Softwire Blog

Writing Good Documentation

28 September 2016, by

There are certain standards that govern good design and user experience. But eventually we all need to do something out of the ordinary or sufficiently complex that it will be accompanied by documentation. I’m not talking about the comments you leave in code (that’s a whole other kettle of fish). I am discussing the big document you have to write, which explains the nuances of your API, and how best to use your shiny new touch gestures.

If you think it’s almost as boring writing these documents as it is reading them, then I say you’re doing it wrong!

If you read on, I’ll explain what you should be thinking about before writing any documentation, and how this will help you enjoy the writing process more, as well as ensuring the end user gets the most from documents you produce.


Effortlessly add HTTPS to Dokku, with Let’s Encrypt

26 September 2016, by

You’ve written an application deployed using Dokku, and you’ve got it all up and running and great. You’ve heard a lot about why HTTPS is important nowadays, especially the SEO and performance benefits, and you’d like to add all that, with minimal cost and hassle. Let’s get right on that.

Let’s Encrypt is a new certificate authority (an organisation that issues the certificates you need to host an HTTPS site), which provides certificates to sites entirely for free, by totally automating the system, to help get 100% of the web onto HTTPS. Sounds great, right?

To set up this up, you’re going to need to prove you own the domain you’re asking for a certificate for, you need to get the certificates and start using them, and you’re going to want to have some system in place to automatically renew your certificates, so you never have to think about this again (Let’s Encrypt certificates expire every 90 days, to encourage automation). That means we’ve got a few key steps:

  • Generate a key-pair to represent ourselves (you can think of this as our login details for Let’s Encrypt).
  • Complete Let’s Encrypt’s Simple HTTP challenge, by signing and host a given JSON token at /.well-known/acme-challenge/<token> on port 80 for the given domain name, with our public key. This validates the key pair used to sign this token as authorized to issue certificates for this domain.
  • Request a certificate for this domain, signing the request with our now-authorized key.
  • Set up our server to use this key.
  • Set up an automated job to re-request certificates and update the certificate we’re using at regular intervals.

(Interested in the full details of how the Let’s Encrypt process works? Check out their detailed intro:

Fortunately, you barely have to do any of this! In reality, with Dokku, this is pretty much a case of turning a plugin on, and walking away.

How do you actually do this with Dokku?

First up, we need to install dokku-letsencrypt, which will do most of the setup magically for us (see full instructions here). On your server, run the command below for your dokku version (run ‘dokku version’ to check):

# dokku 0.5+
dokku plugin:update letsencrypt

# dokku 0.4
dokku plugin:update letsencrypt dokku-0.4

To configure it, set an email for your app:

dokku config:set --no-restart myapp [email protected]

(This email will receive the renewal warnings for your certificate)

Turn it on:

dokku letsencrypt myapp

For Dokku 0.5+, set up auto-renewal:

dokku letsencrypt:cron-job --add

For Dokku 0.4, you’ll have to manually add a cronjob scheduled every 60 days to kick off the auto-renewal process:

dokku letsencrypt:auto-renew

That’s it!

What just happened?

The magic is in the ‘dokku letsencrypt myapp’ command. When you run that, Dokku-LetsEncrypt:

  • Starts a new service, in a Docker container, and temporarily delegates the top-level .well-known path on port 80 to it in Nginx (the server which sits in front of all your services in Dokku and routes your requests).
  • Generates a key pair, and authorizes it for each of the domains you have configured for your app (see ‘dokku domains myapp’).
  • Uses that key pair to get certificates for each of those domains.
  • Configures Nginx to enable HTTPS with these certificates for each of those domains.
  • Configures Nginx to 301 redirect any vanilla HTTP requests on to HTTPS for each of those domains.

The later auto-renewal steps just do the work to update these certificates later on.

Easy as pie. Don’t forget to check it actually worked though! It’s quite likely you’ll find mixed content warnings when you first turn on HTTPS. Most major CDNs or other services you might be embedding will have HTTPS options available nowadays, so this should just be a matter of find/replacing http: tohttps: throughout your codebase. With that done though, that shiny green padlock should be all yours.

This post originally appeared on Tim Perry’s personal blog.

Tips for managing technical people – Train technical leadership

21 September 2016, by

Galvanizing the geeksThe following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.

You need to ensure that there’s a technical career path as well as a management one open to your managees. Many companies nowadays ensure that there’s a path by which their technical people can reach the very top of the company, whether this is via a Technical Advisory Board (favoured by companies such as Thoughtworks and UBS) or by other means.

Creating the technical path and putting people on it isn’t enough. You also need to train people to fill the relevant roles. A common misunderstanding of the technical lead role is to see it as a sort of glorified developer, who gets to tell the other developers what to do. While a progression to project manager is seen as a move to a different role, the role of the technical lead can be seen as ‘more of the same’.


Building a Server-Rendered Map Component – Part 2

19 September 2016, by

Part 2: How to use client-side libraries like Leaflet, in Node.

As discussed in Part One: Why?, it’d be really useful to be able to take an interesting UI component like a map, and pre-render it on the server as a web component, using Server Components.

We don’t want to do the hard mapping ourselves though. Really, we’d like this to be just as easy as building a client-side UI component. We’d like to use a shiny mapping library, like Leaflet, to give us all the core functionality right out of the box. Unfortunately though, Leaflet doesn’t run server-side.

This article’s going to focus on fixing that so you can use Leaflet with Server Components, but you’ll hit the same problems (and need very similar fixes) if you’re doing any other Node-based server rendering, including with React.The JS ecosystem right now is not good at isomorphism, but with a few small tweaks you can transform any library you like, to run anywhere.

Let’s focus on Leaflet for now. It doesn’t run server-side, because there’s not that many people seriously looking at rendering nice UIs outside a browser, so JS libraries are pretty trigger-happy making big browser-based assumptions. Leaflet expects a few things that don’t fit neatly outside a browser:

  • Global window, document and navigator objects.
  • A live element in an HTML DOM to be inserted into.
  • A Leaflet <script> tag on the page, so it can find its URL, so it can autodetect the path to the Leaflet icons.
  • To export itself just by adding an ‘L’ property to the window object.

All of these are things need tricky fixes. Just finding these issues is non-trivial: you need to try and use the library in Node, hit a bug, solve the bug, and repeat, until you get the output you’re expecting.

Leaflet is a relatively hard case though. Most libraries aren’t quite so involved in complex DOM interactions, and just need the basic globals they expect injected into them.

So, how do we fix this?

Managing Browser Globals

If you npm install leaflet and then require(“leaflet”), you’ll immediately see our first issue:

> ReferenceError: window is not defined

Fix this one, and we’ll hit a few more at require() time, for document and navigator too. We need to run Leaflet with the context it’s expecting.

It would be nice to do that by having a DOM module somewhere that gives us a document and a window, and using those as our globals. Let’s assume we’ve got such a module for a moment. Given that, we could prefix the Leaflet module with something like:

var fakeDOM = require("my-fake-dom");
var window = fakeDOM.window;
var document = fakeDOM.document;
var navigator = window.navigator;
[...insert Leaflet code...]

(Instead we could just define browser globals as process-wide Node globals and leave the Leaflet source untouched, but this isn’t good behaviour, and it’ll come back to bite you very quickly if you’re not careful)

Doing something like this will get you much closer. With any reasonable DOM stub you should be able to get Leaflet successfully importing here. Unfortunately though, this fails because of a fundamental difference between browser and Node rendering. On the server, we have to support multiple DOM contexts in one process, so we need to be able to change the document and window.

We can still pull this off though, just taking this a step further with something like:

module.exports = function (window, document) {
  var navigator = window.navigator;
  [...insert Leaflet code...]

Now this is a Node module that exports not a single Leaflet, but a factory function to build Leaflet for a given window and document, provided by the code using the library. This doesn’t actually return anything though when called, as you might reasonably expect, instead creating window.L, as is common for browser JS libraries. In some cases that’s probably ok, but in my case I’d rather leave Window alone, and grab the Leaflet instance directly, by adding the below to the end of the function, after the Leaflet code:

return window.L.noConflict();

This tells Leaflet to remove itself as a global, and just give you the library as a reference directly.

With this, require(“leaflet”) now returns a function, and passing that a window and document gives you a working ready-to-use Leaflet.

Emulating the expected DOM

We’re not done though. If you want to use this Leaflet, you might define a Server Component like:

var LeafletFactory = require("leaflet");
var components = require("server-components");
var MapElement = components.newElement();   MapElement.createdCallback = function (document) {
  var L = LeafletFactory(new components.dom.Window(), document);
  var map =[41.3851, 2.1734], 12);
  L.tileLayer('http://{s}{z}/{x}/{y}.png', {
    maxZoom: 19,
components.registerElement("leaflet-map", {prototype: MapElement});

This should define a component that generates the HTML for a full working map when rendered. It doesn’t. The problem is that Leaflet here is given a DOM node to render into (‘this’, inside the component), and it tries to automatically render at the appropriate size. This isn’t a real browser though, we don’t have a screen size and we’re not doing layout (that’s why it’s cheap), and everything actually has zero height or width.

This isn’t as elegant a fix, but it’s an unavoidable one in any server-rendering approach I think: you need to pick a fixed size for your initial render, and nudge Leaflet to use that. Here that’s easy, you just make sure that before the map is created you add:

this.clientHeight = 500;
this.clientWidth = 500;

And with that, it works.

This fakes layout, as if the browser had decided that this was how big the element is. You can render like this at a fixed size for lots of applications, and potentially add client-side rendering on top to resize too if you want.

With that added, you can take this component, render it with a cheekycomponents.renderFragment(“<leaflet-map></leaflet-map”) and be given working HTML for a lovely static map you can send straight to your users. Delightful.

There is still one last step required if you want to take this further. Leaflet by default includes a set of icons, and uses the ‘href’ in its script tag in the page to automatically work out the URL to these icons. This is a bit fragile in quite a few ways, including this environment, and if you extend this example to use any icons (e.g. adding markers), you’ll find your icons don’t load.

This step’s very simple though, you just need to set L.Icon.Default.imagePathappropriately. If you want to do that in a nice portable Server Component, that means:

var componentsStatic = require("server-components-static");
var leafletContent = componentsStatic.forComponent("leaflet");
L.Icon.Default.imagePath = leafletContent.getUrl("images");

This calculates the client-facing URL you’ll need that maps to Leaflet’s images folder on disk (see Server-Components-Static for more details).

Making this (more) maintainable

There’s one more step though. This is a bit messy in a few ways, but particularly in that we have to manually fork and change the code of Leaflet, and maintain that ourselves in future. It would be great to automate this instead, to dynamically wrap normal Leaflet code, without duplicating it. With Sandboxed-Module we can do exactly that.

Sandboxed-Module lets you dynamically hook into Node’s require process, to transform module code however you like. There’s lots of somewhat crazy applications of this (on-require compilation of non-JS languages, for example), but also some very practical ones, like our changes here.

There’s potentially a very small performance hit on startup from this for the transformation, but for the rest of runtime it shouldn’t make any difference; it hooks into the initial file read to change the result, and then from that point on it’s just another Node module.

So, what does this look like?

var SandboxedModule = require('sandboxed-module');
module.exports = SandboxedModule.require('leaflet', {
  sourceTransformers: {
      wrapToInjectGlobals: function (source) {
        return `
        module.exports = function (window, document) {
          var navigator = window.navigator;
          return window.L.noConflict();

That’s it! Your project can now depend on any version of Leaflet, and require this wrapped module to automatically get given a Node-compatible version, without having to maintain your own fork.

This same approach should work for almost any other library that you need to manage server side. It’s not perfect — if Leaflet starts depending on other browser global things may break — but it should be much easier to manage and maintain than copying Leaflet’s code into your project wholesale.

Hopefully in future more projects will improve their native support for running in other environments, and this will go away, but in the meantime there are some relatively simple changes you can make to add Node support to even relatively complex client-side libraries.

Let’s stop there for now. In the next post, we’ll take a proper look at a full working map component, complete with configurability, static content and marker support, and see what you can do to start putting this into action yourself. Can’t wait? Check out for the map component codebase so far.

This post originally appeared on Tim Perry’s personal blog. 

How to get the career you want – What do you want?

15 September 2016, by

This is the second in my series of posts about how to get the career you want. Step 1 in my infallible all-purpose career plan is to work out what you want to do.

How many of us really know what we want to do? And does anyone have a good way to find out if you don’t?


Payroll giving

14 September 2016, by

Payroll Giving Gold AwardOne of the many perks we get at Softwire is access to a Payroll Giving scheme, which makes it easier than ever to support your favourite charities. Signing up to a payroll giving scheme has the following benefits:

  • The money comes out of your pay before you see it, which makes it tax-efficient and also psychologically easier to donate more and continue to donate for many years.
  • It’s charities’ preferred method of receiving donations, as it reduces the admin overhead of e.g. reclaiming Gift Aid.
  • It’s really easy to set up.

We recently took the time to publicise our payroll giving scheme more internally, and found a simple but effective way to reduce the barriers to entry still further: a number of my colleagues volunteered to go round to the desks of people interested in the scheme and take them through the sign-up process. And if it was after working hours, they would even bring a couple of beers along. This led to a doubling in uptake of the scheme, and we now have over 20% of our employees signed up, which we think is fantastic!
We are therefore proud to display our newly-earned “PGA Gold Award” and will be gunning for the Platinum Award next year.
If you were thinking of setting up payroll giving at your workplace, or joining your existing scheme, please do read the testimonials below for more inspiration, or feel free to contact us for practical help.


How to get the career you want – Do it

13 September 2016, by

This is the fourth in my series of posts about how to get the career you want. Step 3 in my infallible all-purpose career plan is to execute the plan that you came up with in Step 2.

This is the step that really sounds the simplest. You’ve made a plan, so now you just need to follow it. Don’t be fooled though; this is the step where it’s easiest for us to trip ourselves up.

How often have you decided that you will do something, and then found that you didn’t actually do it? I will tidy the kitchen. Doh! If you’re anything like me – all the frigging time!

There are two things that work against us here FEAR and DOUBT.


Building a Server-Rendered Map Component – Part 1

12 September 2016, by

Part 1: Why do we need better maps?

Maps are a standard tool in our web UI toolkit; they’re an easy way to link our applications to the real world they (hopefully) involve. At the same time though, maps aren’t as easy to include in your web site as you might want, and certainly don’t feel like a native part of the web.

Critically, unlike many other UI components, you normally can’t just serve up a map with plain HTML. You can easily serve up HTML with a videos embedded, or complex forms, or intricate SVG images and animations, or MathML, but maps don’t quite make the cut. (Google Maps does actually have an Embed API that’s closer to this, but it’s very limited in features, and it’s really just bumping the problem over their fence).

If you want to throw a map on page, you’re going to need pick out a library, write and serve up scripts to imperatively define and render your map, and bring in the extra complexity (and page weight and other limitations) of all the supporting code required to put that into action. That’s not really that much work, and we’ve got used to making fixes like these everywhere. It’s a far cry though from the declarative simplicity of:

<video src=“cats.mp4”></video>

Maps are one small example of the way that the HTML elements we have don’t match what we’re using day to day, and the workarounds you have to use to get closer.

How can we show a map on a page with the same simplicity and power?

Web Components

What we really want is to add<map lat=1.2 long=3.4 zoom=5> to our pages, get a great looking map, and be done with it. That’s the goal.

In principle, web components handle this nicely. You define a custom element for your map, give it its own rendering logic and internally isolated DOM, and then just start using it. That’s really great, it’s a fantastic model, and in principle it’s perfect. Clicking together isolated encapsulated UI elements like this is the key thing that every shiny client-side framework has in common, and getting that as a native feature of the web is incredible.

Support is terrible though. Right now, it’s new Chrome only, so you’re cutting out 50% of your users right off the bat, and it’s going to be a very long time until you can safely do this everywhere. You can get close with lots of polyfills, and that’s often a good choice, but there is extra weight and complexity there, and you really just want a damn <map> — not to spend hours researching the tradeoffs of Polymer or the best way to polyfill registerElement outside it.

Even once this works, you still have the extra front-end complexity that results, and the associated maintenance. You have to serve up your initial content, and then re-render in your JavaScript before some of it is visible. You quickly end up with content that is invisible to almost all automated scripts, scrapers, devices, and search spiders. Depending on JavaScript doesn’t just cut off the small percentage of users who turn it off.

Mobile devices make this even more important. With their slow connections and slow rendering, are going to have to wait longer to see your page when you render things client-side. JavaScript is not at all resilient to connection issues either — any device that drops any scripts required to for basic rendering won’t show any of that rendered content, while simple HTML pages continue with whatever’s available. New Relic’s mobile statistics show 0.9% of HTTP requests from mobile devices failing on the network. That failure rate builds up quickly, when applied to every resource in your page! With just that 0.9% of failures and only 10 resources to load, 9% of your users aren’t going to see your whole page.

Web components are a great step in the right direction, and are exactly the right shape of solution. Web components that progressively enhance already meaningful HTML content are even better, and can mitigate many of the issues above. In many cases like maps though, your component is rendering core page content. Web components do give you a superb way to do that client-side, but rendering your content client-side rendering comes with heavy costs. Worse, it’s frequently not a real necessity. A static map would give all the core functionality (and could then be enhanced with dynamic behaviour on top).

What if we could get these same benefits, without the costs?

Server Components

Server Components is an attempt to improve on our current approach to rendering the web, with the same approach and design as web components, but renderable on the server-side.

Without Server Components, if you wanted to quickly show a map of a location sprinkled with pins, or shaded areas, or whatever else, you couldn’t easily do so without serving up a mountain of JavaScript. Instead, I want to write <map lat=1.2 long=3.4 zoom=5> in my HTML and have my users instantly see a map, without extra client-side rendering or complexity or weight.

This sounds like a pipe dream, but with Server Components, we can do exactly that. We can define new HTML elements, write simple rendering code in normal vanilla JavaScript that builds and transforms the page DOM, and run all of that logic on the server to serve up the resulting ready-to-go JavaScript. All the client-side simplicity and power, without the costs.

Let’s stop there for now. In the next post, we’ll take a look at exactly how you’d implement this, and what you can do to start putting it into action yourself. Can’t wait? Check out for the map component so far.

This post originally appeared on Tim Perry’s personal blog

How to get the career you want – Make a plan

12 September 2016, by

This is the third in my series of posts about how to get the career you want. Step 2 in my infallible all-purpose career plan is to make a plan that will get you to where you want to be.

Now I bet that almost all of you make plans to execute tasks and projects all the time. But somehow when you come to make a plan to achieve a big scary career goal, it doesn’t seem so easy. Sure, you say, I’d love to be Managing Director, but how on earth would I ever get there?


What I did on my volunteering day – Harry

5 September 2016, by

On Monday 13th June, I worked with an organisation called The Conservation Volunteers at one of their sites near Harringay Green Lanes. They do all sorts of work all over London (and in fact have groups over the rest of the country too), so it’s really easy to find something to join in with on their website.

We were working at Railway Fields, a small conservation area tucked away behind Finsbury Park. I’d never come across it before, but it was obviously well used by locals, with lots of families with small children passing through during the day. It was nice to discover another little green space like this in London.