Interrelated personal side projects can be a goldmine of learning opportunities

Some people struggle to find ideas for working on side/personal software development projects for learning (and fun!). I’ve kept a running list of ideas in an online notebook and if I’m struggling for an idea for a new project I refer back to this list.

Over the past couple of years I stumbled across a series of inter-related projects that’s been a goldmine of learning opportunities, from frontend to backend to serverless.

This series of projects started with a question “Can you solve a problem without understanding the problem?”. tl;dr? No. The problem for this activity was solving Sudoku puzzles, and you can read more about this here:

This lead to the next step, researching more about exact cover problems, and how they can be solved with well established algorithms:

After building an implementation of Donald Knuth’s Algorithm X, I packaged it up as an AWS Lambda, and then built a React frontend for it:

I have one other project in progress for the frontend, replacing Flux with Redux. I’m still working on that one.

After building my solver and the frontend, I starting thinking about how to generate new puzzles. This is in progress here: https://github.com/kevinhooke/sudoku-generator

If you’re generating new puzzles you also need a way to grade the difficulty of puzzles. The unusual thing about this is there’s no established algorithm for grading the complexity of Sudoku puzzles, they’re typically graded by applying human solving techniques, so this led to this: https://github.com/kevinhooke/sudoku-human-grader

This string of related projects has kept me busy of the past couple of years. Not every idea will lead to a series of related projects like this, but if you can find an idea that does, it will keep you busy with plenty of problems to solve and many learning opportunities.

node.js, node-oracledb and Oracle Instant Client

To access an Oracle DB from an AWS Lambda function developed with node.js, you need to package you Lambda with shared libraries from Oracle’s Instant Client. The install instructions are here ( http://oracle.github.io/node-oracledb/INSTALL.html#quickstart ) but the only part that is really needed is the download location (since there’s no specific instructions for bundling the libs with an AWS Lambda): https://www.oracle.com/database/technologies/instant-client/linux-x86-64-downloads.html

Not all the Oracle Instant Client files are needed. From this older npm module to automate the packaging of the required libraries, I used this same list of required libraries:

libclntshcore.so.19.1
libclntsh.so.19.1
libmql1.so
libipc1.so
libnnz19.so
libons.so (not packaged in current Instant Client)
libociicus.so
libaio.so (from separate download - see next step)

libaio – if you’re on a Linux platform you can ‘apt-get install libaio’ or similar, but building my Lambda on a Mac I had to manually download the package and extract just the .so file from here (download the Arch Linux x64 package): https://pkgs.org/download/libaio

Put these in a /lib dir and zip up the folder and files. Use this to create a Lambda Layer.

For the Lambda itself install the node.js module for the api:

npm install –save node-oracledb

For examples in api usage, see the examples here: https://github.com/oracle/node-oracledb/tree/master/examples

AWS Lambda access to AWS RDS databases

For a Lambda to access an AWS RDS database instance, it needs to be in the same VPC as the RDS instance. However, if you haven’t created and assigned a role with persmissions for the Lambda to access the VPC, you’ll see this error when creating your Lambda:

To fix this per steps in the tutorial here, create a role with permission ‘AWSLambdaVPCAccessExecutionRole’.

Creating a new AWS Lambda using the AWS CLI

It’s pretty easy to set up and configure a new AWS Lambda with the AWS Console, but if you’re iterating on some changes and need to redeploy a few times, the AWS CLI makes it pretty easy.

To create a new Lambda, assuming you have a .zip packaged up and ready to go:

aws lambda create-function --function-name example-lambda --zip-file fileb://example-lambda.zip --handler index.handler --runtime nodejs8.10 --role arn:aws:iam::role-id-here:role/lambda-role