Observer Effect

Scientists have to deal with the observer effect, which means that observing something actually changes it. Typically we think of quantum physics, where this effect is very strong and surprising and closely related to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but it is actually something that in a more abstract sense is present in a multitude of situtations. Just think of human interaction. If we want to find out about people, we can ask them. But this conversation actually changes the people, sometimes in a way that we can neglect or tolerate.

But we also have this in the case of IT. If we think of a software and we want to observe if the software behaves well, we need ways to observe the software. Very often we use logging, sometimes monitoring tools, and sometimes debugging or even profiling. We think that they do not hurt us, apart from using resources, but we have to be quite careful. The example of logging is quite good, because it is quite common and usually something that we do a lot, without wasting too much thoughts about it.

Now logging slows our application down that is known already. Now we tend to use a slightly less noisy log level, because terabytes of log are still a pain, even today. But usually the messages are calculated and then discarded by the logging framework. With functional language features there are quite elegant ways to deal with this, by just passing a function that calculates the message on demand instead of passing the message. It has always been possible, but too clumsy to actually do it, unless the logging framework can rely on macro facilities, even such simple ones as the C-preprocessor. The deferred evaluation has its dangers as well. If an object that is passed as an ingrediant for a potential message already changes, while the message is created, we might get funny effects. Maybe only in the log, but maybe it could crash the application or stop the main program flow from doing its work. We need to be careful, unless the object is immutable.

In case of Hibernate or JPA or similar frameworks this can be specially interesting, even with eager message calculation. Accessing attributes of the object can actually lead to database operations. They can fail. They can create load, maybe deadlocks. They can have lost their transaction. A lot of things can happen in places far away from where we assumed to do the DB-work. This actually changes the objects. Do we want such operations to occur during logging? Maybe differently depending on the log level? Immutability is our friend, especially in conjunction with JPA, but that is a long story. We may at least be lucky that we actually have some tables that we only read. We can make the objects „pseudo-immutable“, but still JPA-magic must mutate them at least during the read operation. It is tempting to let tools generate the toString-methods of objects, but it is very dangerous here. We should avoid including any potentially lazily loaded attributes in the toString-output, because otherwise they will be loaded during the logging or even worse differently depending on how we log.

The next thing is the NullPointerException during logging. It is quite common in Java, for example. And we do not want to burden our program logic with NullPointerExceptions from the logging, especially not with those that occur only sporadically. So it is a good idea to be careful and to test well. Only the combination is possibly good enough.

Modern times create more demand for some kind of real multi threading, not in the JEE-sense with a couple of EJBs that can run in parallel, but with massively parallel operations. Even though we have a multitude of logging frameworks and unifying logging frameworks and even more of them, there is a common weakness that they tend to share. Writing into one single target is achieved by some kind of synchronizing, which can slow our application down and change the timing behavior in ways that we did not desire. Asynchronous logging could be good, but in a way this only shifts the problem a bit.

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