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Life at the Boundaries: Conversion and Validation

In software development we deal with boundaries between systems.

Examples of boundaries are:

  • Your application code and a database.
  • Your application code and the file system.
  • A web server and your server-side application code.
  • A client-side application and the browser DOM.
  • A client-side application in JavaScript and the web server.

It's important to recognize these boundaries. You want to do things at the boundaries of our application, just after input has arrived into your application across an outer boundary, and just before you send output across an inner boundary.

If you read a file and what's in that file is a string representing a number, you want to convert the string to a number as soon as possible after reading it, so that the rest of your codebase can forget about the file and the string in it, and just deal with the number.

Because if you don't and pass a filename around, you may have to open that file multiple times throughout your codebase. Or if you read from the file and leave the value as a string, you may have to convert it to a number each time you need it. This means duplicated code, and multiple places where things can go wrong. All that is more work, more error prone, and less fun.

Boundaries are our friends. So much so that programming languages give us tools like functions and classes to create new boundaries in software. With a solid, clear boundary in place in the middle of our software, both halves can be easier to understand and easier to manage.

One of the most interesting things that happen on the boundaries in software is conversion and validation of values. I find it very useful to have a clear understanding of these concepts during software development. To understand each other better it's useful to share this understanding out loud. So here is how I define these concepts and how I use them.

I hope this helps some of you see the boundaries more clearly.

Following a HTML form submit through boundaries

Let's look at an example of a value going across multiple boundaries in software. In this example, we have a web form with an input field that lets the user fill in their date of birth as a string in the format 'DD-MM-YYYY'.

I'm going to give examples based on web development. I also give a few tiny examples in Python. The web examples and Python used here only exist to illustrate concepts; similar ideas apply in other contexts. You shouldn't need to understand the details of the web or Python to understand this, so don't go away if you don't.

Serializing a web form to a request string

In a traditional non-HTML 5 HTTP web form, the input type for dates is text`. This means that the dates are in fact not interpreted by the browser as dates at all. It's just a string to the browser, just like adfdafd. The browser does not know anything about the value otherwise, unless it has loaded JavaScript code that checks whether it the input is really a date and shows an error message if it's not.

In HTML 5 there is a new input type called date, but for the sake of this discussion we will ignore it, as it doesn't change all that much in this example.

So when the user submits a form with the birth date field, the inputs in the form are serialized to a longer string that is then sent to the server as the body of a POST request. This serialization happens according to what's specified in the form tag's enctype attribute. When the enctype is multipart/form-data, the request to the server will be a string that looks a lot like this:

POST /some/path HTTP/1.1
Content-type: multipart/form-data, boundary=AaB03x

--AaB03x
content-disposition: form-data; name="birthdate"

21-10-1985
--AaB03x--

Note that this serialization of form input to the multipart/form-data format cannot fail; serialization always succeeds, no matter what form data was entered.

Converting the request string to a Request object

So now this request arrives at the web server. Let's imagine our web server is in Python, and that there's a web framework like Django or Flask or Pyramid or Morepath in place. This web framework takes the serialized HTTP request, that is, the string, and then converts it into a request object.

This request object is much more convenient to work with in Python than the HTTP request string. Instead of having one blob of a string, you can easily check indidivual aspects of the request -- what request method was used (POST), what path the request is for, what the body of the request was. The web framework also recognizes multipart/form-data and automatically converts the request body with the form data into a convenient Python dictionary-like data structure.

Note that the conversion of HTTP request text to request object may fail. This can happen when the client did not actually format the request correctly. The server should then return a HTTP error, in this case 400 Bad Request, so that the client software (or the developer working on the client software) knows something went wrong.

The potential that something goes wrong is one difference between conversion and serialization; both transform the data, but conversion can fail and serialization cannot. Or perhaps better said: if serialization fails it is a bug in the software, whereas conversion can fail due to bad input. This is because serialization goes from known-good data to some other format, whereas conversion deals with input data from an external source that may be wrong in some way.

Thanks to the web framework's parsing of web form into a Python data structure, we can easily get the field birthdate from our form. If the request object was implemented by the Webob library (like for Pyramid and Morepath), we can get it like this:

 >>> request.POST['birthdate']
'21-10-1985'

Converting the string to a date

But the birthdate at this point is still a string 21-10-1985. We now want to convert it into something more convenient to Python. Python has a datetime library with a date type, so we'd like to get one of those.

This conversion could be done automatically by a form framework -- these are very handy as you can declaratively describe what types of values you expect and the framework can then automatically convert incoming strings to convenient Python values accordingly. I've written a few web form frameworks in my time. But in this example we'll do it it manually, using functionality from the Python datetime library to parse the date:

>>> from datetime import datetime
>>> birthdate = datetime.strptime(request.POST['birthdate'], '%d-%m-%Y').date()
datetime.date(1985, 10, 21)

Since this is a conversion operation, it can fail if the user gave input that is not in the right format or is not a proper date Python will raise a ValueError exception in this case. We need to write code that detects this and then signal the HTTP client that there was a conversion error. The client needs to update its UI to inform the user of this problem. All this can get quite complicated, and here again a form framework can help you with this.

It's important to note that we should isolate this conversion to one place in our application: the boundary where the value comes in. We don't want to pass the birth date string around in our code and only convert it into a date when we need to do something with it that requires a date object. Doing conversion "just in time" like that has a lot of problems: code duplication is one of them, but even worse is that we would need worry about conversion errors everywhere instead of in one place.

Validating the date

So now that we have the birth date our web application may want to do some basic checking to see whether it makes sense. For example, we probably don't expect time travellers to fill in the form, so we can safely reject any birth dates set in the future as invalid.

We've already converted the birth date from a string into a convenient Python date object, so validating that the date is not in the future is now easy:

>>> from datetime import date
>>> birthdate <= date.today()
True

Validation needs the value to be in a convenient form, so validation happens after conversion. Validation does not transform the value; it only checks whether the value is valid according to additional criteria.

There are a lot of possible validations:

  • validate that required values are indeed present.
  • check that a value is in a certain range.
  • relate the value to another value elsewhere in the input or in the database. Perhaps the birth date is not supposed to be earlier than some database-defined value, for instance.
  • etc.

If the input passes validation, the code just continues on its merry way. Only when the validation fails do we want to take special action. The minimum action that should be taken is to reject the data and do nothing, but it could also involve sending information about the cause of the validation failure back to the user interface, just like for conversion errors.

Validation should be done just after conversion, at the boundary of the application, so that after that we can stop worrying about all this and just trust the values we have as valid. Our life is easier if we do validation early on like this.

Serialize the date into a database

Now the web application wants to store the birth date in a database. The database sits behind a boundary. This boundary may be clever and allow you to pass in straight Python date objects and do a conversion to its internal format afterward. That would be best.

But imagine our database is dumb and expects our dates to be in a string format. Now the task is up to our application: we need transform the date to a string before the database boundary.

Let's say the database layer expects date strings in the format 'YYYY-MM-DD'. We then have to serialize our Python date object to that format before we pass it into the database:

>>> birthdate.strftime('%Y-%m-%d')
'1985-10-21'

This is serialization and not conversion because this transformation always succeeds.

Concepts

So we have:

Transformation:
Transform data from one type to another. Transformation by itself cannot fail, as it is assumed to always get correct input. It is a bug in the software if it does not. Conversion and serialization both do transformation.
Conversion:
Transform input across a boundary into a more convenient form inside that boundary. Fails if the input cannot be transformed.
Serialization
Transform valid data as output across a boundary into a form convenient to outside. Cannot fail if there are no bugs in the software.
Validation:
Check whether input across a boundary that is already converted to convenient form is valid inside that boundary. Can fail. Does not transform.

Reuse

Conversion just deals with converting one value to another and does not interact with the rest of the universe. The implementation of a converter is therefore often reusable between applications.

The behavior of a converter typically does not depend on state or configuration. If conversion behavior does depend on application state, for instance because you want to parse dates as 'MM-DD-YYYY' instead of 'DD-MM-YYYY', it is often a better approach to just swap in a different converter based on the locale than to have the converter itself to be aware of the locale.

Validation is different. While some validations are reusable across applications, a lot of them will be application specific. Validation success may depend on the state of other values in the input or on application state. Reusable frameworks that help with validation are still useful, but they do need additional information from the application to do their work.

Serialization and parsing

Serialization is transformation of data to a particular type, such as a string or a memory buffer. These types are convenient for communicating across the boundary: storing on the file system, storing data in a database, or passing data through the network.

The opposite of serialization is deserialization and this is done by parsing: this takes data in its serialized form and transforms it into a more convenient form. Parsing can fail if its input is not correct. Parsing is therefore conversion, but not all conversion is parsing.

Parsing extracts information and checks whether the input conforms to a grammar in one step, though if you treat the parser as a black box you can view these as two separate phases: input validation and transformation.

There are transformation operations in an application that do not serialize but can also not fail. I don't have a separate word for these besides "transformation", but they are quite common. Take for instance an operation that takes a Python object and transforms it into a dictionary convenient for serialization to JSON: it can only consist of dicts, lists, strings, ints, floats, bools and None.

Some developers argue that data should always be kept in such a format instead of in objects, as it can encourage a looser coupling between subsystems. This idea is especially prevalent in Lisp-style homoiconic language communities, where even code is treated as data. It is interesting to note that JSON has made web development go in the direction of more explicit data structures as well. Perhaps it is as they say:

Whoever does not understand LISP is doomed to reinvent it.

Input validation

We can pick apart conversion and find input validation inside. Conversion does input validation before transformation, and serialization (and plain transformation) does not.

Input validation is very different from application-level validation. Input validation is conceptually done just before the convenient form is created, and is an inherent part of the conversion. In practice, a converter typically parses data, doing both in a single step.

I prefer to reserve the term "validation" for application-level validation and discuss input validation only when we talk about implementing a converter.

But sometimes conversion from one perspective is validation from another.

Take the example above where we want to store a Python date in a database. What if this operation does not work for all Python date objects? The database layer could accept dates in a different range than the one supported by the Python date object. The database may therefore may therefore be offered a date that is outside of its range and reject it with an error.

We can view this as conversion: the database converts a date value that comes in, and this conversion may fail. But we can also view this in another way: the database transforms the date value that comes in, and then there is an additional validation that may fail. The database is a black box and both perspectives work. That comes in handy a little bit later.

Validation and layers

Consider a web application with an application-level validation layer, and another layer of validation in the database.

Maybe the database also has a rule to make sure that the birth date is not in the future. It gives an error when we give a date in the future. Since validation errors can now occur at the database layer, we need to worry about properly handling them.

But transporting such a validation failure back to the user interface can be tricky: we are on the boundary between application code and database at this point, far from the boundary between application and user interface. And often database-level validation failure messages are in a form that is not very informative to a user; they speak in terms of the database instead of the user.

We can make our life easier. What we can do is duplicate any validation the database layer does at the outer boundary of our application, the one facing the web. Validation failures there are relatively simple to propagate back to the user interface. Since any validation errors that can be given by the database have already been detected at an earlier boundary before the database is ever reached, we don't need to worry about handling database-level validation messages anymore. We can act as if they don't exist, as we've now guaranteed they cannot occur.

We treat the database-level validation as an extra sanity check guarding against bugs in our application-level code. If validation errors occur on the database boundary, we have a bug, and this should not happen, and we can just report a general error: on the web this is a 500 internal server error. That's a lot easier to do.

The general principle is: if we do all validations that the boundary to a deeper layer already needs at a higher layer, we can effectively the inner boundary as not having any validations. The validations in the deeper layer then only exist as extra checks that guard against bugs in the validations at the outer boundary.

We can also apply this to conversion errors: if we already make sure we clean up the data with validations at an outer boundary before it reaches an inner boundary that needs to do conversions, the conversions cannot fail. We can treat them as transformations again. We can do this as in a black box we can treat any conversion as a combination of transformation and validation.

Validation in the browser

In the end, let's return to the web browser.

We've seen that doing validation at an outer boundary can let us ignore validation done deeper down in our code. We do validation once when values come into the web server, and we can forget about doing them in the rest of our server code.

We can go one step further. We can lift our validation out of the server, into the client. If we do our validation in JavaScript when the user inputs values into the web form, we are in the right place to give really accurate user interface feedback in easiest way possible. Validation failure information has to cross from JavaScript to the browser DOM and that's it. The server is not involved.

We cannot always do this. If our validation code needs information on the server that cannot be shared securily or efficiently with the client, the server is still involved in validation, but at least we can still do all the user interface work in the client.

Even if we do not need server-side validation for the user interface, we cannot ignore doing server-side validation altogether, as we cannot guarantee that our JavaScript program is the only program that sends information to the server. Through that route, or because of bugs in our JavaScript code, we can still get input that is potentially invalid. But now if the server detects invalid information, it does not need do anything complicated to report validation errors to the client. Instead it can just generate an internal server error.

If we could somehow guarantee that only our JavaScript program is the one that sends information to the server, we could forgo doing validation on the server altogether. Someone more experienced in the arts of encryption may be able to say whether this is possible. I suspect the answer will be "no", as it usually is with JavaScript in web browsers and encryption.

In any case, we may in fact want to encourage other programs to use the same web server; that's the whole idea behind offering HTTP APIs. If this is our aim, we need to handle validation on the server as well, and give decent error messages.

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