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Beware of one-click, fuss-free application stacks

Paul Venezia | Feb. 22, 2016
Prebuilt stacks offer a handy shortcut, but sometimes the shortcut leads to a longer journey

One of the constants in the tech world is that the marketing and sales folks want to make hard things easy in order to net more sales. One of the other constants is that the tech folks push back because many topics cannot properly be simplified, and by trying to make them simpler, we introduce bigger problems. Some areas are actually better left alone.

The readily available example of this might be the CLI. If you want someone to be able to perform simple tasks, give them a menu system. If you want them to be able to do the harder, more intricate work, give them a CLI. At a certain point, hand-holding becomes impossible. But I've waxed on that topic before.

The quest for one-click solutions to difficult problems is eternal. You could say that development environments such as Heroku fit that mold, as do Docker and (to a lesser degree) virtualization. There's a lot of benefit in these solutions, but plenty of barriers as well.

We're seeing the same simplifications in cloud infrastructure services that have matured to the point where they're not offering only server instances, but entire, prebuilt application stacks ready to be clicked once and brought into the world. WordPress? Drupal? PHP? LAMP? Rails? Redis? Hadoop? Click here, and you'll have a fully load-balanced stack with some kind of database back end ready to go. These aren't single server instances with everything pre-installed. They're multitiered stacks designed for scalability and heavier loads.

This isn't a bad thing. For greenfield projects, it's a timesaver. You don't have to make sure you configure your database properly or set up the load balancing. You don't have to worry about server sizing or application installation. You don't have to run the initial setup steps that some apps require. You click and go.

But it's usually not that simple. The app you need to run isn't available, but requires a LAMP stack, so you fire one up. Naturally, a handful of the required packages is missing. You don't get your choice of distribution, so if you didn't expect Ubuntu, you're stuck with it. The app wants to install in one place, but the stack config says otherwise. You need to dig around to find the proper settings for the MySQL instance, then go through an unfamiliar control panel to perform basic tasks because you can't access the SQL server directly yet.

Your app has a full installation guide, but because the stack has done much of that for you, you need to pick through and determine which steps to perform to get a working installation. Oh, it turns out you need Nginx, not Apache? PostgreSQL not MySQL? Too bad. This list could go on and on.


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