Web Dev with Google App Engine

I wrote my first Google App Engine app! It's located at justtodolist.appspot.com. It's yet another todo list - I have been a tadalist user for a while and thought I could make it slightly better, and so I did. Here is to jot down some thoughts on GAE.

First up, the things I like.

  1. The number one benefit of GAE for me is definitely one step deployment. No that you couldn't step up one step deployment for rails apps, but it just takes a lot of work to set this stuff up the first time. With GAE, it's one step deploy the first time. I would say it's easier even than php. A large part because of benefit number two
  2. there is no database to set up. As most people know by now, you use GQL/Big Table on GAE, and it is very different from relational databases. Setting up is really minimal. You specify your model in a DSL similar to what you'd write with SQLObject or Elixir, or Data Mapper for Ruby folks. And then boom! you are running.
  3. There's no user authentication to setup either, it's basically Gmail authentication, if you are willing to go along, that is. The User API is very simple, and you can start using it right away
  4. Development server is nice, it picks up changes immediately when you save any project file
  5. The number of projects files you have is very minimal, it's very non-cluttery.

So as you can see GAE is great for rapid prototyping. Now for things I am not that crazy about. Actually, most of the benefits I spoke of has some caveats:

  1. Although deployment is easy. Sometimes issues arise from the fact that things work slightly differently in production vs development. Such as, you need indices to build fully in production for the app to be ready to run, or for some reason, transaction rules work differently in production vs development(I haven't dug down to this fully, but it might be a bug)
  2. Big Table is cool, it's supposed to be super scalable, but there are a couple of things that are annoying about it. I can get over the fact that it's fundamentally different from relational databases: things like you can't do aggregate queries, joins and so forth. For performance too, some things you will just have to do differently than you would normally with relation databases. I am okay with that. What pains me is that there is no proper data migration path. When you change your models(add or remove fields, and so forth), the old stuff just stick around. To migrate the old data, you basically have to manually write a script that loops over the existing data structures and modify them, but the script has to be triggered from an http request just like everything else because that's the only way to run your code on GAE on the production server... getto! Also, I am extremely annoyed that while in development you can just clear your datastore. There is no analog in production. I realize though that this is a work in progress and that things will get better in the future.
  3. Well, the caveat for using Gmail authentication is that... your users must have a Gmail account, duh... I am sure you can use other authentication schemes if you want, I don't see anything preventing that
  4. Yes the development server is nice, but for some reason it was progressively running slower on my company Dell D820 laptop. This is so especially if you perform extensive modification of the data models.

Here are some other thoughs:

  1. The development console is not good, man! It's no where near the usability of the python interactive shell. I've heard of an alternative but haven't seen it yet.
  2. I haven't dug into how to do TDD with it yet, but I've read it's possible.
  3. Again, Big Table is VERY different from relational databases. I originally ported my todo list app from a SQLObject -> MySQL backend, with only 2 data models: TodoList and TodoItem. In Big Table we still have the 2, but they look kinda different. I had to change it because of performance reasons. I'll put the discussion of that on a separate post.
  4. I haven't got a great handle of how transaction/entity groups work. I thought I did, until my transaction code didn't work, will have to look closer into it. Documentation on this is kinda sparse. Right now my code is non-transactional.
Open Source GAE Apps


Here's another thought. Will it be possible to popularize open source GAE apps? I think the most important reason for the popularity of open source php apps is the ease of deployment. With the ease of deployment of GAE, I think conditions might be ripe for there to emerge a movement of good open source GAE apps. Then again though, people might resist the vendor specific/non-open source nature of GAE. We will see.

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