This code has expectations from the reader

time to read 2 min | 396 words

I just had a discussion with a colleague about a fix of non trivial code. The question was what comments should go into the code to explain what was going on.  If you care to know, this related to the prefetching strategy that is used by RavenDB to reduce the amount of I/O that is required (especially on slow disks). The details don’t actually matter. The problem is that there are multiple relatively complex issues there, from managing I/O to thread safety in the critical code path (using dirty reads intentionally), etc.

The problem with doing this is that the code is complex but it is a fairly straightforward progress from the kind of code we usually write in performance sensitive sections. The fear was by over commenting the code, we’ll get ourselves into a situation where we’ll be making the code too malleable to change. This is the kind of code that sits in the perf critical section, you change it after fasting for a day or two (with strong encouragement on meditation about little vs. big endian and why half endian is so rare).

In other words, in practice. You change it when you have reason, and you back up that change with a battery of performance tests. Anything from the usual benchmarks to running production loads on various machines to poring over system traces.

Given the amount of effort that is expected from any changes to this code, I consider it to be a good idea for people who read it to understand that there is a hurdle there that must be jumped before it should be modified. Thus, we decided to skip some of the comments on the reasoning behind the overall design. Here is the most important comment in this code, this is there to explain a particular choice of value and the reasoning that must be applied when it is changed.

What about the whole complexity of the prefetching in general? That isn’t document in code, because reading code comments scattered throughout will make it very hard to grok. This is detailed in the architecture guide that go over these details.

For myself, I find it really awesome to go over a codebase and figure out what reasoning lie behind the code. But when I have people working on my projects? It is better to give them a hand than a riddle.