Rubberduck 3.0: January Update

I intended to write about Rubberduck 3.0 progress last December, but things snowballed during the Holidays and here we are two-three weeks later and wow, time flies! Happy New Year dear readers (belatedly, I guess), 2023 is full of promises, and there are very nice things going on that I need to take a moment and share here.

Without any further ado, let’s clear the big news.

3 interlocked gears. Gear 1 is the largest, is labelled "add-in client", and drives gear 2 which is smaller and labelled "LSP server". Gear 2 drives gear 3, another smaller gear labelled "LocalDb server".

The main issues with Rubberduck have always been:

  • Memory consumption: Rubberduck consumes a lot of memory in the host process.
  • Instabilities related to COM interop: various tear-down issues with Office CommandBar and dockable toolwindows.
  • Poor VBIDE extensibility tooling and editor interactions.
  • Logs are difficult to use, it’s not clear what is happening in response to what – even when there’s only a single instance writing to the logs. Adding more logging means making things worse.

With v3 we’re addressing these long-standing issues by taking a number of design decisions early in the development process. These decisions were weighted against their downsides and alternatives, and probably make Rubberduck the first VBIDE add-in to implement a LSP Server for its purposes.

Language Server Protocol

For a while there have been discussions among Rubberduck devs about whether implementing LSP would be a feasible thing to do. It’s a protocol that formalizes all communications between a client (an IDE) and a language server that is used in modern IDEs such as Visual Studio and VSCode; twinBASIC implements it, and Rubberduck 3.0 will implement it too.

By moving all of the language-processing aspects out-of-process into a language server, we immediately tackle memory consumption issues: most of the CPU and memory resources Rubberduck 3.0 will use, are going to be outside of the add-in/host process.

With LSP in place, Rubberduck’s objective to bring editing VBA code in the Visual Basic Editor into the 21st century feels closer than ever.

SQLite

Rubberduck’s LSP implementation will be split in two processes, as the LSP server process will be a client for another server process that will host a SQLite database. SQLite is a lightweight library many applications on many platforms (including mobile!) use to persist data between sessions. The database is a local .db file, and the database engine runs in-process. Rubberduck 3.0 will host a SQLite instance in its own server process, and the LSP server process will communicate with it through JSON-RPC, the same way the add-in communicates with the LSP server.

Instead of keeping hundreds of thousands of objects in memory for quick lookups, Rubberduck will write these objects to the database, and only fetch what it needs to work, which should tremendously help reduce the memory and processing footprint of the add-in host process. Using it as a log target (instead of text files) could reduce in-process disk I/O… and replace it with socket I/O and work happening out-of-process.


Cross-Process Communication

The add-in project has no reference to the server project in the Rubberduck solution, and the calls aren’t late-bound either. What’s happening here is different, and there are implications: Remote Procedure Call (RPC) communications occur through web sockets (WS), using a port between 1024 and 5000. As a result, we need to have Windows Defender Firewall open that port for us:

A screenshot of the moment I knew the socket server worked.

Since everything is local, the port only needs private networks permission to operate. We use JsonRPC to send data through that port, so we’re streaming the bytes of human-readable, plain text JSON.

This new client/server architecture enforces a much more decoupled and robust solution.


Telemetry

Telemetry is considered a potentially controversial feature: it will be completely disabled by default and will have to be selectively opted-in explicitly, but with everything becoming asynchronous, trace logging alone often does not suffice for troubleshooting. By implementing a proper telemetry model, we’re giving ourselves the tools to track a request and all actions that stem from it, across the multiple processes.

Since the project started, the only usage data we ever had was our own biased anecdotal usage: we haven’t the slightest idea of what features are under-used, what features are clearly everyone’s favorites, what inspections are most commonly fired, what inspections are disabled, whether inspections we release disabled by default are ever enabled, etc.

Whether enabled or not, Rubberduck 3.0 will collect detailed telemetry data, and store it locally in the SQLite database, by default clearing any existing data on startup: vital debugging information is present if it’s needed.

Ok I’m opting-in, what gives?

Opting into telemetry will allow a Rubberduck client to automatically upload the telemetry data to a future endpoint on api.rubberduckvba.com (via https), where it will be persisted to a SQL Server database schema. Since there is no need for us to track any users, while still potentially extremely detailed, all telemetry data will be anonymous and impossible to track back to any particular user, computer, organization, or country. The transmitted telemetry data will only ever contain information that was explicitly allowed to be transmitted.

Time will tell how aggregated telemetry data can be used, but with enough data we (that includes you) could gain valuable insights on various points of interest:

  • Rubberduck feature usage statistics
  • LSP performance monitoring and troubleshooting
  • VBA language usage statistics, common issues

By transmitting some or all of your telemetry data, you’ll be helping make Rubberduck better for everyone, just by using it. However should you decide to not opt into it, we understand and respect your decision. Note that TraceTelemetry items are the trace logs, so transmitting them is exactly like sending us your log file for troubleshooting. I’ll make a separate post with all the details around pre-release time, and these features will be exhaustively documented on the website.


Progress?

Having the LSP and Telemetry models is one thing, actually implementing them is another. Last time I said I was going to be focusing primarily on the Rubberduck Editor UI, and I did for a while: the editor was progressing very well and I was making very conclusive tests with an in-process parser when I took the decision to move the parser out-of-process.

I proceeded to read the entire LSP specification and implemented a model for it. Shortly after, I realized that we were potentially going to be running multiple instances of a LSP server at once, and it dawned on me that having as many instances of the SQLite database loaded in memory was not going to be globally efficient… so I decided to pull the SQLite database into its own dedicated server process.

The whole exercise demanded a lot of movement in solution projects and namespaces, but I’m very happy with the results: everything is in its place, and the actual add-in project is pretty much empty!

I started with the server implementation that’s the furthest from the add-in: the SQLite database server. This server speaks to LSP through JSON-RPC, but while Language Server Protocol formalizes how the add-in and the LSP talk to each other, I don’t have such a formal protocol for communications between the LSP and the database… so I’m basing most of it on what I learned with LSP.

How it’s going to work: you start Excel and hit Alt+F11 to bring up the VBE. The Rubberduck add-in gets loaded and starts up, then starts a LSP server process and initializes it. In turn the LSP server starts, and attempts to locate the database server. If the database process isn’t found, the LSP server starts one. The Excel/VBE/Rubberduck client process owns the LSP server process, but nobody owns the database server: when the database has disconnected its last client, it automatically shuts down.

The servers (both database and LSP) are console applications that run silently as background processes. In order to facilitate configuring them, and viewing/reviewing their respective inputs and outputs, I’ve written a small client console application that shows the server console content, lets you easily export it to text files or copy it to the clipboard, etc.

a screenshot showing the Rubberduck.DataServer client console application in the middle of exporting a log output to a .log text file.
Screenshot from before the DataServer UI was moved into its own LocalDbClient project.

The LSP client console application will have an additional Telemetry tab to review, delete, and manually submit telemetry data. Server log trace can be set to verbose or turned off, and the server itself can be instructed to shut down, directly from this application.

When RD3 releases, these client console applications will probably be accessible from an add-in menu, or perhaps they’ll be started together with the add-in and minimized to the system tray… we’ll cross that bridge when we get to the river.

Meanwhile work on the editor itself has taken a backseat, since it wasn’t useful to work on parameter info tooltips and wire up add-in functionality that would have to be later undone to work through the LSP server. All of the proof-of-concept stuff that worked, is still working. It just needs to be wired up to work with LSP requests and notifications, so focus has now shifted to the language server and its database backend.

The next few weeks/months are going to be all about implementing the LSP server, most likely.

4 thoughts on “Rubberduck 3.0: January Update”

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