So I've been thinking about this as I've been doing the UI
"tuning" (extending meta-data and making the engine smarter).  I agree
with John that we need to describe the return values programatically.
We can also kill two birds with one stone here because the description
of the return values is a great way to provide some of the meta-data the
UI needs (and the CLI... there is something in place now, but it's not
easily plugable).

I personally feel the design of the Param system has held up pretty well
(Rob and Pavel, speak now or forever hold your peace), so I think we
should use the Param classes to describe the return values.  This will
really help us reduce code duplication and allow for good plugability
because, as usual, most of our commands are CRUD operations, so we can
generally use some auto-magic to deduce the return values from the
corresponding Object params.


On Wed, 2009-10-07 at 19:48 -0400, John Dennis wrote:
> Sorry to harp on this :-) But the more I work with the XML-RPC interface 
> from non-python code the more I think we've got a problem.
> The first problem is what was discussed in the team meeting. You don't 
> know what a function is going to return and nothing enforces the 
> consistency of return values. Jason has done an awesome job of enforcing 
> the consistency of input arguments, but that's only half the battle. 
> What gets returned is purely a function of what the plugin author 
> happens to stuff into the plugin's return statement. There is no 
> enforcement of how many values get returned, what their types are, what 
> is optional, what is mandatory, etc. In other words everything which is 
> enforced on the input side of the call is absent on the output side, it 
> should be obvious why this is a problem, especially for any callers of 
> XML-RPC which are *not* in the python plugin framework.
> The second problem I've run into with return values is especially 
> pernicious because the plugin framework is hiding a very fundamental and 
> apparently common error. Here is the issue:
> * We've adopted the convention that *all* strings will be unicode objects.
> * str objects will be treated as binary data
> * Python will in many instances freely convert between str objects and 
> unicode objects.
> * If a plugin wants to return a string it *must* return a unicode 
> object. If the plugin mistakenly returns a str object (a very very easy 
> mistake to make) then what gets returned through XML-RPC is a *binary* 
> base64 encoded blob, not an XML-RPC *string* value!
> The above is so critical let me repeat it: FAILING TO ASSURE A RETURNED 
> * However, the python framework *hides* the error on the return side 
> because it decodes the base64 binary value back into a str object. 
> Because str objects and unicode objects are often interchangeable the 
> python code receiving the return value thinks it sees the right result 
> even though it's not.
> If we're going to have other clients of the XML-RPC interface then that 
> client *must* know what the return values are and what their type is. It 
> can't (or shouldn't) do things like:
> * I was expecting a string but I got a binary blob so that must have 
> been a mistake so I'll treat the binary blob as a string and hope it's 
> correct.
> -or-
> * I was expecting an integer but I actually got a string (yes there are 
> plugins which do this), so I'll try to read an integer value out of the 
> string. But wait, suppose the plugin author who returned the integer as 
> a string forget to assure that the string representing the integer was a 
> unicode object and not a str object, then the receiver really has to 
> start guessing because he's gotten back a binary blob. Is that binary 
> blob a 2's compliment representation of a signed integer, is it unsigned 
> integer, or is the binary blob a string representation of the integer? 
> Clearly this doesn't work.
> Now let's suppose another common scenario. The plugin author discovers 
> he has mistakenly returned a str object when it should have been a 
> unicode object and corrects his mistake, seemingly innocent because 
> everything continues to work (but only in python). We have a non-python 
> client of the XML-RPC interface who has corrected for the mistake by 
> expecting binary data for the string, now that client fails! Or let's 
> say the plugin was correctly returning a unicode object but some 
> seemingly innocent change is made and the value ends up being a str 
> object instead. Once again the python code continues to work correctly 
> but the non-python code fails.
> So how easy it for Python programmers to make the mistake between str 
> and unicode? *VERY VERY EASY!* In fact it's so easy even Jason's 
> documentation and examples sometimes make the mistake. It's especially 
> easy mistake to make when calling another function because the vast 
> majority of existing Python libraries return str objects for strings.
> If we don't validate the return values from the plugin's I don't see how 
> we'll ever have non-python XML-RPC clients which are robust.
> I'm happy to work with Jason to get the return validation implemented. I 
> now know the insides of the plugin rpc mechanism in gory detail :-)
> I don't think we should postpone this, I think there are all sorts of 
> errors lurking in the code, or will get introduced in the code in the 
> future. For robustness sake it's better to fix this sooner rather than 
> later IMHO.
> Of course the other option is to do away with the rule that str objects 
> will get converted into binary blobs in XML-RPC. I think there is a good 
> argument for treating both str objects and unicode objects as strings in 
> XML-RPC. How often do we really need to pass binary data back in 
> XLM-RPC? I'm thinking it's not very often. For those limited cases 
> wouldn't it be better to require the plugin to return a Binary object 
> instead of a str?. This has the advantage that's it's explicit and 
> removes the dangerous practice of automatic conversion of conventional 
> python strings into binary blobs when 99% of the time that's not the 
> intention of the programmer.
> BTW, removing the automatic conversion of str to binary is a simple one 
> line change which would have a huge impact on robustness without any 
> loss of functionality. However that still does not address the issue of 
> return value validation, but it does remove the single most common error 
> we have with return values at the moment.

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