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Job Scheduling on Linux

Scheduling jobs to happen at a later time on a Linux based machine can be somewhat confusing. Confused by 5 4 8-10/4 6/4 * baffled by 5 */4 * * *? All will be revealed!


Scheduling jobs on a Linux machine can be done in several ways. Let's start with cron - the primary program that orchestrates the whole proceeding. Its name comes from the Greek word Chronos, which means time. By filling in a crontab (read cron-table), you can tell it what to do when. It's essentially a time-table of jobs you'd like it to run.

Your Linux machine should come with cron installed already. You can check if cron is installed and running by entering this command into your terminal:

if [[ "$(pgrep -c cron)" -gt 0 ]]; then echo "Cron is installed :D"; else echo "Cron is not installed :-("; fi

If it isn't installed or running, then you'll have to investigate why this isn't the case. The most common is that it isn't installed. It's normally in the official repositories for most distributions - on Debian-based system sudo apt install cron should suffice. Arch-based users may need to check to make sure that the system service is enabled and do so manually.

With cron setup and ready to go, we can start adding jobs to it. This is done by way of a crontab, as explained above. Each user has their own crontab such that they can each configure their own individual sets jobs. To edit it, type this:

crontab -e

This will open your favourite editor with your crontab ready for editing (if you'd like to change your editor, do sudo update-alternatives --config editor or change the EDITOR environment variable). You should see a bunch of lines like this:

# Edit this file to introduce tasks to be run by cron.
# Each task to run has to be defined through a single line
# indicating with different fields when the task will be run
# and what command to run for the task
# To define the time you can provide concrete values for
# minute (m), hour (h), day of month (dom), month (mon),
# and day of week (dow) or use '*' in these fields (for 'any').# 
# Notice that tasks will be started based on the cron's system
# daemon's notion of time and timezones.
# Output of the crontab jobs (including errors) is sent through
# email to the user the crontab file belongs to (unless redirected).
# For example, you can run a backup of all your user accounts
# at 5 a.m every week with:
# 0 5 * * 1 tar -zcf /var/backups/home.tgz /home/
# For more information see the manual pages of crontab(5) and cron(8)
# m h  dom mon dow   command

I'd advise you keep this for future reference - just in case you find yourself in a pinch later - so scroll down to the bottom and start adding your jobs there.

Let's look at the syntax for telling cron about a job next. This is best done by example:

0 1 * * 7   cd /root && /root/run-backup

This job, as you might have guessed, runs a custom backup script. It's one I wrote myself, but that's a story for another time (comment below if you'd like me to post about that). What we're interested in is the bit at the beginning: 0 1 * * 7. Scheduling a cron job is done by specifying 5 space-separated values. In the case of the above, the job will run at 1am every Sunday morning. The order is as follows:

  • Minute
  • Hour
  • Day of the Month
  • Month
  • Day of the week

For of these values, a number of different specifiers can be used. For example, specifying an asterisk (*) will cause the job to run at every interval of that column - e.g. every minute or every hour. If you want to run something on every minute of the day (such as a logging or monitoring script), use * * * * *. Be aware of the system resources you can use up by doing that though!

Specifying number will restrict it to a specific time in an interval. For example, 10 * * * * will run the job at 10 minutes past every hour, and 22 3 * * * will run a job at 03:22 in the morning every day (I find such times great for maintenance jobs).

Sometimes, every hour or every minute is too often. Cron can handle this too! For example 3 */2 * * * will run a job at 3 minutes past every second hour. You can alter this at your leisure: The value after the forward slash (/) decides the interval (i.e. */3 would be every third, */15 would be every 15th, etc.).

The last column, the day of the week, is an alternative to the day of the month column. It lets you specify, as you may assume, the day oft he week a job should run on. This can be specified in 2 way: With the numbers 0-6, or with 3-letter short codes such as MON or SAT. For example, 6 20 * * WED runs at 6 minutes past 8 in the evening on Wednesday, and 0 */4 * * 0 runs every 4th hour on a Sunday.

The combinations are endless! Since it can be a bit confusing combining all the options to get what you want, is great for piecing cron-job specifications together. It describes your cron-job spec in plain English for you as you type! showing a random cronjob spec.

(Above: displaying a random cronjob spec)

What if I turn my computer off?

Ok, so cron is all very well, but what if you turn your machine off? Well, if cron isn't running at the time a job should be run, then it won't get executed. For those of us who don't leave their laptops on all the time, all is not lost! It's time to introduce the second piece of software at our disposal.

Enter stage left: anacron. Built to be a complement to cron, anacron sets up 3 folders:

  • /etc/cron.daily
  • /etc/cron.weekly
  • /etc/cron.monthly`

Any executable scripts in this folder will be run at daily, weekly, and monthly intervals respectively by anacron, and it respects the hash-bang (that #! line at the beginning of the script) too!

Most server systems do not come with anacron pre-installed, though it should be present if your distributions official repositories. Once you've installed it, edit root's crontab (with sudo crontab -e if you can't remember how) and add a job that executes anacron every hour like so:

# Run anacron every hour
5 * * * *   /usr/sbin/anacron

This is important, as anacron does not in itself run all the time like cron does (this behaviour is called a daemon in the Linux world) - it needs a helping hand to get it to run.

If you've got more specific requirements, then anacron also has it's own configuration file you can edit. It's found at /etc/anacrontab, and has a different syntax. In the anacron table, jobs follow the following pattern:

  • period - The interval, in days, that the job should run
  • delay - The offset, in minutes, that the job should run at
  • job identifier - A textual identifier (without spaces, of course) that identifies the job
  • command - The command that should be executed

You'll notice that there are 3 jobs specified already - one for each of the 3 folders mentioned above. You can specify your own jobs too. Here's an example:`

# Do the weekly backup
7   20  run-backup  cd /root/data-shape-backup && ./do-backup;

The above job runs every 7 days, with an offset of 20 minutes. Note that I've included a command (the line starting with a hash #) to remind myself as to what the job does - I'd recommend you always include such a comment for your own reference - whether you're using cron, anacron, or otherwise.

I'd also recommend that you test your anacron configuration file after editing it to ensure it's valid. This is done like so:

anacron -T

I'm not an administrator, can I still use this?

Sure you can! If you've got anacron installed (you could even compile it from source locally if you haven't) and want to specify some jobs for your local account, then that's easily done too. Just create an anacrontab file anywhere you please, and then in your regular crontab (crontab -e), tell anacron where you put it like this:

# Run anacron every hour
5 * * * *   /usr/sbin/anacron -t "path/to/anacrontab"

What about one-off jobs?

Good point. cron and anacron are great for repeating jobs, but what if you want to set up a one-off job to auto-disable your firewall before enabling it just in case you accidentally lock yourself out? Thankfully, there's even an answer for this use-case too: atd.

atd is similar to cron in that it runs a daemon in the background, but instead of executing jobs specified in a crontab, you tell it when you want it to execute a series of commands, and then enter the commands themselves. For example:

$ at now + 10 minutes
warning: commands will be executed using /bin/sh
at> echo -e "Testing"  
at> uptime
at> <EOT>
job 4 at Thu Jul 12 14:36:00 2018

In the above, I tell it to run the job 10 minutes from now, and enter a pair of commands. To end the command list, I hit CTRL + D on an empty line. The output of the job will be emailed to me automatically if I've got that set up (cron and anacron also do this).

Specifying a time can be somewhat fiddly, but its also quite flexible:

  • at tomorrow
  • at now + 5 hours
  • at 16:06
  • at next month
  • at 2018 09 25

....and so on. Listing the current scheduled jobs is also just as easy:


This will output a list of scheduled jobs that haven't been run yet. You can't see any jobs that aren't created by you unless you're root (use sudo), though. You can use the job ids listed here to cancel a job too:

# Remove job id 4:
atrm 4


That just about concludes this whirlwind tour of job scheduling on Linux systems. We've looked at how to schedule jobs with cron, and how to ensure our jobs get run - even when the target machine isn't turned on all the time with anacron. We've also looked at one-time jobs with atd, and how to manage the job queue.

As usual, this is a starting point - not an ending point! Job scheduling is just the beginning. From here, you can look at setting up automated backups. You could investigate setting up an email server, and how that integrates with cron. You can utilise cron to perform maintenance for your next great web (or other!) application. The possibilities are endless!

Found this useful? Still confused? Comment below!

Search Engine Optimisation: The curious question of efficiency

For one reason or another I found myself a few days ago inspecting the code behind Pepperminty Wiki's full-text search engine. What I found was interesting enough that I thought I'd blog about it.

Forget about that kind of Search Engine Optimisation (the horrible click-baity kind - if there's enough interest I'll blog about my thoughts there too) and cue the appropriate music - we're going on a field trip fraught with the perils of Unicode, page ids, transliteration, and more!

Firstly, I should probably mention a little about the starting point. The (personal) wiki that is exhibiting the slowness has 546 ~75K words spread across 546 pages. Pepperminty Wiki manages to search all of this in about 2.8 seconds by way of an inverted index. If you haven't read my last post, you should do so now - it sets the stage for this one - and you'll be rather confused otherwise.

2.8 seconds is far too slow though. Let's do something about it! In order to do something about it, there are several other things that need explaining before I can show you what I did to optimise it. Let's look at Pepperminty Wiki's search system first. It's best explained with the aid of a diagram:

An SVG diagram explaining how Pepperminty Wiki's search system works. A textual explanation is given below.

In short, every page has a numerical id, which is tracked by the ids core class. The search system interacts with this during the indexing phase (that's a topic for another blog post) and during the query phase. The query phase works something like this:

  1. The inverted index is loaded from disk in my personal wiki the inverted index is ~968k, and loads in ~128ms)
  2. The inverted index is queried for pages in that match the tokenised query terms.
  3. The results returned from the query are ranked and sorted before being returned.
  4. A context is extracted from the source of each page in the results returned - just like Duck Duck Go or Google have a bit of text below the title of each result
  5. Said context has the search terms hightlighted

It sounds complicated, but it really isn't. The complicated bit comes when I tried to optimise it. To start with, I analysed how long each of the above steps were taking. The results were quite surprising:

  • Step #1 took ~128ms on average
  • Steps #2 & #3 took ~1200ms on average
  • Step #4 took ~1500ms on average(!)
  • Step #5 took a negligible amount of time

I did this by setting headers on the returned page. Timing things in PHP is relatively easy:

$start_time = microtime(true);

// Do work here

$end_time = microtime(true);

$time_taken_ms = round(($end_time - $start_time )*1000, 3);

This gave me a general idea as to what needed attention. I was surprised to learn that the context extractor was taking most of the time. At first, I thought that my weird and probably inefficient algorithm was to blame. There's no way it should be taking 1500ms!

So I set to work rewriting it to make it more optimal. Firstly, I tried something like this. Instead of multiple sub-loops, I figured out a way to do it with just 1 for loop and a few calls to mb_stripos_all().

Unfortunately, this did not have the desired effect. While it did shave about 50ms off the total time, it was far from what I'd hoped for. I tried refactoring it slightly again to use preg_match_all(), but it still didn't give me the speed boost I was after - only another 50ms or so.

To get some answers, I brought out the big guns and profiled it with XDebug.

Upon analysing the generated profile it immediately became clear what the issue was: transliteration. Transliteration is the process of removing the diacritics and other accents from a string to make it easier to compare with other strings. For example, café becomes Café. In PHP this process is a bit funky. Here's what I do in Pepperminty Wiki:

$literator = Transliterator::createFromRules(':: Any-Latin; :: Latin-ASCII; :: NFD; :: [:Nonspacing Mark:] Remove; :: Lower(); :: NFC;', Transliterator::FORWARD);


(Originally from this StackOverflow answer)

Note that this requires the intl PHP extension (which should be installed & enabled by default). This does several things:

  • Converts the text to lowercase
  • Normalises it to UTF-8 (See this article for more information)
  • Casts Cyrillic characters to their Latin alphabet (i.e. a-z) phonetic equivalent
  • Removes all diacritics

In short, it preprocesses a chunk of text so that it can be easily used by the search system. In my case, I transliterate search queries before tokenising them, source texts before indexing them, and crucially: source texts before extracting contextual information.

The thing about this wonderful transliteration process is that, at least in PHP, it's really slow. Thinking about it, the answer was obvious. Why bother extract offset information when the inverted index already contains that information?

The answer is: you don't upon refactoring the context extractor to utilise the inverted index, I managed to get it down to just ~59ms. Success!

Next up was the query system itself. 1200ms seems a bit high, so while I was at it, I analysed a profile of that as well. It turned out that a similar problem was occurring here too. Surprisingly, the page id system's getid($pagename) function was being really slow. I found 2 issues here.

Firstly, I was doing too much Unicode normalisation. In the page id system, I don't want to transliterate to remove diacritics, but I do want to make sure that all the diacritics and accents are represented in the same way.

If you didn't know, Unicode has a both a character for letters like é (e-acute), and a code-point for the acute accent itself, which gets merged into the previous letter during rendering. This can cause a page to acquire 2 (or even more!) seemingly identical ids in the system, which caused me a few headaches in the past! If you'd like to learn more, the article on Unicode normalisation I linked to above explains it in some detail. Thankfully, the solution is quite simple. Here's what Pepperminty Wiki does:

Normalizer::normalize($string, Normalizer::FORM_C)

This ensures that all accents and other weird characters are represented in the same way. As you might guess though, it's slow. I found that in the getid() function I was normalising both the page names I was iterating over in the index, as well as the target page name to find in every loop. The solution here was simple:

  • Don't normalise the page names from the index - that's the job of the assign() protected method to ensure that they are suitably normalised when adding them in the first place
  • Normalise the target page name only once, and then use that when spinning through the index.

Implementing these simple changes brought the overall search time down to 700ms. The other thing to note here is the structure of the index. I show it in the diagram, but here it is again:

  • 1: Booster
  • 2: Rocket
  • 3: Satellite

The index is basically a hash-table mapping numerical ids to their page names. This is great for when you have an id and want to know what the name of the page associated with it is, but terrible for when you want to go in the other direction, as we need to do when performing a query!

I haven't quite decided what to do about this. Obviously, the implications on efficiency are significant whenever we need to convert a page name into its respective numerical id. The problem lies in the fact that the search query system travels in both directions: It needs to convert page ids into page names when unravelling the results from the inverted index, but it also needs to convert page names into their respective ids when searching the titles and tags in the page index (the index that contains information about all the pages on a wiki - not pictured in the diagram above).

I have several options that I can see immediately:

  • Maintain 2 indexes: One going in each direction. This would also bring a minor improvement to indexing new and updating existing content in the inverted index.
  • Use some fancy footwork to refactor the search query system to unwind the page ids into their respective page names before we search the pages' titles and tags.

While deciding what to do, I did manage to reduce the number of times I convert a page name into its respective id by only performing the conversion if I find a match in the page metadata. This brought the average search time down to ~455ms, which is perfectly fine for my needs at the moment.

In the future, I may come back to this and optimise it further - but as it stands I'm getting to the point of diminishing returns: Where every additional optimisation requires twice the amount of time to implement as the last, and only provides a marginal gain in speed.

To this end, it doesn't seem worth it to spend ages tackling this issue now. Pepperminty Wiki is written in such a way that I can come back later and turn the inner workings of any part of the system upside-down, and it doesn't have any effect on the rest of the system (most of the time, anyway.... :P).

If you do find the search system too slow after these optimisations are released in v0.17, I'd like to hear about it! Please open an issue and I'll investigate further - I certainly haven't reached the end of this particular lollipop.

Found this interesting? Learnt something? Got a better way of doing it? Comment below!

Demystifying Inverted Indexes

The test texts below overlaying one another in different colours, with a magnifying glass on centred top. (The magnifying glass in the above banner came from openclipart)

After writing the post that will be released after this one, I realised that I made a critical assumption that everyone knew what an inverted index was. Upon looking for an appropriate tutorial online, I couldn't find one that was close enough to what I did in Pepperminty Wiki, so I decided to write my own.

First, some context. What's Pepperminty Wiki? Well, it's a complete wiki engine in a single file of PHP. The source files are obviously not a single file, but it builds into a single file - making it easy to drop into any PHP-enabled web server.

One of its features is a full-text search engine. A personal wiki of mine has ~75k words spread across ~550 pages, and it manages to search them all in just ~450ms! It does this with the aid of an inverted index - which I'll be explaining in this post.

First though, we need some data to index. How about the descriptions of some video games?

Kerbal Space Program

In KSP, you must build a space-worthy craft, capable of flying its crew out into space, without killing them. At your disposal is a collection of parts, which must be assembled to create a functional ship. Each part has its own function and will affect the way a ship flies (or doesn't). So strap yourself in, and get ready to try some Rocket Science!


Cross Code

Meet Lea as she logs into an MMO of the distant future. Follow her steps as she discovers a vast world, meets other players and overcomes all the challenges of the game.


Fort Meow

Fort Meow is a physics game by Upper Class Walrus about a girl, an old book and a house full of cats! Meow.


Factory Balls

Factory balls is the brand new bonte game I already announced yesterday. Factory balls takes part in the game design competition over at jayisgames. The goal of the design competition was to create a 'ball physics'-themed game. I hope you enjoy it!

Very cool, this should provide us with plenty of data to experiment with. Firstly, let's consider indexing. Take the Factory Balls description. We can split it up into tokens like this:

T o k e n s V V
factory balls is the brand new bonte game
i already announced yesterday factory balls takes
part in the game design competition over
at jayisgames the goal of the design
competition was to create a ball physics
themed game i hope you enjoy it

Notice how we've removed punctuation here, and made everything lowercase. This is important for the next step, as we want to make sure we consider Factory and factory to be the same word - otherwise when querying the index we'd have to remember to get the casing correct.

With our tokens sorted, we can now count them to create our index. It's like a sort of tally chart I guess, except we'll be including the offset in the text of every token in the list. We'll also be removing some of the most common words in the list that aren't very interesting - these are known as stop words. Here's an index generated from that Factory Balls text above:

Token Frequency Offsets
factory 2 0, 12
balls 2 1, 13
brand 1 4
new 1 5
bonte 1 6
game 3 7, 18, 37
i 2 8, 38
announced 1 10
yesterday 1 11
takes 1 14
design 2 19, 28
competition 2 20, 29
jayisgames 1 23
goal 1 25
create 1 32
ball 1 34
physics 1 35
themed 1 36
hope 1 39
enjoy 1 41

Very cool. Now we can generate an index for each page's content. The next step is to turn this into an inverted index. Basically, the difference between the normal index and a inverted index is that an entry in an inverted index contains not just the offsets for a single page, but all the pages that contain that token. For example, the Cross-Code example above also contains the token game, so the inverted index entry for game would contain a list of offsets for both the Factory Balls and Cross-Code pages.

Including the names of every page under every different token in the inverted index would be both inefficient computationally and cause the index to grow rather large, so we should assign each page a unique numerical id. Let's do that now:

Id Page Name
1 Kerbal Space Program
2 Cross Code
3 Fort Meow
4 Factory Balls

There - much better. In Pepperminty Wiki, this is handled by the ids class, which has a pair of public methods: getid($pagename) and getpagename($id). If an id can't be found for a page name, then a new id is created and added to the list (Pepperminty Wiki calls this the id index) transparently. Similarly, if a page name can't be found for an id, then null should be returned.

Now that we've got ids for our pages, let's look at generating that inverted index entry for game we talked about above. Here it is:

  • Term: game
Id Frequency Offsets
2 1 31
3 1 5
4 3 5, 12, 23

Note how there isn't an entry for page id 1, as the Kerbal Space Program page doesn't contain the token game.

This, in essence, is the basics of inverted indexes. A full inverted index will contain an entry for every token that's found in at least 1 source document - though the approach used here is far from the only way of doing it (I'm sure there are much more advanced ways of doing it for larger datasets, but this came to mind from reading a few web articles and is fairly straight-forward and easy to understand).

Can you write a program that generates a full inverted index like I did in the example above? Try testing it on the test game descriptions at the start of this post.

You may also have noticed that the offsets used here are of the tokens in the list. If you wanted to generate contexts (like Duck Duck Go or Google do just below the title of a result), you'd need to use the character offsets from the source document instead. Can you extend your program to support querying the inverted index, generating contexts based on the inverted index too?

Liked this post? Got your own thoughts on the subject? Having trouble with the challenges at the end? Comment below!

Redis in Review: First Impressions

The red Redis logo backed by a yellow voronoi diagram

(Above: The Redis logo backed by a voronoi diagram generated by my specially-upgraded voronoi diagram generator :D)

I've known about Redis for a while now - but I've never gotten around to looking into it until now. A bit of background: I'm building a user management panel thingy for this project (yes, again. I'll be blogging about it for a bit more yet before it's ready). Since I want it to be a separate, and optional, component that you don't have to run in order to use the main program, I decided to make it a separate program in a different language (Nojde.JS is rather good at doing this sort of thing I've found).

Anyway, whilst writing the login system, I found that I needed a place to store session tokens such that they persist. I considered a few different options here:

  1. A JSON file on disk - This wouldn't be particularly scalable if I found myself with lots of users. It also means I've got to read in and decode a bunch of JSON when my program starts up, which can get mighty fiddly. Furthermore, persisting it back to disk would also be rather awkward and inefficient.
  2. An SQL database of some description - Better, not still not great. The setup for a database is complicated, and requires a complex and resource-hungry process running at all times. Even if I used SQLite, I wouldn't be able to escape the complexities associated with database schemas - which I'd likely end up spending more time fiddling with than actually writing the program itself!

Then I remembered Redis. At first, I thought it was an in-memory data storage solution. While I was right, I discovered that there's a lot more to Redis than I first thought. For one, it does actually allow you to persist things to disk - and is very transparent about it too, allowing a great deal of control over how data is persisted to disk (also this post is a great read on the subject, even if it's a bit old now - it goes into a great deal of depth about how the operating system handles and caches writes to disk).

When it comes to actually storing your data, Redis provides just a handful of delightfully simple data structures for you to model your data with. Unlike a traditional SQL-based database, storing data in Redis requires a different way of thinking. Rather than considering how data relates to one another and trying to represent it as a series of interconnected tables, in Redis you store things in a manner that's much closer to that which you might find in the program that you're writing.

The core of Redis is a key-value store - rather like localStorage in the browser. Unlike localStorage though, the following data types are provided:

  • A simple string value
  • A hash-table
  • A list of values (which can be also be treated as a queue)
  • A set of unique strings (which can be optionally sorted)
  • Binary blobs (called bit arrays)
  • A HyperLogLog (apparently a probabilistic data structure of some kind)

The official Redis tutorial on the subject does a much better job of explaining this than I could (I have only been playing with it for about a week after all!), so I'd recommend you read it if you're curious.

All this has some interesting effects. Firstly, the data storage system can be more closely representative of the data structures it is storing, allowing for clever data-specific optimisations to be made in ways that simply aren't possible with a traditional SQL-based system. To this end, a custom index can be created in Redis via simple values to accelerate the process of finding a particular hash-table given a particular piece of identifying information.

Secondly, it makes Redis very versatile. You could use it as a caching layer to store the results of queries made against a traditional SQL-based database. In that scenario, no persistence to disk would be required to make it as fast as possible. You could use it for storing session tokens and short-lived chunks of data, utilising the inbuilt EXPIRE command to tell Redis to automatically delete certain keys after a specified amount of time. You could use it store all your data in and do away with an SQL server altogether. You could even do all of these things at the same time!

When storing data in Redis, it's important to make sure you've got the right mindset. I've found that despite learning about the different commands and data structures Redis has to offer, it's taken me a few goes to figure out how I'm going to store my program's data in a way that both makes sense and makes it easy to get it back out again. I'm certain that I'll take quite a bit of practice (and trial and error!) to figure out what works and what doesn't.

It's not the kind of thing that would make you want to drop your database system like a hot potato and move everything to Redis before the week is out. But it is a tool to keep in mind that can be used to solve a class of problems that SQL-based database servers have traditionally been very bad at handling - in particular high-throughput systems that need to store lots of mainly short-lived data (e.g. session tokens, etc.).

Found this interesting? Got your own thoughts on Redis? Post a comment below!

#movingtogitlab: What's up, Thoughts, and First Impressions

I'm moving some of my repositories to GitLab! Read on to find out why.

You've probably heard by now that GitHub has been bought by Microsoft. It was certainly huge news at the time! While I did tweet at the time (also here too), I've been waiting until I've gotten all of the repositories I've decided to move over to GitLab settled in before blogging about the experience and sharing my thoughts.

While I've got some of them settled in (you can tell which ones I've done because they are public on GitLab and I've deleted the GitHub repository in most cases), I've still got a fair few to go - there should be 13 in total on GitLab once I'm finished.

Since it's taking me longer than I anticipated to properly update them after the transfer (which in and of itself was actually really quick and painless - thanks GitLab!), I thought I'd blog about the experience so far - as it's probably going to be a little while before I've got all my repositories sorted :P

What's up?

Firstly, Microsoft. Buying GitHub. Who'd have thought it? I know that I was certainly surprised. I even had to check multiple websites to triple-check that I wasn't seeing things.... GitHub have certainly done an excellent job of hiding that fact that they were looking for a buyer. Upon further inspection, it appears that the issues GitHub have been facing are twofold. Firstly, they've been without a boss of the company for quite a while, and from the way things are looking, they are having a little bit of trouble finding a new one. Secondly, there's been talk that they haven't been making enough money.

Let's back up a second. How does GitHub actually make money? Good question. The answer is surprisingly simple: GitHub Enterprise - which is a version of GitHUb for businesses that they can host on their own servers for a significant fee. From what I can tell, it's targeted at medium-to-large companies.

If they aren't making enough money to sustain themselves, then something obviously needs to be done about that, or the service that open-source developers the world over suddenly vanish overnight O.o! This presents GitHub with a very awkward problem. In this case, they chose to seek a buyer, who could then perhaps help them to sell GitHub Enterprise better.

Looking at the alternative companies, I think that GitHub could have done a lot worse than Microsoft. Alternatives include Apple (who operate a gigantic walled garden called macOS and iOS), IBM (International Business Machines, who sell big and powerful mainframes to other big and powerful businesses. Most of the time, we - or I at least - don't hear from them, unless they are showing off some research or other that they've just completed), and Facebook (who don't have a particularly great reputation right now). The problem is that they need a big company who have lots of money, because they are also a big company (so they'll be worth a lot of money, like it or not. Also, in order to sort out the money making issue they'll need cash in the meantime).

Microsoft ha ve been quite active in the open-source scene as of late, and seem to really have changed their tune in recent years, with their open-sourcing of large parts of the .NET framework - and their code editor Visual Studio Code. While they aren't the best at naming things (I'm looking at you, .NET Core / .NET Standard / .....), they do appear to be more in-line with GitHub's goals and ethics than alternative companies, as discussed above.

What's the problem?

So why do I have a problem with this deal? Clearly, Microsoft are the best of the bunch to have bought GitHub. It could be a lot worse. Microsoft have even announced that GitHub can continue to operate as a separate entity. The new boss of GitHub did an Ask Me Anything on reddit, and he seems like a really cool guy, and genuinely wants the best for GitHub.

Well, it's complicated. For me, it all boils down to independence. GitHub is (or was) an independent company. To that end, they can make their own decisions, and aren't being told what to or at risk of being told what to do by someone else. They aren't being influenced by someone else. That's not to say that GitHub will now be influenced by Microsoft (though they probably will be) - and it's not to say that it's a bad thing.

Coupled with the some 85 million open-source repositories, 28 million developers using the service, and 1.8 million businesses utilising, it's a huge responsibility. In order to effectively serve the community that has grown around, I feel that GitHub has to remain impartial. It's absolutely essential. The number of different workflows, tools, programs, operating systems, and more that those 28 million developers use will be staggering - and I feel that only a completely independent GitHub will truly be able to meet the needs of that community. Microsoft is great for some things, but taking on GitHub is asking them to actively support users of one of their services using their competitors software, such as Linux - or devices running macOS.

What's the alternative then?

That's huge ask, and I guess only time will tell whether they are able to pull it off. I find myself asking though: What's the alternative? if they are losing money as the rumours say, then what could they do about it?

Obviously, I don't and can't know everything that's going on inside GitHub - I can only read marketing-y web articles, theorise, and make guesses. I'm sure they've tried it, but I don't see why they can't enter a partnership with Microsoft instead. How about a partnership in which Microsoft helps sell GitHub Enterprise, and they get a cut of the profits in return? Microsoft have a much bigger base on enterprisey companies, so they'd be much better placed to do that part of things, and GitHub would be able to retain it's independence.

Where does GitLab fit into this puzzle?

All of this brings me to GitLab. Similar to GitHub, GitLab offers free code hosting on, along with free continuous integration. Unlike GitHub though, GitLab's source code is open - and you can download and run your own instance if you like! They sell support packages to businesses - thereby making enough money to support the continued development of GitLab. I think that they sell a few additional features with GitLab Enterprise too - but they aren't anything that the average user would want - only businesses. The also do a free package for students and open-source developers too - all whilst staying and independent company. Very cool.

As of today, I'm moving a total of 13 of my smaller repositories to GitLab. My reasoning here is that I really don't want to keep all my eggs in one basket. By moving some repositories to GitLab, I can ensure that if one or the other goes in a direction I seriously object to, I've got an alternative that I'm familiar with that I can move all my repositories to in a hurry.

I've used GitLab before. Last academic year (2016 / 2017) I interned at a local company, at which I helped to move over to Git as their primary version-control system. To that end, they chose GitLab as the server they'd use for the job - and so I got quite a bit of experience with it!

I'd use it for my personal git server but unfortunately it uses far too many resources - which I can't currently dedicate to it full-time - so I use Gitea, a lighter-weight alternative.

How does GitLab compare?

Back to the matter at hand. The experience with and my open-soruce repositories so far has been a hugely positive one so far! The migration process itself was completely painless - it just took a while since there were thousands of other developers doing the exact same thing I was :P

Updating my repositories and adjusting all the links & references has been a tedious process so far - but that's nothing that GitLab can really help me with - I've gotta do it myself :-) GitLab's documentation has been really helpful for those times when I've needed some assistance to figure something out, with plenty of GitLab CI examples available to get me started.

If there's one thing I'd change, it's the releases (or tags) system. The system itself is fine, but the way the tags are presented is horrible. The text doesn't even wrap properly! A /latest shortcut url would would be welcome too.

You can't attach release binaries to tags either, which is also rather annoying. There is a workaround though - you can link directly to the GitLab CI (Continuous-Integration) artifacts instead, which seems to work just fine for my purposes so far. If it doesn't work so well in the future, I'm probably going to have to find an alternative solution for hosting release binaries - at least until they implement the feature (if at all).

Other than that, the interface, while very different to GitHub's, does feel appropriately polished and suitably easy to use. If anything, I feel as though it's rather difficult to explore any of the existing repositories on GitLab - I hadn't realised until using GitLab just how useful the new repository tags GitHub have implemented are in exploring others' repositories. I'm sure that there's a 3rd-party website that enables one to explore the repositories on much more effectively - I just haven't found it yet.

The sidebar when viewing a repository is quite handy - but a little unwieldy at times. Similarly, the 2-3 layers of navigation directly below the repository tagline are also rather unwieldy, and difficult to tell their differing functions apart. Perhaps a rethink here would bring these 2 different parts of the user interface together in a more cohesive and usable fashion?

All in all, is a great service for hosting my open-source repositories. The continuous integration services provided are superb - and completely unparalleled in my (admittedly limited) experience. The interface is functional, for the most part, and gets the job done - there are just a few rough edges in places that could do with a slight rethink.

Enjoyed this? Have your own opinion about what's happened to GitHub? Found a better service? Comment below!

Routers: Essential, everywhere, and yet exasperatingly elusive

Now that I've finished my University work for the semester (though do have a few loose ends left to tie up), I've got some time on my hands to do a bunch of experimenting that I haven't had the time for earlier in the year.

In this case, it's been tracking down an HTTP router that I used a few years ago. I've experimented with a few now (find-my-way, micro-http-router, and rill) - but all of them few something wrong with them, or feel too opinionated for my taste.

I'm getting slightly ahead of myself though. What's this router you speak of, and why is it so important? Well, it call comes down to application design. When using PHP, you can, to some extent, split your application up by having multiple files (though I would recommend filtering everything through a master index.php). In Node.JS, which I've been playing around with again recently, that's not really possible.

A comparison of the way PHP and Node.JS applications are structured. See the explanation below.

Unlike PHP, which gets requests handed to it from a web server like Nginx via CGI (Common Gateway Interface), Node.JS is the server. You can set up your very own HTTP server listening on port 9898 like this:

import http from 'http';
const http_server = http.createServer((request, response) => {
    response.writeHead(200, {
        "x-custom-header": "yay"
    response.end("Hello, world!");
}).listen(9898, () => console.log("Listening on pot 9898"));

This poses a problem. How do we know what the client requested? Well, there's the request object for that - and I'm sure you can guess what the response object is for - but the other question that remains is how to we figure out which bit of code to call to send the client the correct response?

That's where a request router comes in handy. They come in all shapes and sizes - ranging from a bare-bones router to a full-scale framework - but their basic function is the same: to route a client's request to the right place. For example, a router might work a little bit like this:

import http from 'http';
import Router from 'my-awesome-router-library';

// ....

const router = new Router();

router.get("/login", route_login);
router.put("/inbox/:username", route_user_inbox_put);

const http_server = http.createServer(router.handler()).listen(20202);

Pretty simple, right? This way, every route can lead to a different function, and each of those functions can be in a separate file! Very cool. It all makes for a nice and neat way to structure one's application, preventing any issues relating to any one file getting too big - whilst simultaneously keeping everything orderly and in its own place.

Except when you're picky like me and you can't find a router you like, of course. I've got some pretty specific requirements. For one, I want something flexible and unopinionated enough that I can do my own thing without it getting in the way. For another, I'd like first-class support for middleware.

What's middleware you ask? Well, I've only just discovered it recently, but I can already tell that's its a very powerful method of structuring more complex applications - and devastatingly dangerous if used incorrectly (the spaghetti is real).

Basically, the endpoint of a route might parse some data that a client has sent it, and maybe authenticate the request against a backend. Perhaps a specific environment needs to be set up in order for a request to be fulfilled.

While we could do these things in the end route, it would clutter up the code in the end route, and we'd likely have more boilerplate, parsing, and environment setup code than we have actual application logic! The solution here is middleware. Think of it as an onion, with the final route application logic in the middle, and the parsing, logging, and error handling code as the layers on the outside.

A diagram visualising an application with 3 layers of middleware: an error handler, a logger, and a data parser - with the application  logic in the middle. Arrows show that a request makes its way through these layers of middleware both on the way in, and the way out.

In order to reach the application logic at the centre, an incoming request must first make its way through all the layers of middleware that are in the way. Similarly, it must also churn through the layers of middleware in order to get out again. We could represent this in code like so:

// Middleware that runs for every request

// Decode all post data with middleware
// This won't run for GET / HEAD / PUT / etc. requests - only POST requests;

// For GET requestsin under `/inbox`, run some middleware
router.get("/inbox", middleware_setup_user_area);

// Endpoint routes
// These function just like middleware too (i.e. we could
// pass the request through to another layer if we wanted
// to), but that don't lead anywhere else, so it's probably
// better if we keep them separate
router.get("/inbox/:username", route_user_inbox);
router.any("/honeypot", route_spambot_trap);

router.get("/login", route_display_login_page);"/login", route_do_login);

Quite a neat way of looking at it, right? Lets take a look at some example middleware for our fictional router:

async function middleware_catch_errors(context, next) {
    try {
        await next();
    } catch(error) {
        context.response.writeHead(503, {
            "content-type": "text/plain"
        // todo make this fancier
        context.response.end("Ouch! The server encountered an error and couldn't respond to your request. Please contact bob at!");

See that next() call there? That function call there causes the application to enter the next layer of middleware. We can have as many of these layers as we like - but don't go crazy! It'll cause you problems later whilst debugging.....

What I've shown here is actually very similar to the rill framework - it just has a bunch of extras tagged on that I don't like - along with some annoying limitations when it comes to defining routes.

To that end, I think I'll end up writing my own router, since none of the ones I've found will do the job just right. It kinda fits with the spirit of the project that this is for, too - teaching myself new things that I didn't know before.

If you're curious as to how a Node.JS application is going to fit in with a custom HTTP + WebSockets server written in C♯, then the answer is a user management panel. I'm not totally sure where this is going myself - I'll see where I end up! After all, with my track record, you're bound to find another post or three showing up on here again some time soon.

Until then, Goodnight!

Found this useful? Still got questions? Comment below!

Achievement Get: Complete Degree!

Check out the strawberry I found in my greenhouse!

Hey! I've just realised that this was my 300th post. Wow! Thanks for all the support so far. Here's to the next 300 :D

I've just finish my degree at University this week. I'm still waiting on results, but I thought I'd make a post about it documenting my thoughts so far before I forget (also, happy 300th post! Wow, have I reached that already?). Note that this doesn't mean the end of this blog - far from it! I'll be doing a masters this next academic year.

It's been a great journey to have the chance to go on. I feel like I've improved in so many different ways having gone to University. Make no mistake: University isn't for everyone (if you're considering it, make sure you do your research about all your options!) - but I've found that it's been right for me.

I'm glad that Rob Miles' suggestion of starting a blog has been a great investment of my time. For one, I've been able to document the things that I've been learning so that I can come back to them later, and read a more personalised guide to the thing I blogged about. I've also learnt a ton about Linux server management too - as I manage the server that this blog runs on entirely through the terminal (sorry, hackers who want to get into my non-existent management web interface - I know you're out there - you leave pawprints all over my server logs!). All very valuable experiences - I highly suggest that you start one too (you won't regret it. I promise!).

I've also found that my eyes have been opened in more ways than one whilst doing my degree - both to new ways of approaching problems, and new ways of solving them - and many other things that would take too long to list here). I've blogged about some of my favourite modules in this regard before - particularly Virtual Reality and Languages and Compilers.

Thanks to all the amazing people I've met along the way, I've ended up in a much better place than when I started.

Just another day: More spam, more defences

When post is released I'll be in an exam, but I wanted to post again about the perfectly fascinating spam situation here on my blog. I've blogged about fending off spam on here before (exhibits a, b, c), but I find the problem is detecting it in a transparent manner that you as the reader don't notice very interesting, so I think I'll write another post on the subject. I could use a service like Google's ReCAPTCHA, but that would be boring :P

Recently I've had a trio of spam comments make it all the way through my (rather extensive) checks and onto my blog here. I removed them, of course, but it still baffled me as to why they made it through.

It didn't take long to find out. When I was first implementing comments on here, I added a logger specifically for purposes such as this that saves everything about current environmental state to a log file for later inspection - for both comments that make it through, and those that don't. It's not available publically available, of course (but if you'd like to take a look, just ask and I'll consider it). Upon isolating the entries for the spam comments, I discovered a few interesting things.

  • The comment keys were aged 21, 21, and 17 seconds respectively (the lower limit I have set is 10 seconds)
  • All 3 comments claimed that they were Firefox 57
  • 2 out of 3 comments used HTTP 1.0 (even though they claimed to be Firefox 57, and despite my server offering HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2.0)
  • All 3 comments utilised HTTPS
  • The IP Addresses that the comments came form were in Ukraine, Russia, and Canada (hey?) respectively
  • All 3 appear to be phishing scams, with a link leading to a likely malicious website
  • The 2 using HTTP/1.0 also asked my server to close the connection after sending a response
  • All 3 asked not to be tracked via the DNT HTTP header
  • The last comment had some really weird capitalisation. After consulting someone experienced on the subject, I learnt that the writer likely natively spoke an eastern language, such as Chinese

This was most interesting. From this, I can conclude:

  • The last comment was likely submitted by a Chinese operator - even though the source IP address is located in Ukraine
  • All three are spoofing their user agent string.
    • Firefox 57 uses HTTP/2.0 by default if you're really in a browser, and the spam comments utilised HTTP/1.0 and HTTP/1.1
    • Curiously, all of this took place over HTTPS. I'd be really curious to log which cipher was used for the connection here.
    • In light of this, if I knew more about HTTP client libraries, I could probably identify what software was really used to submit the spam comments (and possibly even what operating system it was running on). If you know, please comment below!

To combat this development, I thought of a few options. Firstly, raising the minimum comment age, whilst effective, may disrupt the user experience, which I don't want to do. Plus, the bot owners could just increase the delay even more. To that end, I decided not to do this.

Secondly, with the amount of data I've collected, I could probably write an AI that takes the environment in and spits out a 'spaminess' score, much like SpamAssassin and rspamd do for email. Perhaps a multi-weighted system would work, with a series of tests that add or take away from the final score? I might investigate upgrading my spam detection system to do this in the future, as it would not only block spam more effectively, but provide a more distilled overview of the characteristics of each comment submission than I have currently.

Lastly, I could block HTTP/1.0 requests. While not perfect (1 out of 3 requests used HTTP/1.1), it would still catch some more bots out without disrupting user experience - as normal browsers (include text-based ones IIRC) use HTTP/1.1 or above. HTTP/1.1 has been around since 1991 (27 years!), so if you're not using it by now - upgrade! For now, this is the best option I can see.

From today, if you try to submit a comment and get a HTTP 505 HTTP Version Not Supported error and see a message saying something like this:

You sent your request via HTTP/1.0, but this is not supported for submitting comments due to high volume of spam. Please retry with HTTP/1.1 or higher.

...then you'll have to upgrade and / or reconfigure your web browser. Please let me know (my email address is on the homepage) if this causes any issues for anyone, and I'll help you out.

Found this interesting? Know more about this? Got a better solution? Comment below!

Shift-Reduce Parser Part 2: Building Furniture (1)

Hello and welcome! I got a bit distracted by other things as you can tell, but I'm back with part 2 of my series on building a shift-reduce parser. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, then I'd advise reading part 1 first and then coming back here. It might be a good idea to re-read it anyway, juts to refresh your memory :-)

The same flowchart from last time, but with the parse table section highlighted.

Last time, we created some data classes to store the various rules and tokens that we'll be generating. Today, we're going to build on that and start turning a set of rules into a parse table. Let's introduce the rules we'll working with:

<start> ::= <expression>

<expression> ::= <expression> PLUS <value>
    | <term>

<term> ::= <term> DIVIDE <value>
    | <value>

<value> ::= <number>

<number> ::= DIGIT
    | <number> DIGIT

The above represents a very basic calculator-style syntax, which only supports adding and dividing. It's written in Backus-Naur Form, which is basically a standardised way of writing parsing rules.

To build a parse table, we first must understand what such a thing actually is. Let's take a look at an example:

state action goto
* + 0 1 $ E B
0 s1 s2 3 4
1 r4 r4 r4 r4 r4
2 r5 r5 r5 r5 r5
3 s5 s6 goal
4 r3 r3 r3 r3 r3
5 s1 s2 7
6 s1 s2 8
7 r1 r1 r1 r1 r1
8 r2 r2 r2 r2 r2

_(Source: Adapted from the LR Parser on Wikipedia.)_

While it looks complex at first, let's break it down. There are 3 parts to this table: The state, the action, and the goto. The action and goto represent What should happen if a particular token is encountered. In this case, the input stream contains both terminal (i.e. DIGIT, DIVIDE, BRACKET_CLOSE, etc. in the case of our BNF above) and non-terminal (i.e. number, term, expression, etc. in the case of our BNF above) symbols - if understand it correctly, so there are actually 2 parts to the table here to make sure that both are handled correctly.

We'll be connecting this to our lexer, which outputs only terminal symbols, so we should be ok I believe (if you know better, please post a comment below!). The state refers to the state in the table. As I've mentioned before, a given state may contain one or more configurations. It's these configurations that give rise to the actions in the table above, such as s2 (shift and then go to state 2) or r3 (reduce and jump to state 3).

To use the table, the parser must know what state it's in, and then take a look across the top row for the next symbol it has in the token stream. Once found, it can follow it down to figure out what action it should take, as explained above. If there isn't an action in the box, then there must be an error in the input, as the table doesn't tell us what to do in this situation. To that end, we should try and generate a meaningful error message to help the user to find the mistake in the input (or the developer in the parser!).

We're kind of getting ahead of ourselves here though. We need to build this table first, and to do that, we need to figure out which configurations go in which state. And, going down the rabbit hole, we need to know what a configuration is. Again, it's best if I demonstrate. Consider the following parsing rule from our example BNF at the beginning of this post:

<value> ::= BRACKET_OPEN <expression> BRACKET_CLOSE

A single configuration represent a possible state of the parser at a particular instant in time. I could split that above rule up like so:

<value> ::= BRACKET_OPEN * <expression> BRACKET_CLOSE
<value> ::= BRACKET_OPEN <expression> * BRACKET_CLOSE
<value> ::= BRACKET_OPEN <expression> BRACKET_CLOSE *

The asterisk represent where the parser might have gotten up to. Everything to the left is on the stack of the parser, and everything to the right hasn't happened yet.

Since this isn't a top-level rule (in our example that honour goes to the rule for the start non-terminal), the parser will never be in a position where the first item there doesn't exist yet on the stack, so we can ignore the configuration in which the asterisk would be to the left of BRACKET_OPEN.

Confused? Let me try and help here. Let's draw a diagram of how our parser is going to operate:

_(Source: Made by me, but adapted from the LR Parser article on Wikipedia)_

Basically, the parser will be taking in the input token stream and either shift a new terminal token onto the stack, or reduce one or more existing tokens on the stack into a single non-terminal token, which replaces those existing tokens on the stack. The configurations above represent possible states of the stack (the bit to the left of the asterisk), and possible directions that the parser could take when parsing (the bit to th right of the asterisk).

Finally, when the goal is reached, the output is returned to the caller (which, by the time we're done, should be a parse tree). Said tree can then be optimised and processed for whatever purpose we desire!

With this knowledge, we can deduce that we can build the entire table by recursing over the tree of rules from the start state. That way, we'll visit every rule that we'll need to parse everything required to reach the goal state by recursing over all the rules for all the non-terminals referenced by all the rules we visit. We could even generate a warning if we detect that some rules don't connect to this 'tree'. Here's a tree of our example ruleset from the beginning of this post:

A tree diagram of the rules detailed near the beginning of this post.

It's a bit spaghetti-ish, but it should be legible enough :P This gives us an idea as to how we're going to tackle this. Taking into account the data classes we created in the last post, we need to make sure we keep the following in mind:

  1. Since the main ShiftReduceParser class is going to hold the rules, the ParseTable class will need a reference to its parent ShiftReduceParser in order to query the rules.
  2. In light of this, the SHiftReduceParser should be responsible for satisfying any queries the ParseTable has about rules - the ParseTable should not have to go looking & filtering the rule list held by ShiftReduceParser itself.
  3. ParseTable will need a recursive method that will take a single top-level rule and recurse over it and its child rules (according to the tree I've talked about above)
  4. This method in ParseTale will need to be extremely careful it doesn't get stuck in a loop. To that end, it'll have to keep track of whether it's already processed a rule or not.
  5. It'll probably also have to keep track of which configurations it has added to the table class structure we defined in the last post to avoid adding rules twice.
  6. Once ParseTable has figured out all the configurations and grouped them all into the right states, it will then have to recurse over the generated table and fill in all the shift / reduce / goal action(s) - not forgetting about the links to the other states they should point to.

It's quite the laundry list! Thankfully, most of this is quite simple if we tackle it one step at a time. The most annoying bit is the grouping of configurations into states. This is done by looking at the token immediately before the asterisk in each configuration - all the configurations with the same token here will get grouped into the same state (while there are more complex algorithms that allow for more complex grammars, we'll stick with this for now as anything else makes my head hurt! Maybe in the future I'll look as figuring out precisely what kind of LR-style parser this is, and upgrading it to be a canonical LR(1) parser - the most advanced type I know of).

This is quite a lot to take in, so I think I'll leave this post here for you to digest - and we'll get to writing some code in the next one.

Found this useful? Spotted a mistake? Having trouble getting your head around it? Post a comment below!

Distributing work with Node.js

A graph of the data I generated by writing the scripts I talk about in this post. (Above: A pair of graphs generated with gnuplot from the data I crunched with the scripts I talk about in this blog post. Anti-aliased version - easier to pick details out [928.1 KiB])

I really like Node.js. For those not in the know, it's basically Javascript for servers - and it's brilliant at networking. Like really really good. Like C♯-beating good. Anyway, last week I had a 2-layer neural network that I wanted to simulate all the different combinations from 1-64 nodes in both layers for, as I wanted to generate a 3-dimensional surface graph of the error.

Since my neural network (which is also written in Node.js :P) has a command-line interface, I wrote a simple shell script to drive it in parallel, and set it going on a Raspberry Pi I have acting as a file server (it doesn't do much else most of the time). After doing some calculations, I determined that it would finish at 6:40am Thursday..... next week!

Of course, taking so long is no good at all if you need it done Thursday this week - so I set about writing a script that would parallelise it over the network. In the end I didn't actually include the data generated in my report for which I had the Thursday deadline, but it was a cool challenge nonetheless!


To start with, I created a server script that would allocate work items, called nodecount-surface-server.js. The first job was to set things up and create a quick settings object and a work item generator:

#!/usr/bin/env node
// ^----| Shebang to make executing it on Linux easier

const http = require("http"); // We'll need this later

const settings = {
    port: 32000,
    min: 1,
    max: 64,
settings.start = [settings.min, settings.min];

function* work_items() {
    for(let a = settings.start[0]; a < settings.max; a++) {
        for(let b = settings.start[1]; b < settings.max; b++) {
            yield [a, b];

That function* is a generator. C♯ has them too - and they let a function return more than one item in an orderly fashion. In my case, it returns arrays of numbers which I use as the topology for my neural networks:

[1, 1]
[1, 2]
[1, 3]
[1, 4]

Next, I wrote the server itself. Since it was just a temporary script that was running on my local network, I didn't implement too many security measures - please bear this in mind if using or adapting it yourself!

function calculate_progress(work_item) {
    let i = (work_item[0]-1)*64 + (work_item[1]-1), max = settings.max * settings.max;
    return `${i} / ${max} ${(i/max*100).toFixed(2)}%`;

var work_generator = work_items();

const server = http.createServer((request, response) => {
    switch(request.method) {
        case "GET":
            let next =;
            let next_item = next.value;
            console.error(`[allocation] [${calculate_progress(next_item)}] ${next_item}`);
        case "POST":
            var body = "";
            request.on("data", (data) => body += data);
            request.on("end", () => {
                console.error(`[complete] ${body}`);
server.on("clientError", (error, socket) => {
    socket.end("HTTP/1.1 400 Bad Request");
server.listen(settings.port, () => { console.error(`Listening on ${settings.port}`); });

Basically, the server accepts 2 types of requests:

  • GET requests, which ask for work
  • POST requests, which respond with the results of a work item

In my case, I send out work items like this:

11  24

...and will be receiving work results like this:

11  24  0.2497276811644629

This means that I don't even need to keep track of which work item I'm receiving a result for! If I did though, I'd probably having some kind of ID-based system with a list of allocated work items which I could refer back to - and periodically iterate over to identify any items that got lost somewhere so I can add them to a reallocation queue.

With that, the server was complete. It outputs the completed work item results to the standard output, and progress information to the standard error. This allows me to invoke it like this:

node ./nodecount-surface-server.js >results.tsv


Very cool. A server isn't much good without an army of workers ready and waiting to tear through the work items it's serving at breakneck speed though - and that's where the worker comes in. I started writing it in much the same way I did the server:

#!/usr/bin/env node
// ^----| Another shebang, just like the server

const http = require("http"); // We'll need this to talk to the server later
const child_process = require("child_process"); // This is used to spawn the neural network subprocess

const settings = {
    server: { host: "", port: 32000 },
    worker_command: "./network.js --epochs 1000 --learning-rate 0.2 --topology {topology} <datasets/acw-2-set-10.txt 2>/dev/null"

That worker_command there in the settings object is the command I used to execute the neural network, with a placeholder {topology} which we find-and-replace just before execution. Due to obvious reasons (no plagiarism thanks!) I can't release that script itself, but it's not necessary to understand how the distributed work item systme I've written works. It could just as well be any other command you like!

Next up is the work item executor itself. Since it obviously takes time to execute a work item (why else would I go to such lengths to process as many of them at once as possible :P), I take a callback as the 2nd argument (it's just like a delegate or Action in C♯):

function execute_item(data, callback) {
    let command = settings.worker_command.replace("{topology}", data.join(","));
    console.log(`[execute] ${command}`);
    let network_process = child_process.exec(command, (error, stdout, stderr) =>  {
        console.log(`[done] ${stdout.trim()}`);
        let result = stdout.trim().split(/\t|,/g);
        let payload = `${result[0]}\t${result[1]}\t${result[5]}`;

        let request = http.request({
            port: settings.server.port,
            path: "/",
            method: "POST",
            headers: {
                "content-length": payload.length
        }, (response) => {
            console.log(`[submitted] ${payload}`);

In the above I substitute in the work item array as a comma-separated list, execute the command as a subprocess, report the result back to the server, and then call the callback. To report the result back I use the http module built-in to Node.JS, but if I were tidy this up I would probably use an npm package like got instead, as it simplifies the code a lot and provides more features / better error handling / etc.

A work item executor is no good without any work to do, so that's what I tackled next. I wrote another function that fetches work items from the server and executes them - wrapping the whole thing in a Promise to make looping it easier later:

function do_work() {
    return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) {
        let request = http.request({
            port: settings.server.port,
            path: "/",
            method: "GET"
        }, (response) => {
            var body = "";
            response.on("data", (chunk) => body += chunk);
            response.on("end", () => {
                if(body.trim().length == 0) {
                    console.error(`No work item received. We're done!`);
                let work_item = body.split(/\s+/).map((item) => parseInt(item.trim()));
                console.log(`[work item] ${work_item}`);
                execute_item(work_item, resolve);

Awesome! It's really coming together. Doing just one work item isn't good enough though, so I took it to the next level:

function* do_lots_of_work() {
    while(true) {
        yield do_work();

// From
function run_generator(g) {
    var it = g(), ret;

    (function iterate() {
        ret =;


Much better. That completed the worker script - so all that remained was to set it going on as many machines as I could get my hands on, sit back, and watch it go :D

I did have some trouble with crashes at the end because there was no work left for them to do, but it didn't take (much) fiddling to figure out where the problem(s) lay.

Each instance of the worker script can max out a single core of a machine, so multiple instances of the worker script are needed per machine in order to fully utilise a single machine's resources. If I ever need to do this again, I'll probably make use of the built-in cluster module to simplify it such that I only need to start a single instance of the worker script per machine instance of 1 for each core.

Come to think of it, it would have looked really cool if I'd done it at University and employed a whole row of machines in a deserted lab doing the crunching - especially since it was for my report....

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Art by Mythdael