30 December 2005
This a style of application I've come across a couple of times. The application is primarily a reporting application that gives users real time information about the state of something. It is an active application, in that the users have a lot of control about what kinds of things they are looking at they're able to drill down in particular areas and generally manipulate their display; however it is still, at least primarily a read-only application.
Another characteristic of this kind of application is that is an event sourced application, that is all updates to the display state are made through event objects that can be stored and queued. These events can be custom made for the application, or they can be an external message stream. Chris Stevenson told me about an example event poster: Inkblot, which used a database table, written for another application, where rows were inserted as events.
Taking these two characteristics together, and you can see that there's no need for a database to save the in-memory state of the display. There is often some initial state to load into the system, such as the world at the start of the day, after that all the changes are made through the event stream into the in-memory state of the event poster. Should the application fail, it just reloads the initial state and replays all the events in the queue.
Going without persisting the application state leads to two main advantages: firstly the application is very fast since there's no disk access involved as people manipulate the system. Marcel Weiher told me about a news feed application at the BBC where a former version took several seconds to process a request in production and the replacement event poster application easily did several hundred a second on his laptop.
Secondly all the complexities of mapping between in-memory and database are removed, which allows people to build a good domain model geared towards the display needs and never worry about persisting it. (This may not be such a big advantage if the display behavior happens to match relational behavior, because then SQL is advantage.)
Obviously there are limits to this kind of application. You are limited in data by what can fit in memory, although these days main memory can hold a hell of a lot, it wasn't that long ago when gigabyte databases were considered pretty large. You also run into the other limitations of event sourcing.
It's trivially easy to cluster this kind of system. All you have to do is ensure events get broadcast to all the copies. If one goes down it's easy to replace it with another since the states are always going to be pretty much in sync.
I said these applications are read-only, but that isn't strictly true. To do an update the poster just captures the information and sends it to the back-end application that is the source of the events. It doesn't update its own data directly, instead it waits for the appropriate event to come through the stream from the source application. This ensures that multiple posters show the same data and that the source application can do any processing it needs to do on the changes.
We struggled with a good name for this kind of application. There are several characteristics that are important that it would be nice if the name evoked: event streams, transient data, display only. I thought 'poster' was nice because it made me think of message boards that carry the news of the day on a poster that are torn down and replaced every morning.