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Valkyrie, Reimagining the Samvera Community

by Esmé Cowles

I generally don’t find looking at slides to be a good substitute for watching a talk, and I’d rather read a text version than watch a video, so I thought I’d write up a text version of my talk at Open Repositories.

First of all, what is Valkyrie?

Valkyrie is a new persistence layer for Samvera. It’s the core part of the repository stack that handles storing metadata and files. It provides APIs for acessing and navigating relationships between objects. If you’re familiar with the Samvera stack, it’s a replacement for ActiveFedora.

One of the key features of Valkyrie is swappable backends — allowing you to use different storage options in your application without having to change any of the code. So while ActiveFedora supports Fedora and Solr, Valkyrie supports both of those and several other options, including Postgresql, Redis, Rails ActiveRecord databases, Amazon DynamoDB and CloudSearch. It does this by providing a set of APIs for persistence — a set of abstractions for working with files and metadata. This includes a (small) set of queries for loading and navigating between objects. N.b., this isn’t fulltext or keyword search like an end user might use, but basic navigation like finding the page objects that are members of a book object.

Valkyrie also provides a shared test suite for verifying that backends behave they way they are expected to. This is used internally to verify that the core backends all behave consistently. And it helps make the development of new backends easier, since you can run the same test suite against your backend to make sure it behaves the way Valkyrie expects. Since Ruby/Rails doesn’t have the same kind of interface definitions that some other languages have, this test suite effectively serves as the interface declaration.

Why did we develop Valkyrie?

We began thinking about ways we might insert new API abstraction layers into the Samvera stack when we were working on Curation Concerns (now Hyrax), and started seeing divergent use cases. At first, we thought that there was an important distinction between institutional repositories and digital collections, but we came to see that as a false dichotomy. We came to see other differences as more important, such as whether you wanted to have a control panel in your application to customize it, or whether you would rather write code to change the way your application worked. And we also saw metadata complexity, and in particular, the scale and scope of linking between objects, as a key point of divergence. Whether the linking was because of PCDM, or modeling controlled vocabularies as repository objects, or something else, as the scale of linking grew, we started to see serious performance problems.

The performance problems first manifested themselves as ingest problems. As we loaded larger and larger objects, we noticed that each page took more time to ingest than the last. Once we had large objects ingested, we saw that the time to read and save them grew longer the more members the object had. These are both manifestations of the “many members” problem, where the time to retrieve an object from Fedora grows linearly with the number of links it has to other repository objects. We worked to address this problem as all levels of the Samvera stack, including in Fedora, in the Ruby RDF processing code, and in Curation Concerns/Hyrax. But as we did so, we noticed a more fundamental problem: complexity.

In theory, Fedora and Solr serve very distinct roles in the Samvera framework. It makes for nice architecture diagrams, but in practice, their use is very intertwined. Because Solr provides query functionality that Fedora doesn’t, and because Solr is often faster than Fedora, there are many places in the code where Solr is used instead of Fedora. And because there are no clearly-defined APIs or abstractions, these calls to Solr typically invovle low-level Solr concerns, such as field names and query syntax. Both the core ActiveFedora code and application code do this in many places, resulting in complexity that makes it hard to address performance problems, and in fact, deters developers from working on ActiveFedora.

So, we developed Valkyrie to address the performance and complexity problems, and to provide a clear abstraction for core repository functionality. Now that Valkyrie is in production, it’s a good time to take stock of the ramifications of its development for the broader Samvera community. The Samvera community is large and I wouldn’t presume to speak for all of them, but here are some lessons I think we can learn:

The Samvera working group process worked

Valkyrie was developed using a number of existing communication channels and processes:

So as the Samvera community considers many changes in governance, such as having rotating, elected leadership, a community roadmap, and more formalized contributions, I think it’s important to recognize that many existing communication channels and community processes worked well for Valkyrie.

Fedora is not the center of the universe

I say this as a Fedora Committer and Fedora API Specification editor: Fedora works well for some use cases, but isn’t the best choice for everyone. The API spec and alternative implementations promise to provide more persistence options within Fedora. But when we started working on Valkyrie, none of the alternative implementations had the institutional support or sustainable development process that we would need to adopt them. A year later, there has been progress on finalizing the API specification, but there is still not an alternative implementation we could adopt.

But regardless of whether it’s within Fedora or using Valkyrie, having multiple backends to choose from opens up many possibilities. It gives you the option of choosing your backend based on your performance or features needs. Maybe your organization has strong guidance on what platforms to use or not use, or maybe your staff has a lot of expertise with a certain storage option and so it makes sense to use it.

How do we conceptualize Samvera?

Using Fedora has been the defining aspect of the Samvera community, with Samvera defined in relation to Fedora. It’s true that some institutions have used parts of the Samvera stack with other backends (notably UCSD and DPLA) — but their model was not widely adopted or promoted as a replacement for ActiveFedora. As using different backends becomes a core part of the Samvera stack, it means we should rethink Samvera, and how it relates to other technologies. And like the renaming from Hydra to Samvera last year, it gives us an opportunity to think about who we are and who we want to be.

Code and data stewardship

There is a lot of code that will need to be updated to use Valkyrie, and since there are calls to Solr scattered around core gems and applications, that will require careful review to find them all. We also have many deployed Samvera applications with lots of data. So we will need to be careful to provide good migration tooling, and minimize the amount of data that needs to be updated.

We haven’t always done a good job of this in the past, and many Samvera adopters are running old versions of the software in part because code and data migrations are hard. So this is an opportunity for us to live up to our stated values of avoiding unnecessary data migrations, making code migrations as easy as possible, and generally supporting sustainable repositories.

Lesson from Islandora: don’t fight against your platform

A part of the Islandora CLAW effort is to fully embrace the Drupal platform so that Islandora applications can take full advantage of existing Drupal modules. Past versions weren’t compatible with most Drupal modules, because they didn’t use the Drupal Node system they depended on.

In much the same way, ActiveFedora was modeled after ActiveRecord, but it wasn’t compatible with many community gems because it wasn’t actually ActiveRecord. By contrast, Valkyrie uses more community gems, such as Dry::Types, Dry::Struct, Reform and Draper, allowing Valkyrie applications to work with a wider variety of gems.

One practical impact of this related to hiring (and retaining) developers. There are many more Rails developers than Samvera developers. And following the patterns those developers know makes it easier to hire Rails developers and have them be productive and happy, (instead of being frustrated by ActiveFedora and Fedora more broadly).

Everything doesn’t need to be a product

Many institutions are adopting Hyrax, and there is a lot of momentum around it. But I think that it’s important for there to be a place in the Samvera community for building your own application from components, instead of using an existing solution bundle. I don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach will work well for the Samvera community. And building reusable components will help us take the best advantage of the broader Rails ecosystem, and build components that are usable beyond our small community.