Expect the Unexpected

There was a panic at one of my client sites today when the reporting software I wrote for them stopped working. Instead of presenting reports as usual, the software threw an unknown error.

WTF, an unknown error!

I wrote the darn system, I know all the errors, because I coded all of them!

A quick glance at the logs indicated that indeed, Passenger was throwing an unknown error when accessing one Rails URL (and all others were working just fine). It’s as if that Rails path just disappeared.

Drilling down the stack of log errors, it turned out to be quite a simple error — a single data point was nil instead of the expected number and any calculations or transforms on nil throw an error. As they should.

But this number was in the input file to the system, as in all previous input files, and verified to be there. And the input file was loaded OK, as did all previous input files. So why, on this day, at this time, is there a nil when every other day there is a number?

It turns out that the company that sends the file accidentally sent us two files today, one being the usual file we expect, and another that we had never seen before but in the exact same format with the same keys!. My code processed both files, overwriting the correct first file with the garbage from the second file.

The fix was easy, nuke the bad file, reprocess the good file and we’re off and running. Business interruption was insignificant.

But the lesson learned is to expect the unexpected. I have now changed the file processing code to check that the file it receives is the one it expects to receive, and ignores all others. That way, when this happens again, as it always does, the software will only process the good file.

Next time you see a one-off error, don’t just rectify the situation and walk away, find out what caused the problem, and ensure that it can never happen again.

Posted By Hilton Lipschitz · Aug 8, 2012 11:49 AM