Event Sourcing without Responsibility

Michael Sperber  |  21 December 2021

This is a tale about our experience implementing event sourcing without even knowing it existed. We're a small software consultancy specializing in project work involving functional programming. It was 2015, and one of our clients was (still is, actually) a large auto-shop chain.

They called us because of a shift in their IT strategy: The shops they run are divided into multiple lanes, each for servicing one car at a time. At the end of each lane is a metal davenport desk with various pieces of hardware - a printer, diagnostic equipment, etc. Before 2015, the davenport contained a stationary PC. The client was preparing to get rid of those PCs, and instead, issue a portable device (essentially a rugged tablet) to each employee.

Now here's a problem: When an employee (and their device) moved to a different lane (or a different shop), they needed to re-configure it to connect to the devices at the local davenport. This was a tedious process, involving manually entering MAC addresses printed in 9-point-type on the back of the devices, etc. So the client asked us to develop a piece of software that would automate this process, with the following requirements:

  • Each piece of equipment should only be configured once; its configuration should then automatically be available on all devices.

  • The software should function in an environment with an unreliable wireless network of limited capacity.

  • The organization had no way to operate a central server.

These requirements meant the devices needed to store configuration data locally to ensure availability and communicate configuration changes between themselves. Early on, we realized that we could not use the usual persistence approach of storing the current configuration state in a database. Consistency is hard enough in an always-on environment, but with devices weaving in and out of networks, it was clear this would be unmanageable.

Embarrassingly, we had never heard of event sourcing: At the time, the functional programming and event-sourcing communities had few points of contact. Consequently, we developed local persistence and synchronization from first principles.

Facts about state

Our thinking revolved around the idea of a fact, i.e. something that's true. Now, "Davenport 123 is attached to an Acme PrintAce at IP x" is not a fact: It's only true for a certain period in time, and might no longer be true now. However, "Annette Mueller stated on Dec 6, 2021, that Davenport 123 is attached to an Acme PrintAce at IP x" - that's a fact we can store, if we're there to witness it.

Witnessed facts are purely accumulative, and this greatly simplifies synchronization and consistency: When two devices meet, they need only exchange those facts when the respectively opposite device does not know about yet.

Now, facts like these don't exist in isolation. If "Hans Mayer stated on Dec 6, 2021, that Davenport 123 is attached to a Highres WriteQueen at IP y", that fact is related to the previous one. Both facts take the form of attributed statements about the current state of the configuration at Davenport 123. They could be related in the following ways:

  • One fact "supersedes" the other.
  • The two facts are in conflict with each other.

How can the system distinguish between the two? Well, if one statement was made in a situation where the existence of the other is known, then the second supersedes the first, as it implies a causal relationship. If not, i.e. if both statements were made independently of one another, there's a conflict.

Conflict obsession

When we started designing the system, we were obsessed with conflicts. We made two assumptions:

  • Conflicts would be rare, as we assumed that users would stand physically close to the equipment as they were making configuration changes.
  • For a two-way conflict, there's a right way and a wrong way to resolve it - we'd need to make sure the system picks the right way.

Both assumptions turned out to be wrong, and we did not notice this until the system went operational.

But let's rewind a little bit: The system represents a piece of configuration state by a value of type OptionalVal<'a> as follows (this is F# code from the actual system):

type OptionalVal<'a> =
| Absent
| Good of option<'a>
| Conflict of Set<WithMeta<option<'a>>>

type Meta = { user: string
			  machine: string
			  datetime: DateTime.T }

type WithMetha<'a> = WithMeta of 'a * Meta

In the first release, whenever the system encountered a Conflict value, it would seek to resolve it and make a choice between the contained values. As we were obsessed with getting the choice right, the system presented the user with the different choices in the UI, along with metadata that might help a human resolve it. With the answer in hand, the system would create a "merge fact" that supersedes the two facts in conflict like so:



We were young and naive: We didn't take into account the unreasonable effectiveness of the synchronization algorithm, which would propagate the two conflicting facts to many devices before anyone got a chance to resolve the conflict. This was a UI fail - users didn't know why they were presented with this choice and had trouble figuring out who should press what button.

We quickly moved to automate the creation of a "merge fact", preferring more recent facts over older ones, for example. Unfortunately, this almost ended in disaster, as this happened on all devices that had conflicting facts, and that turned out to be quite a few. They'd create multiple merge facts, which also had to be merged, kicking off an endless cascade of merges:


Fortunately, we noticed before the accumulation got completely out of hand and pulled the release. We made two changes:

  • no more automatic merge facts
  • in the face of a Conflict value, the system would pick one of the values deterministically

We fully expected users to complain when the system would pick the wrong value, but this never happened. A user would simply change the configuration, adding a merge fact manually.

Looking at the data, we were surprised how often conflicts happened, despite our assumption about physical proximity. Even though we never really figured out why these conflicts were so frequent, we should not have been surprised: In presenting a manual merge UI, we were assuming that there is only a single system, when in fact a distributed system was at work.

Fact persistence

As there was only weak connectivity between the devices and unreliable network connectivity, we had to store facts locally. We settled on using SQLite, known for its simplicity, scalability, and reliability. (Even had we known about event databases, these would have seemed like overkill.) Here is our database schema:

  key_hash BLOB NOT NULL,
  obsoleted_hash BLOB NOT NULL,
  FOREIGN KEY(key_hash) REFERENCES kv(hash)
CREATE INDEX hashesIdx1 ON hashes(obsoleted_hash);
  hash BLOB PRIMARY KEY NOT NULL UNIQUE, -- hash bytes
  guid BLOB NOT NULL, -- guid bytes
  property STRING NOT NULL, -- property name
  value BLOB NOT NULL, -- property value
  meta STRING NOT NULL -- meta JSON
CREATE INDEX kvIdx1 ON kv(guid,property);

Each fact is identified b a hash and a guid identifying the entity affected and makes a statement about a property having a certain value. Each hash can also be associated with the hashes of other facts obsoleted by this one. We then used a view to make all obsoleted facts invisible:

SELECT hash,guid,property,value,meta FROM kv
WHERE kv.hash NOT IN 
  (SELECT obsoleted_hash FROM hashes)

We then made another mistake: As gathering the facts associated with a given shop locality did not seem obviously efficient to us, we assumed it would be inefficient. Consequently, we also added a table with a locality map storing the current state associated with a given locality. (What folks over here would probably call a projection or a query model - we were not aware of that terminology.)

Alas, the locality map continually got out of sync for reasons we never fully understood. (The code was quite complex, as it had to react to synchronization.) Out of sheer laziness to find all the bugs, we pulled the locality map and just collected the relevant facts each time. This turned out to be quite sufficiently efficient in practice.

Today, the software only ever accesses facts and makes do without any projections. This is made possible through the use of a database that can handle indexing, as opposed to a classic event store that mostly stores an append log.

Going back in time

Using a proper database also had another pleasant side effect: Some users asked to "turn back time" when they'd made a configuration mistake. We implemented this by collecting all the facts associated with a given locality and displaying a list of them in chronological order. The user can then select a point in time in the past. The system now can simply collect all the facts up that point associated with the locality and use it to create a virtual database.

We had used a monad to implement dependency injection for the database. Originally, this was for testing without on-disk storage. Here, we were able to re-use this functionality to create a temporary implementation of the database interface that has access to only the subset of facts up to that point in time. From that, the system can reconstruct the state at that point in time using existing code, and generate new facts on top of the current state that will re-recreate the state from the past.

Consequently, the design of our "facts database" had conveniently provided all the pieces needed to implement this completely new time machine.

Syncing up

One crucial aspect of the "facts database" design was that it enabled efficient synchronization across devices. A variety of events trigger such a synchronization: A configuration change, or the arrival of a device in a WiFi network. When that happens, the device in question broadcasts a UDP packet asking for a synchronization partner.

Once it finds one, the system assembles all the facts into a Merkle tree on each device. The devices then cooperate to traverse the Merkle tree downwards in a breadth-first fashion. A Merkle tree has at each node a hash code that identifies all the data in its subtree. At each level, both sides determine the hashes that match between the devices, removing them from the traversal. At the bottom is the list of facts that needs to be transferred to the other side.

The top hash is included in the UDP broadcast that triggers synchronization: Any device receiving it can compare it with its own top hash. If they match, no synchronization is necessary.

Wrapping up

It should be easy to see this system fundamentally as an event-sourcing system. Just substitute "event" for "fact", and the techniques and technologies from event sourcing apply.

However, note that the system contains no "query models". These turned out to be unnecessary to answer the questions that the system has. This is a way of thinking we've found to be more useful than to start from a CQRS mindset: Think about the questions you want to be answered, and what of data structure or system might answer them sufficiently well. We've found this less confusing than the murky concept of "responsibility". In our case, just adding some indexing to our "fact store" enabled answering those questions directly from the facts.

We hope this post has given you some ideas for your own next project!

Photo of Michael Sperber

Michael Sperber Michael Sperber is CEO of Active Group in Tübingen, Germany. Mike specializes in functional programming, and has been an internationally recognized expert in the field: He has spoken at the top conferences in programming languages, authored many papers on the subject as well as several books. Moreover, he is an expert on teaching programming.