An evolving description of general best practices for backend development.
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README.md

Backend development best practices

Table of Contents generated with DocToc

N Commandments

  1. README.md in the root of the repo is the docs
  2. Single command run
  3. Single command deploy
  4. Repeatable and re-creatable builds
  5. Build artifacts bundle a "Bill of Materials"
  6. Use UTC as the timezone all around

General points on guidelines

We do not want to limit ourselves to certain tech stacks or frameworks. Different problems require different solutions, and hence these guidelines are valid for various backend architectures.

Development environment setup in README.md

Document all the parts of the development/server environment. Strive to use the same setup and versions on all environments, starting from developer laptops, and ending with the actual production environment. This includes the database, application server, proxy server (nginx, Apache, ...), SDK version(s), gems/libraries/modules.

Automate the setup process as much as possible. For example, Docker Compose could be used both in production and development to set up a complete environment, where Dockerfiles fetch all parts of the software, and contain the necessary scripting to setup the environment and all the parts of it. Consider using archived copies of the installers, in case upstream packages later become unavailable. A minimum precaution is to keep a SHA-1 checksums of the packages, and to make sure that the checksum matches when the packages are installed.

Consider storing any relevant parts of the development environment and its dependencies in some persistent storage. If the environment can be built using Docker, one possible way to do this is to use docker export.

Data persistence

General considerations

Independent of the persistence solution your project uses, there are general considerations that you should follow:

  • Have backups that are verified to work
  • Have scripts or other tooling for copying persistent data from one env to another, e.g. from prod to staging in order to debug something
  • Have plans in place for rolling out updates to the persistence solution (e.g. database server security updates)
  • Have plans in place for scaling up the persistence solution
  • Have plans or tooling for managing schema changes
  • Have monitoring in place to verify health of the persistence solution

SaaS, cloud-hosted or self-hosted?

An important choice regarding any solution is where to run it.

  • SaaS -- fast to get started, easy to scale up, some infrastructure work required to allow access from everywhere etc.
  • Self-hosted in the cloud -- allows tuning database more than SaaS and probably cheaper at scale in terms of hosting, but more labor-intensive
  • Self-hosted on own hardware -- able to tweak everything and manage physical security, but most expensive and labor intensive

Persistence solutions

This section aims to provide some guidance for selecting the type of persistence solution. The choice always needs to be tailored to the problem and none of these is a silver bullet, however.

RDBMS

Pick a relational database system such as PostgreSQL when data and transaction integrity is a major concern or when lots of data analysis is required. The ACID compliance, aggregation and transformation functions of the RDBMS will help.

NoSQL

Pick a NoSQL database when you expect to scale horizontally and when you don't require ACID. Pick a system that fits your model.

Document storage

Stores documents that can be easily addressed and searched for by content or by inclusion in a collection. This is made possible because the database understands the storage format. Use for just that: storing large numbers of structured documents. Notable examples:

  • CouchDB
  • ElasticSearch

Note that since 9.4, PostgreSQL can also be used to store JSON natively.

Key-value store

Stores values, or sometimes groups of key-value pairs, accessible by key. Considers the values to be simply blobs, so does not provide the query capabilities of document stores. Scalable to immense sizes. Notable examples:

  • Cassandra
  • Redis

Graph database

General graph databases store nodes and edges of a graph, providing index-free lookups of the neighbors of any node. For applications where graph-like queries like shortest path or diameter are crucial. Specialized graph databases also exist for storing e.g. RDF triples.

Environments

This section describes the environments you should have, at a minimum. It might sound like a lot, but there is a purpose for each one.

Local development environment

This is your local development environment. You probably should not have a shared external development environment. Instead, you should work to make it possible to run the entire system locally, by stubbing or mocking third-party services as needed.

Continuous integration environment

CI is (among other things) for making sure that your software builds and automated tests pass after every change.

Testing environment

This is a shared environment where code is deployed to as often as possible, preferably every time code is committed to the mainline branch. It can be broken from time to time, especially in the active development phase. It is an important canary environment and is as similar to production as possible. Any external integrations are set up to use staging-level versions of other services.

Staging environment

Staging is set up exactly like production. No changes to the production environment happen before having been rehearsed here first. Any mysterious production issues can be debugged here.

Production environment

The big iron. Logged, monitored, cleaned up periodically, squared away and secured.

Bill of Materials

This document must be included in every build artifact and shall contain the following:

  1. What version(s) of an SDK and critical tools were used to produce it
  2. Which dependencies have been included
  3. A globally unique revision number of the build (i.e. a git SHA-1 hash)
  4. The environment and variables used when building the package
  5. A list of failed tests or checks

Security

Be aware of possible security threats and problems. You should at least be familiar with the OWASP Top 10 vulnerabilities, and you should of monitor vulnerabilities in any third party software you use.

Good generic security guidelines would be:

Credentials

Never send credentials unencrypted over public network. Always use encryption (such as HTTPS, SSL, etc.).

Secrets

Never store secrets (passwords, keys, etc.) in the sources in version control! It is very easy to forget they are there and the project source tends to end up in many places (developer machines, development test servers, etc) which unnecessarily increases the risk of an important secret being compromised. Also, version control has the nasty feature of overwriting file permissions, so even if you secure your config file permissions, the next time you check out the source, the permissions would be overwritten to the default public-readable.

Probably the easiest way to handle secrets is to put them in a separate file on the servers that need them, and to be ignored by version control. You can keep e.g. a .sample file in the version control, with fake values to illustrate what should go there in the real file. In some cases, it is not easy to include a separate configuration file from the main configuration. If this happens, consider using environment variables, or writing the config file from a version-controlled template on deployment.

Login Throttling

Place limits on the amount of login attempts allowed per client per unit of time. Lock a user account for specific time after a given number of failed attempts (e.g. lock for 5 minutes after 20 failed login attempts). The aim of these measures is make online brute-force attacks against usernames/passwords infeasible.

User Password Storage

Never EVER store passwords in plaintext!

Never store passwords in reversible encrypted form, unless absolutely required by the application / system. Here is a good article about what and what not to do: https://crackstation.net/hashing-security.htm

If you do need to be able to obtain plaintext passwords from the database, here are some suggestions to follow.

If passwords won't be converted back to plaintext often (e.g. special procedure is required), keep decryption keys away from the application that accesses the database regularly.

If passwords still need to be regularly decrypted, separate the decryption functionality from the main application as much as possible—e.g. a separate server accepts requests to decrypt a password, but enforces a higher level of control, like throttling, authorization, etc.

Whenever possible (it should be in a great majority of cases), store passwords using a good one-way hash with a good random salt. And, no, SHA-1 is not a good choice for a hashing function in this context. Hash functions that are designed with passwords in mind are deliberately slower, which makes offline brute-force attacks more time consuming, hence less feasible. See this post for more details: http://security.stackexchange.com/questions/211/how-to-securely-hash-passwords/31846#31846

Audit Log

For applications handling sensitive data, especially where certain users are allowed a relatively wide access or control, it's good to maintain some kind of audit logging—storing a sequence of actions / events that took place in the system, together with the event/source originator (user, automation job, etc). This can be, e.g:

2012-09-13 03:00:05 Job "daily_job" performed action "delete old items".
2012-09-13 12:47:23 User "admin_user" performed action "delete item 123".
2012-09-13 12:48:12 User "admin_user" performed action "change password of user foobar".
2012-09-13 13:02:11 User "sneaky_user" performed action "view confidential page 567".
...

The log may be a simple text file or stored in a database. At least these three items are good to have: an exact timestamp, the action/event originator (who did this), and the actual action/event (what was done). The exact actions to be logged depend on what is important for the application itself, of course.

The audit log may be a part of the normal application log, but the emphasis here is on logging who did what and not only that a certain action was performed. If possible, the audit log should be made tamper-proof, e.g. only be accessible by a dedicated logging process or user and not directly by the application.

Suspicious Action Throttling and/or blocking

This can be seen as a generalization of the Login Throttling, this time introducing similar mechanics for arbitrary actions that are deemed "suspicious" within the context of the application. For example, an ERP system which allows normal users access to a substantial amount of information, but expects users to be concerned only with a small subset of that information, may limit attempts to access larger than expected datasets too quickly. E.g. prevent users from downloading list of all customers, if users are supposed to work on one or two customers at a time. Note that this is different from limiting access completely—users are still allowed to retrieve information about any customer, just not all of them at once. Depending on the system, throttling might not be enough—e.g. when one invokes an action on all resources with a single request. Then blocking might be required. Note the difference between making 1000 requests in 10 seconds to retrieve full customer information, one customer at a time, and making a single request to retrieve that information at once.

What is suspicious here depends strongly on the expected use of the application. E.g. in one system, deleting 10000 records might be completely legitimate action, but not so in an another one.

Anonymized Data

Whenever large datasets are exported to third parties, data should be anonymized as much as possible, given the intended use of the data. For example, if a third party service will provide general statistical analysis on a customer database, it probably does not need to know the names, addresses or other personal information for individual customers. Even a generic customer ID number might be too revealing, depending on the data set. Take a look at this article: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2009/09/your-secrets-live-online-in-databases-of-ruin/.

Avoid logging personally identifiable information, for example user’s name.

If your logs contain sensitive information, make sure you know how logs are protected and where they are located also in the case of cloud hosted log management systems.

If you must log sensitive information try hashing before logging so you can identify the same entity between different parts of the processing.

Temporary file storage

Make sure you are aware where your application is storing temporary files. If you are using publicly accessible directories (which are most probably the default) like /tmp and /var/tmp, make sure you create your files with mode 600, so that they are readable only by the user your application is running as. Alternatively, have a protected directory for storing temporary files (directory accessible only by the application user).

Dedicated vs Shared server environment

The security threats can be quite different depending on whether the application is going to run in a shared or a dedicated environment. Shared here means that there are other (not necessarily 3rd party) applications running on the same server. In that case, having appropriate file permissions becomes critical, otherwise application source code, data files, temporary files, logs, etc might end up accessible by unintended users. Then a security breach in a 3rd party application might result in your application being compromised.

You can never be sure what kind of an environment your application will run for its entire life time—it may start on a dedicated server, but as time goes, 3rd party applications might be added to the same system. That is why it is best to plan from the very first moment that your application runs in a shared environment, and take all precautions. Here's a non-exhaustive list of the files/directories you need to think about:

  • application source code
  • data directories
  • temporary storage directories (often by default the system wide /tmp might be used - see above)
  • configuration files
  • version control directories - .git, .hg, .svn, etc.
  • startup scripts (may contain initialization variables, secrets, etc)
  • log files
  • crash dumps
  • private keys (SSL, SSH, etc)
  • etc.

Sometimes, some files need to be accessible by different users (e.g. static content served by apache). In that case, take care to allow only access to what is really needed.

Keep in mind that on a UNIX/Linux filesystem, write access to a directory is permission-wise very powerful—it allows you to delete files in that directory and recreate them (which results in a modified file). /tmp and /var/tmp are by default safe from this effect, because of the sticky bit that should be set on those.

Additionally, as mentioned in the secrets section, file permissions might not be preserved in version control, so even if you set them once, the next checkout/update/whatever may override them. A good idea is then to have a Makefile, a script, a version control hook or something similar that would set the correct permissions when updating the sources.

Application monitoring

Monitoring the full status of a service requires that both OS-level and application-specific monitoring checks are performed. OS-level checks include, for example, CPU, disk or memory usage, running processes, open ports, etc. Application specific checks are, however, the most important from the point of view of the running service. These can be anything from "does this URL respond and return the HTTP status 200", to checking database connectivity, data consistency, and so on.

This section describes a way to implement the application-specific checks, which would make it easier to monitor the overall application health and give full control to the application developers to determine what checks are meaningful in the context of the concrete application.

In essence, the idea is to have a single endpoint (an application URL) that can give a good status overview of the entire application. This is implemented inside the application and requires work from the project team, but on the other hand, the project team is the one who can really define what is an OK state of the application and what is considered an ERROR state.

The application could implement any number of "subsystem" checks. For example,

  • connection to the database is up
  • data is in an consistent state (e.g. a list of items in a certain database table is meaningful)
  • 3rd party services that the application integrates to are reachable
  • ElasticSearch indexes are in a consistent state
  • anything else that makes sense for the application

A combined overview status should be provided by the application, aggregating the information from the various subsystem checks. The idea is that an external monitoring system can track only this combined overview, so that the external monitoring does not need to be reconfigured when a new application check is added or modified. Moreover, the developers are the ones that can decide about what the overall status is based on regarding subsystem checks (i.e. which ones are critical, while ones are not, etc).

Status page

All status checks SHOULD be accessible under /status URLs as follows:

  • /status - the overall status page (mandatory)
  • /status/subsystem1 - a status check for speciffic subsystem (optional)
  • ...

The main /status page should at a minimum give an overall status of the system, as described in the next section. This means that the main /status page should execute ALL subsystem checks and report the aggregated overall system status. It is up to the developers to decide how the overall system status is determined based on the subsystems. For example an ERROR state of some non-critical subsystem may only generate an overall WARNING status.

For performance reasons, some subsystem checks may be excluded from this overall /status page - for example, when the check causes higher resource usage, takes longer time to complete, etc. Overall, the main status page should be light enough so that it can be polled relatively often (every 1-3 minutes) and not cause too much load on the system. Subsystem checks that are excluded from the overall status check should have their own URLs, as shown above. Naturally, monitoring those would require modifications in the monitoring system configuration. To overcome this, a different approach can be taken: the application could perform the heavy subsystem checks in a background process at a rate that is acceptable and store the status internally. This would allow the main status page to reflect also these heavy checks (e.g. it would retrieve the last performed check status). This approach should be used, unless its implementation is too difficult.

Status page format

We propose two alternative formats for the status pages - plain and JSON.

Plain format

The plain format has one status per line in the form key: value. The key is a subsystem/check name and the value is the status value. The status value can be one of:

  • OK
  • WARN Message
  • ERROR Message

where Message can be some meaningful text, that can help quickly identify the problem. The message is single line, without specified length restriction, but use common sense - e.g. probably should not be longer than 200 characters.

The main status page MUST have a key called status that shows the overall aggregated application status. The individual subsystem check status lines are optional. Subsystem status keys should have a suffix _status. Here are some examples:

When everything is ok:

status: OK
database_status: OK
elastic_search_status: OK

When some check is failing:

status: ERROR Database is not accessible
database_status: ERROR Connection failed
elastic_search_status: OK

Multiple failures at the same time:

status: ERROR failed subsystems: database, elasticsearch. For details see https://myapp.example.com/status
database_status: ERROR Connection failed
elastic_search_status: WARN Too few entries in index A.

In addition to the status lines, a status page can have non-status keys. For example, those can be showing some metrics (that may or may not be monitored). The additional keys must be prefixed with the subsystem name.

status: OK
database_status: OK
database_customers: 378
database_items: 8934748
elastic_search_status: OK
elastic_search_shards: 20

The overall status may naturally be based on some of the metrics:

status: WARN Too few items in database
database_status: WARN Too few customers in database
database_customers: 378
database_items: 1
elastic_search_status: OK
elastic_search_shards: 20

Subsystem checks that have their own URL (/status/subsystemX) should follow a similar format, having a mandatory key status and a number of optional additional keys. Example for e.g. /status/database:

status: OK
connection_pool: 30
latency: 2

JSON format

The JSON format of the status pages can be often preferable, for example when the tooling or integration to other systems is easier to achieve via a common data format.

The status values follow the same format as described above - OK, WARN Message and ERROR Message.

The equivalent to the status key form the plain format is a status key in the root JSON object. Subsystems should use nested objects also having a mandatory status key. Here are some examples:

All is fine:

{
    "status": "OK",
    "database": {
        "status": "OK"
    },
    "elastic_search": {
        "status": "OK"
    }
}

Status page with additional metrics:

{
    "status": "OK",
    "uptime": 18234,
    "database": {
        "status": "OK",
        "connection_pool": 30
    },
    "elastic_search": {
        "status": "OK",
        "multinode": false
    }
}

Something failing:

{
    "status": "ERROR Database is not accessible. See https://myapp.example.com/status for details.",
    "database": {
        "status": "ERROR Connection failed",
        "connection_timeout": 30
    },
    "elastic_search": {
        "status": "OK"
    }
}

HTTP status codes

Whenever the overall application status is OK, the HTTP status code in the status page response MUST be set to 200 (OK). Otherwise a 5XX error code SHOULD be set. For example, code 500 (Internal Server Error) could be used. Optionally, non-critical WARN status may still respond with 200.

Load balancer health checks

Often the application is running behind a load balaner. Load balancers typically can monitor application servers by polling a given URL. The health check is used so that the load balancer can stop routing traffic to the failing application servers.

The overall /status page is a good candidate for the load balancer health check URL. However, a separate dedicated status page for a load balancer health check provides an important benefit. Such a page can be fine-tuned for when the application is considered to be healthy from the load balancer's perspective. For example, an error in a subsystem may still be considered a critical error for the overall application status, but does not necessarily need to cause the application server to be removed from the load balancer pool. A good example is a 3rd party integration status check. The load balancer health check page should only return non-200 status code when the application instance must be considered non-operational.

The load balancer health check page should be placed at a /status/health URL. Depending on your load balancer, the format of that page may deviate from the overall status format described here. Some load balancers may even observe only the returned HTTP status code.

Access control

The status pages may need proper authorization in place, especially in case they expose debugging information in status messages or application metrics. HTTP basic authentication or IP-based restrictions are usually good enough candidates to consider.

Checklists

To avoid forgetting the most important things, here are some handy checklists for your current or upcoming projects.

Responsibility checklist

In bigger projects, especially when multiple parties are involved, it is crucial to keep track of all different aspects and its responsibilities. The following table illustrates how a go-live checklist for releasing a website could look like:

Aspect Task Responsible person / party Deadline Status
Frontend Website wireframes e.g. Company B / Person X e.g. 17.6. e.g. in progress
Frontend Website design e.g. Company A / Person Z e.g. 23.7. e.g. waiting
Frontend Website templates
Frontend Content creation and population
Backend Setup CMS
Backend Setup staging environment
Backend Setup production environment
Backend Migrate hosting services to client accounts
Backend DNS configuration
Backend Setup website analytics
Backend Integrate marketing automation
Backend Web font license
Dates Website/Product go-live time
Dates Publish the website

Release checklist

When you are ready to release, remember to check off everything on your release checklist! The resulting peace of mind, repeatability and dependability is a great boon.

You do have one, right? If you don't, here is a good generic starting point for you:

  • Deploying works the same no matter which environment you are deploying to
  • All environments have well defined names, and they are referred to using those names
  • All environments have the same underlying software stack
  • All environment configuration is version controlled (web server config, CI build scripts etc.)
  • The product has been tested from the networks from where it will be used (e.g. public Internet, customer LAN)
  • The product has been tested with all of the targeted devices
  • There is a simple way to find out what code is running in any given environment
  • A versioning scheme has been defined
  • Any version of the product should be easily mappable to a state of the code base
  • Rolling back a deployment is possible
  • Backups are running
  • Restoring from a backup has been tested
  • No secrets are stored in version control
  • Logging is turned on
  • There is a well defined process for accessing and searching through logs
  • Logging includes exceptions and stack traces where appropriate
  • Errors can be mapped to stack traces
  • Release notes have been written
  • Server environments are up-to-date
  • A plan for updating the server environments exists
  • The product has been load tested
  • A method exists for replicating the state of one environment in another (e.g. copy prod to QA to reproduce an error)
  • All repeating release processes have been automated

General questions to consider

  • What is the expected/required life-span of the project?
  • Is the project one-off, or will there be continuous development?
  • What is the release cycle for a version of the service?
  • What environments (dev, test, staging, prod, ...) are going to be set up?
  • How will downtime of the production service impact the value of the service?
  • How mature is the technology? Is major changes that break backward compatibility to be expected?

Generally proven useful tools

  • HTTPie is a great tool for testing APIs on the command line. It's simple to pass in custom headers and cookies, and it even has session support.
  • jq is a CLI JSON processor. Massage JSON data coming in from cURL (or of course HTTPie!) at will. Another great tool for API testing or exploration.

License

Futurice Oy Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)