A retrospective on my one Django web application

December 31, 2014

Looking back, it's been almost four years since I started writing our first and so far only Django web application, a system for automating much of our new Unix account requests. Since retrospectives are relatively uncommon, today I want to do one for what has been a really faithful web app.

I suppose that's a good summary of the whole situation: after I wrote it, the application has been trouble-free. Over the years I've done a few tuneups to make it a bit more convenient to use for some tasks and to reduce the possibility of accidents while people use it (and there was one interesting bug), but that's it as far as code revisions have gone. This does means that I haven't had to face things like schema migrations; the schema we started with is the schema we still have, and it'll probably last all the way to end of life with this application (which is not going to be any time soon, since we'll probably always need something to do this job).

(Okay, I'll admit it; we have little enough data stored in the system that I might not even try a schema migration but instead just do a database dump, edit the dump a bit, and load it into a new database.)

I'm still pretty happy with our choice of Django, SQLite as the underlying database, and mod_wsgi for deployment. All of them work and I don't see any obviously better alternative, either then or now. Django does a bunch of magic with database models, but I'm a pragmatist; the magic works.

My one real regret about the structure of the web application is that it has (gasp, shock) no tests at all. The core reason for this is that learning Django testing at the same time that I was learning Django was just too much work, and of course there has never been either the time, the energy, or the clear need to go back afterwards to figure out how to do it and add tests. This doesn't make much of a difference for development since there isn't much development, but it does make a difference for upgrading Django itself. And frankly that's one area I've been weak on; we're behind in both our Django versions and jQuery and part of that is because testing new versions is not drop in and go but instead manual.

We're behind on Django versions primarily because we rolled our own; when we built the application initially, the version of Django packaged on the Ubuntu version we were using wasn't advanced enough. These days I would use the Ubuntu 14.04 Django version and be done with it for four years or so (ie I'd be counting on the Ubuntu people to feed me non-breaking security updates that we could install without any particular testing). I don't think we're actively at risk, but it's something I do worry about.

What I don't like about Django boils down to two things, both relatively minor. First, with SQLite we've found that Django's internal 'id' primary key field can reuse ID numbers if and when old records are deleted. We use and expose these ID numbers in a few places (for example, in audit records) and it would be slightly nicer if they didn't get reused. The most annoying (and potentially dangerous) place is that they appear in the URLs exposed to administrative users, which means that an old URL can go to a completely different account request in six months instead of just being invalid.

(These unguarded URLs are not exposed to non-administrative users and operations on them do have specific security checks, so you can only touch entries you have authorization for.)

Second, I have historically found it hard to find release announcements and changes for new Django versions, which I have to do because I need to read over them as we update from version to version. If I closely followed Django and updated on every version change I think I'd be fine, but as it is now I wind up ignoring Django version shifts for months at a time and then have to grubbing through the site to find all of the release announcements for every version between where we are and where the state of the art is.

(In fact I just went through the Django website and couldn't immediately locate even a 'what is new in the latest version' page, much less ones for previous releases. And I know the information is somewhere, because I've found it before.)

PS: that we have only one Django web app is not because we've grown disenchanted with it, it's just that we haven't had a combination of time and need to write any more (and we do have a second one somewhere quite far down the priority list). Well, for me to write any more; my co-workers don't do Django so far.

Update: It turns out that Django release notes are all available in one spot here. They're even conveniently all linked to each other so you can go back and forth (although this is not necessarily the chronological order, since point updates may be made to older versions even after a new version has been released).

Written on 31 December 2014.
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Last modified: Wed Dec 31 02:32:11 2014
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