

I have worked many years building APIs and the most useful pattern I have seen is the one where you inject everything you might need when you render the resource. Because usually at that moment, you have all the necessary information to authorize the incoming request:

  • which user the request represents, if any
  • which resource the user/guest tries to access
  • what permissions the user/guest has on that resource, for the specific action requested:
    • which fields, attributes, relations, links etc the user/guest has/should have access to for the requested resource

A different, quite popular actually, pattern is to have iffy states inside the serializer based on some runtime injected information. For instance in fast_jsonapi, it is defined like that (taken from the docs):

class MovieSerializer
  include FastJsonapi::ObjectSerializer

  attributes :name, :year
  attribute :release_year, if: Proc.new { |record|
    # Release year will only be serialized if it's greater than 1990
    record.release_year > 1990
  }

  attribute :director, if: Proc.new { |record, params|
    # The director will be serialized only if the :admin key of params is true
    params && params[:admin] == true
  }
end

or for AMS (again taken from the official docs):

class SomeSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attribute :private_data, if: :is_current_user?
  attribute :another_private_data, if: -> { scope.admin? }

  def is_current_user?
    object.id == current_user.id
  end
end

While I have nothing against that style, in my experience this style, in the long run, creates messy code that is more difficult to reason and test. Instead, you should use service objects and similar patterns to derive what you need: what the user is allowed to access from a specific resource for a given endpoint, on a given action. Once you derive the necessary information, you just inject it to the renderer and SimpleAMS will derive a subset between your derived/injected directives and the ones defined inside the serializers, with the latter having larger preference. In practice, that means, you need to specify the superset of attributes/relations/etc of a serializer for the most authoritative role that might request the resource. Then you start trimming down :) You will mostly end up is trimming down by injection the fields and relations, rarely links and meta and almost never anything different than those.

Rendering a collection is similar, only that you need to call SimpleAMS::Renderer::Collection instead of just SimpleAMS::Renderer.

SimpleAMS::Renderer::Collection.new(users, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at],
  links: [:self, :comments, :posts]
}).to_json

Note that even with collection, by default everything goes to the resource. If you need to specify options for the collection itself, you need to use the collection key. For instance, having some metas inside the collection:

SimpleAMS::Renderer::Collection.new(users, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at],
  links: [:self, :comments, :posts],
  collection: {
    metas: [:total_count]
  }
}).to_json

Btw if you want to specify the actual values when rendering the resource, rather than taking into account the serializer, you can inject a hashmap:

SimpleAMS::Renderer::Collection.new(users, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at],
  links: [:self, :comments, :posts],
  collection: {
    metas: {
      total_count: users.count,
  }
}).to_json

Of course, you can also pass a lambda there, but not sure what’s the point since the lambda parameter is the resource that you already try to render so it’s not going to give you anything more (and will be slower actually).

You might noticed that links or metas didn’t appear when we talked about the DSL, only their singular form (link, meta) suggesting that rendering DSL is a bit different. But in fact, there is a metas keyword DSL, we just didn’t go through:

class UserSerializer
  include SimpleAMS::DSL

  adapter SimpleAMS::Adapters::JSONAPI

  attributes :id, :name, :email, :created_at, :role
  type :user
  links {
    self: ['/api/v1/me', {rel: :user}]
    feed: ['/api/v1/me/feed', {rel: :feed}]
  }

  collection :users do
    metas {
      total_count: ->(obj){obj.count}
    }
  end

  has_many :microposts
end

Last but not least, when rendering you can expose a couple of objects in the serializer:

SimpleAMS::Renderer::Collection.new(users, {
  serializer: UserSerializer, fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at],
  #exposing helpers that will be available inside the serializer
  expose: {
    #a class
    current_user: User.first
    #or a module
    helpers: CommonHelpers
  },
}).to_json

The expose attribute is also available through DSL, although usually that’s not very useful. Just wanted to mentions that there is actually parity on everything, since everything has been built on the same building blocks :)

GraphQL-like APIs

I really believe that flexibility is a crucial part of the definition of “good API”, at least when talking networked-based APIs, where changes are difficult.

Back in 2014 we could filter relations and relation’s fields when serializing a resource, we should be able to do that now as well, right?

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer,
  fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at, microposts: [:content]],
  relations: [:microposts]
}).to_json

or if we want to go yet another level down:

SimpleAMS::Renderer.new(user, {
  serializer: UserSerializer,
  fields: [:id, :email, :name, :created_at, microposts: [:content, media: [:url]]],
  relations: [microposts: [:media]]
}).to_json

It’s just amazing how much expressiveness can be squeezed in hashmap-based APIs :)

The architecture

Now that we have talked about the developer API, it’s worth talking about the architecture and how it adds value to the library.

The main architecture can be seen below:

architecture.png

From the top, on one side we have the Serializer definition, which comes with some guarantees on what is allowed, and on the other side we have the Rendering which includes both the Resource and the Rendering parameters.

Through the DSL, the serializer internally generates data structures that hold all the defined options. These options are treated as a public API, which enables introspection. I don’t know whether this can be useful to a developer, all I know that introspection is a must-have when building that kind of libraries. Because, the public DSL module that the library provides will be applied in (public) classes and a developer has the right to know what has been defined at runtime, if needed. I stress this, because there have been numerous times that I need to access/introspect data defined on top of my class by some library I might use, and I end up using private methods, or even worse things like instance_variable_get, and I always get anxious if:

  • I am using the right thing, or there is something else I should look for
  • my introspection solution is gonna break if I update the library (even in patch/minor versions)

Instead, every library should provide a public stable (= following semantic versioning) API.

Continuing with the architecture, the DSL options are merged with the rendering options provided at runtime. Serializer options always take precedence when it comes to definitions (but not values!). The end result is being hold by a recurring class named Options which is a private and not public API.

Options class holds all the definitions, but knows nothing about the actual values. All it does, after the merge, is to know what fields are eventually available, what links/metas/etc are available, and which of those are lambdas, what relations the resource is expected to have and the nested options for each of those relations, etc. Note that relations can be a bit tricky because you need to apply options from 3 different sources:

  1. the relation serializer
  2. the options the parent serializer passes to the relation, when the relation is defined in the parent serializer
  3. the rendering options, which might include nested options targeted for a relation

The priority here is (3), (2), (1), while relation serializer acts as a guard: first, the relation serializer options are applied, then the parent serializer which might overwrite relation serializer options but never extend. Finally, the rendering options which also can overwrite everything else but again, they never extend the original options.

Once we’ve got the final options inside the Options class, we can apply the resource. However we apply the resource in a lazy way, using another class named Document. This class, has public methods that can return the definitions and, if requested, the values in a lazy way, meaning that they are computed and memoized on demand, when requested.

Document is a public class with a public stable interface and is vital for building a custom adapter because it gives you a representation of the resource/collection in a standard way. It provides the following methods:

  • primary_id (API specs might not call it that way, but it’s crucial part!)
  • fields
  • relations
  • name (defaults to type)
  • type
  • adapter
  • links
  • forms
  • generics
  • embedded which returns the embedded Document
  • folder? which can be used to check if it’s a collection.

A folder is a Document but with some enumerable sugar, hence it provides an each method that takes a block and yields a document or if not given returns an enumerable of all documents.

On the other hand relations provide you with another sub-API which include:

  • empty? check whether relations are empty
  • [] access a specific relation
  • each loop over allowed relations
  • available returns a new Relation class for all relations defined in the serializer (ignores renderer)

With these super simple and clean APIs, creating an adapter is just a joy. Even if you are not an expert in APIs, creating an adapter for Ion spec for instance should be trivial.

Although the public interfaces and guarantees end somewhere here for the current version of SimpleAMS, ideally, I would like to not stop here. Ideally, the adapters I have created (AMS and JSON:API) should also provide some kind of public/private APIs and built in that way so that users that want to change something in one of those adapters, they should inherit the adapter class and override only a specific, standardized, part of it. A library successfully built like that is Ember’s ember-data which provides you with standardized methods on adapters (and serializers) that do specific things (documented) and it’s trivial to create adapters for your (custom) API. At the moment, I have tried to split each adapter’s functionality in small methods in a way that each one defines a single responsibility so that it’s easy to be overridden, if needed, and give the developer the chance to achieve the final result in relatively effortless way.

Benchmarks

Well we can’t close the blog post if we don’t see some raw numbers, can we?

I have created a comparison tool with some common Ruby API-related serializer libraries (ActiveModelSerializers, fast_jsonapi, jsonapi-rb) along with SimpleAMS.

So let’s see the actual numbers. In the case of no relations, we serialize User objects starting from 1 and iterating over 250 as seen in the graphs below.

memory.png

Apparently AMS has extreme memory usage (compared to the rest) in the case of a single element, so it distorts the memory graph a bit. So let’s take out the first iteration with collection size of 1 and zoom a bit in the rest:

memory.png

SimpleAMS is 5 times heavier than the fastest (and lightest) JSON:API Ruby library, even more heavy than AMS. Well, that was not expected :P But I can imagine why this happens: SimpleAMS implementation has paid a lot of attention to support virtually any API spec, while keeping the source code sane. That comes to a cost apparently.

speed.png

Regarding speed, SimpleAMS is 3rd, behind fast_jsonapi and jsonapi-rb while AMS is way behind. That was kind of expected, both fast_jsonapi and jsonapi-rb are JSON:API-specific specs so there is a lot of room for optimizations (although to be honest JSON:API spec itself is quite rough to optimize).

In the second case we render a User resource, along with 2 has-many relations a Micropost relation and an Address relation. We embed 10 elements of each relation so it’s quite heavy, but that shouldn’t really matter for the metrics.

memory.png

Again AMS distorts the graphs for the case of 1, so let’s cut that out:

memory.png

SimpleAMS manages to do slightly better than AMS, but still consumes 5 times more memory than fast_jsonapi.

speed.png

Regarding speed, SimpleAMS is 4.5 times slower than fast_jsonapi. and 2 times slower than jsonapi-rb. But the gap has closed, compared with the case of no relations, which means the whole architecture of SimpleAMS seems to favor cases of rendering relations, which could be pointless as we will see later.

Conclusions

Apparently, writing a serializers library is not easy. It’s way more difficult than I thought. But at least with rigid design you can achieve something that is feature complete for 99% of the API cases and has decent performance.

Again, I need to stress that I have nothing against the AMS contributors, the are really awesome developers. I have explained in the top why (I think) AMS has failed: different contributors started rewrite, different picked it up later, too many contributors/PRs from outside, no clear design, no clear vision, no separation of concerns (caching should be implemented outside of AMS), confusion in the repo with the previous version (master is still pointing somewhere else?), maybe even pressure from the Rails core team ? Not sure about that, but even passive pressure could mess things up a lot.

SimpleAMS was a combination of personal challenge to build a fast, feature-complete Ruby Serializers library and giving something back to Ruby community, since I have taken so much from it.

If you are building a new API now in Ruby, it probably makes sense to go for JSON:API. And if you do, there is nothing better than fast_jsonapi. However if you want to build something that is not JSON:API, give SimpleAMS a try. And if you build an adapter for the new spec, ping me or create a new PR in SimpleAMS, so we can include a link :)

Now, I would like to point out a couple of things regarding APIs in general.

Embedding relations will be more and more rare

Back in 2013, HTTP/2 didn’t exist, mobile networks were way worse than today regarding latency and in general things were quite slow.

That’s why GraphQL was invented, to address issues that HTTP 1.1 had in combination with bad 3G networks. The same goes for JSON:API which devotes a big part regarding embedding relations (called Compound Documents) and how they work.

However in 2020, HTTP/2 is already out there and has improved things a lot regarding latency by multiplexing connections while HTTP/3 which can do even better job regarding latency, is just out of the door. Phil Sturgeon has advocated a lot regarding that and has actually given some embarrassing metrics, so I am not going to repeat what he has said, just read his awesome blog post.

I am not saying that embedding relations is a bad practice now. It’s just that you won’t need it 95+% of the cases. And you shouldn’t try to optimize your API design for those 5% of the cases. I kind agree with Phil that JSON:API is not the ideal choice when building an API, to me, personally, it feels a more verbose that I need to.

But it’s better to stick with something standardized (well almost) rather than building something from scratch, unless you know what you are doing. JSON:API is probably a good choice most of the times, since it can give you regular flat documents, and if the client asks for it (and probably there is a reason, like being in a slow network), the API spec also defines how to render/fetch embedded relations (called Compound Documents). However, GraphQL’s use cases will become even more rare with HTTP/2 and HTTP/3 in place.

When I started building SimpleAMS, my biggest hidden ambition was to be able recursively embed relations, basically imitating GraphQL from a REST/HTTP API (I had managed to do that using AMS, but I had to monkey patch a lot of stuff..). Nowadays that’s not a very common thing to do, so a lot of complexity from SimpleAMS could be thrown away and make it faster and lighter. Would I change it? I don’t think so because as I said, although embedded relations become rare, they are still a thing and won’t go away completely. However, I could do different optimizations: trying to optimize the SimpleAMS architecture for no relations, unless the developer specifically asks it, which in that case the price to pay might be a bit higher, but probably that’s fine since embedding (multiple) related resources is going to be slow anyway.

Simple API specs lead to better speed

While building SimpleAMS and a couple of adapters (namely JSON:API and old Railsy simple JSON adapter), I noticed that complex specs make things harder for library developers, hence it slows down rendering a lot. Well, I might say the obvious here, but I would really like to stress an Alan’s quote one more:

Simple things should be simple and complex things should be possible.

If you are building a new (API) Media Type, try see what APIs look like for, say, 95% of the cases, and try to optimize things for that. By keeping things simple by default, the API spec itself can allow for better throughput of the API server. Sure, you can switch Ruby to Rust, or just buy new hardware, but what I am trying to say here is that API specification designers, but also API designers, should try to keep things simple: not only it allows better performance, but also, for a API tool/library developer, it decreases the code complexity a lot. On the other end, if you don’t keep things simple but require extra effort from the library developer (if you are creating an new API spec), or the client developer (if you are creating a new API), don’t be surprised if you see posts like REST is the new SOAP.

Of course, complex things should also be possible, and given that you can’t have both at the same time, probably you need an API/spec design that can adjust to the client’s needs.

That’s all folks

Well, yet another huge blog post :) But I think it worth the effort because it gave me the chance to explain the rational behind some designs, and hopefully it could be helpful for other developers possibly building a similar library.

For questions/suggestions just hit me on Twitter.

ps: I have being calling Ruby’s Hash as hashmap because I was in an interview once, and while I was talking about how a Hash would help me implementing an algorithm, in the other end they were understanding a “hash” value, and it actually took a while before I figure out that they are out of sync. Felt pretty ashamed after and promised to never use the name “hash” when referring to an actual.. hashmap.