Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nicobar: Dynamic Scripting Library for Java

By James Kojo, Vasanth Asokan, George Campbell, Aaron Tull

The Netflix API is the front door to the streaming service, handling billions of requests per day from more than 1000 different device types around the world. To provide the best experience to our subscribers, it is critical that our UI teams have the ability to innovate at a rapid pace. As described in our blog post a year ago, we developed a Dynamic Scripting Platform that enables this rapid innovation.

Today, we are happy to announce Nicobar, the open source script execution library that allows our UI teams to inject UI-specific adapter code dynamically into our JVM without the API team’s involvement. Named after a remote archipelago in the eastern Indian Ocean, Nicobar allows each UI team to have its own island of code to optimize the client/server interaction for each device, evolved at its own pace.


As of this post’s writing, a single Netflix API instance hosts hundreds of UI scripts, developed by a dozen teams. Together, they deploy anywhere between a handful to a hundred UI scripts per day. A strong, core scripting library is what allows the API JVM to handle this rate of deployment reliably and efficiently.

Our success with the scripting approach in the API platform led us to identify other applications that could benefit also from the ability to alter their behavior without a full scale deployment. Nicobar is a library that provides this functionality in a compact and reusable manner, with pluggable support for JVM languages.

Architecture Overview

Early implementations of dynamic scripting at Netflix used basic java classloader technology to host and sandbox scripts from one another. While this was a good start, it was not nearly enough. Standard Java classloaders can have only one parent, and thus allow only simple, flattened hierarchies. If one wants to share classloaders, this is a big limitation and an inefficient use of memory. Also, code loaded within standard classloaders is fully visible to downstream classloaders. Finer-grained visibility controls are helpful in restricting what packages are exported and imported into classloaders.

Given these experiences, we designed into Nicobar a script module loader that holds a graph of inter-dependent script modules. Under the hood, we use JBoss Modules (which is open source) to create java modules. JBoss modules represent powerful extensions to basic Java classloaders, allowing for arbitrarily complex classloader dependency graphs, including multiple parents. They also support sophisticated package filters that can be applied to incoming and outgoing dependency edges.

A script module provides an interface to retrieve the list of java classes held inside it. These classes can be instantiated and methods exercised on the instances, thereby “executing” the script module.

Script source and resource bundles are represented by script archives. Metadata for the archives is defined in the form of a script module specification, where script authors can describe the content language, inter-module dependencies, import and export filters for packages, as well as user specific metadata.

Script archive contents can be in source form and/or in precompiled form (.class files). At runtime, script archives are converted into script modules by running the archive through compilers and loaders that translate any source found into classes, and then loading up all classes into a module. Script compilers and loaders are pluggable, and out of the box, Nicobar comes with compilation support for Groovy 2, as well as a simple loader for compiled java classes.

Archives can be stored into and queried from archive repositories on demand, or via a continuous repository poller. Out of the box, Nicobar comes with a choice of file-system based or Cassandra based archive repositories. 

As the usage of a scripting system grows in scale, there is often the need for an administrative interface that supports publishing and modifying script archives, as well as viewing published archives. Towards this end, Nicobar comes with a manager and explorer subproject, based on Karyon and Pytheas.

Putting it all together

The diagram below illustrates how all the pieces work together.

Usage Example - Hello Nicobar!

Here is an example of initializing the Nicobar script module loader to support Groovy scripts.

Create a script archive

Create a simple groovy script archive, with the following groovy file:

Add a module specification file moduleSpec.json, along with the source:

Jar the source and module specification together as a jar file. This is your script archive.

Create a script module loader

Create an archive repository

If you have more than a handful of scripts, you will likely need a repository representing the collection. Let’s create a JarArchiveRepository, which is a repository of script archive jars at some file system path. Copy helloworld.jar into /tmp/archiveRepo to match the code below.

Hooking up the repository poller provides dynamic updates of discovered modules into the script module loader. You can wire up multiple repositories to a poller, which would poll them iteratively.

Execute script
Script modules can be retrieved out of the module loader by name (and an optional version). Classes can be retrieved from script modules by name, or by type. Nicobar itself is agnostic to the type of the classes held in the module, and leaves it to the application’s business logic to decide what to extract out and how to execute classes.

Here is an example of extracting a class implementing Callable and executing it:

At this point, any changes to the script archive jar will result in an update of the script module inside the module loader and new classes reflecting the update will be vended seamlessly!

More about the Module Loader

In addition to the ability to dynamically inject code, Nicobar’s module loading system also allows for multiple variants of a script module to coexist, providing for runtime selection of a variant. As an example, tracing code execution involves adding instrumentation code, which adds overhead. Using Nicobar, the application could vend classes from an instrumented version of the module when tracing is needed, while vending classes from the uninstrumented, faster version of the module otherwise. This paves the way for on demand tracing of code without having to add constant overhead on all executions. 

Module variants can also be leveraged to perform slow rollouts of script modules. When a module deployment is desired, a portion of the control flow can be directed through the new version of the module at runtime. Once confidence is gained in the new version, the update can be “completed”, by flushing out the old version and sending all control flow through the new module.

Static parts of an application may benefit from a modular classloading architecture as well. Large applications, loaded into a monolithic classloader can become unwieldy over time, due to an accumulation of unintended dependencies and tight coupling between various parts of the application. In contrast, loading components using Nicobar modules allows for well defined boundaries and fine-grained isolation between them. This, in turn, facilitates decoupling of components, thereby allowing them to evolve independently


We are excited by the possibilities around creating dynamic applications using Nicobar. As usage of the library grows, we expect to see various feature requests around access controls, additional persistence and query layers, and support for other JVM languages.

Project Jigsaw, the JDK’s native module loading system, is on the horizon too, and we are interested in seeing how Nicobar can leverage native module support from Jigsaw.

If these kinds of opportunities and challenges interest you, we are hiring and would love to hear from you!