Chris Inch 07/05/2019

Componentizing Shopify’s Tax Engine

By Chris Inch and Vignesh Sivasubramanian

Reading Time: 8 minutes

At Shopify, we value building for the long term. This can come in many forms but within Engineering, we want to build things in a way that is easy to understand, modify, and deploy so we are confident to build without introducing bugs or unnecessary complexity. The tax engine that existed in Shopify’s codebase started out simple, but over years of development and incremental additions, it became a challenging part of code to work within. This article details how our Engineering team tackled the problems associated with complex code, and how we built for the long term by moving our tax engine to a componentized architecture within Shopify’s codebase. Oh… and we did all this without anyone noticing.

Tax Calculations: The Wild West

Tax calculations on orders are complex by nature. Many factors go into calculating the final amount charged in taxes on an order like product type, customer location, shipping origin, physical and economic nexus of a business. This complexity created a complicated system within our product where ownership of tax logic was spread far and wide to components that knew too much about how tax calculations worked. It felt like the Wild West of tax code.

Lucky for us, we have a well-defined componentization architecture at Shopify and we leveraged this architecture to implement a new tax component. Essentially, we needed to retain the complexity, but eliminate the complications. Here’s how we did it.

Educate the Team

The first step to making things less complicated was creating a team that would spend time gaining knowledge of the code base around tax. We needed to fully understand which parts of Shopify were influencing tax calculations and how they were being used. And it’s not just code! Taxes are tricky in general. To be able to create a tax component, one must not only understand the code involved, but also understand the tax domain itself. We used an in-house tax Subject Matter Expert (SME) to ensure we continued to support the many complexities of calculating taxes. We also employed different strategies to bring the team’s tax knowledge up to snuff which included weekly trivia question on taxes around the world. This allowed us to learn the domain and have a bit of fun while doing so.

Do you know the difference between zero-rated taxes and no taxes? No? Neither did we but with persistence and a tenacity for learning, the team leveled up with all the intricacies of taxation faced by Shopify merchants. We realized if we wanted to make taxes an independent component in our system, we need to be able to discern what proper tax calculations look like.

Understand Existing Tax Logic

The team figured out where tax logic was used by other systems and how it was consumed. This initial step took the most effort as we used a lot of regular expressions, scripts, and manual processes to find all of the areas that touched taxes. We found that the best way to gain expertise quickly was to work on any known bugs relating to taxes. There was some re-factoring that was beneficial to tackle up front, before componentization, but some of the tax logic was so intertwined with other systems that it would be easier to re-factor once the larger componentization change was in place.

Tax Engine Structure Before Componentization
Taxes Before Componentization

After a full understanding of the tax logic was achieved, the team devised the best strategy to isolate the tax logic into its own component. A component is an efficient way to organize large sections of code that changes together by breaking a large code base into meaningful distinct parts, each with its own defined dependencies. After this, all communication becomes explicit over the component’s architectural boundaries. For example, one of the most complicated aspects of Shopify’s code is order creation. During the creation of an order, the tax engine is invoked by three distinct parts of Shopify Cart -> Checkout -> Order. This change of context brings in more complexity to the system because each area is using taxes in its own selfish way, without consistency. When Checkout changed how it used Taxes, it might have unknowingly broken how Cart was using it.

Creating a Tax Component

Define the Interface

In order to componentize the tax logic, first we had to define a clear interface and entry point into all the tax calls being made in Shopify’s codebase. Everything that requires tax information will pass a set of defined parameters, and expect a specific response when requesting tax rates. The tax request outlines the data it requires in a clear and understandable format. Each of the complex attributes is simply a collection of simple types, this way the tax logic need not worry about the implementation of the caller.

The tax response schema is also composed of simple types that don't make any assumptions about the calling component.

Componentized Tax Engine
Componentized Tax Engine

This above diagram shows how each component interacts cleanly with the tax engine using well-defined requests and responses, TaxesRequestSchema and TaxesReponseSchema. With the new interface, the flow of execution on tax engine looks much more streamlined and easy to understand.

Executing the Plan

Once we had defined a clean interface to make tax requests, it was time to wrangle all the instances of tax-aware code throughout the entire Shopify codebase. We did this by moving all source files touching tax logic under tax component. If taxes were the Wild West, then we were the Sheriff coming to town. We couldn’t leave any rogue tax code outside of our tax component. Additionally, we wanted to make our changes future-proof so that other developers at Shopify aren’t able to accidentally add new code that reaches past our component boundaries, so we added GitHub bot triggers to notify our team on any commits pushed against source files under tax component, this allowed us to be sure that no additional dependencies were added to the system while it is undergoing change.

Updating our Tax Testing Suites

Every line of code that we moved within the component was tested and cleaned. Existing unit tests were re-checked, and new integrations tests were written. We added end-to-end scenarios for each consumer of the tax component until we were satisfied that it tested the usage of tax logic sufficiently— this was the best way to capture failures that may have been introduced to the system as a whole. The unit tests provided confidence that the individual units of our code produced the same functionality and our integration tests provided confidence that our new component did not alter the macro functionality of the system.

Slowly but surely, we completed work on the tax component. Finally, it was ready, and there was just one thing left to do: start using it.

Releasing

Our code cleanup work was complete, and the only task left was releasing it. We had high confidence in the changes we introduced through componentization of this logic. Even still, we needed to ensure we did not change the behavior of the existing system for the hundreds of thousands of merchants who rely on tax calculations within Shopify while we released it. Up to this point, the code paths into the component were not yet being used in production. For our team, it was paramount that the overall calculation of taxes remained unaffected, so we took a systematic, methodological and measurable approach to releasing.

The Experimental Code Path

The first step to our release was to ensure that our shiny new component was calculating taxes the same way that our existing tax engine was already calculating these same taxes.

We accomplished this by running an “experiment” code path on the new component. When taxes were requested within our code, we allowed our old gnarly code to run, but we simultaneously kicked off the same calculations through the new tax component. Both code paths were being triggered simultaneously and taxes were calculated in both pieces of code concurrently so that we could compare the results. Once we compared the results of old and new code paths, the results from the new component were discarded. Literally, we calculated taxes twice and measured any discrepancies between the two calculations. These result comparisons helped expose some of the more nuanced and intricate portions of code that we needed to modify or test further. Through iterations and minor revisions, we solidified the component and ensured that we didn’t introduce any new problems in the process. This also gave us the opportunity to add additional tests and increase our confidence.

Once there were no discrepancies between old and new, it was time to release the component and start using the new architecture. In order to perform this Indiana Jones-style swap, we rolled out the component to a small number of Shopify shops first, then tested, observed, and monitored. Once we were sure that things were behaving properly, we slowly scaled up the number of shops whose checkouts used the new tax component. Eventually, over the course of a few days, 100% of shops on Shopify were using the new tax component. The tax component is now the only path through the code that is being used to calculate taxes.

Benefits and Impact

Through the efforts of our tax Engineering team, we have added sustainability and extensibility to our tax engine. We did this with no downtime and no merchant impact.

Many junior developers are concerned only with building the required, correct behavior to complete their task. A software engineer needs to ensure that solutions not only deliver the correct behavior, but do it in a way that is easy to understand, modify, and deploy for years to come. Through these componentization efforts, the team organized the code base in a way that is easy for all future developers to work within for years to come.

We constantly receive praise from other developers at Shopify, thanking us for the clean entry point into the Tax Component. Componentization like this reduces the cognitive load and abstract knowledge of the internals of tax calculations in our system.

Interested in learning more about Componentization? Check out cbra.info. It helped us define better interfaces, flow of data and software boundaries.


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