Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 3: Mass, Gravity and Inertia

I thought I could discuss the whole concept of Gravity and its implications in 2 or 3 (long) posts. While writing, I realized I'll need at least 4 or 5. So, this time I'll talk a little about how we can cope with gravity, and about the concept of Inertia. Next time, I'll discuss how we can exploit gravity, and why (despite the obvious cost) it is important that we do not surrender to (or ignore) gravity.

How do we cope with gravity? Needless to say, we have to spend some energy to move away from the amorphous big blob. As usual, we can also borrow some of that energy from someone (or something) else. Here are a few well-proven ideas:

- Architecture. I used to define architecture as "an overall structure, providing a natural place for features and concepts". I could now say that architecture must provide the right centers, or (from the viewpoint of mass and gravity) the right gravitational centers, so that the system can grow harmoniously. The right architecture is also the key to exploit gravity. More about this (and about the role of design patterns) next time.

- Refactoring. While architecture requires some kind of upfront investment, refactoring fights gravity in a more piecemeal, continuous fashion.
Although Refactoring and Emergent Design are often seen as the arch-enemies of Architecture, they are not. Experienced developers know that both are needed, as they work at different scales.
No amount of architecture, for instance, will ever prevent small-scale gravity to attract more code into existing functions. When we add a new feature (maybe under a tight deadline) gravity suggests to add that feature in place, often without even breaking the smallest separation unit – the function.
Conversely, gravity (and even more so Inertia) does not allow refactoring to scale economically beyond some (hard to identify) threshold.

- Measurement and Correction. While refactoring is often performed on-the-fly by programmers, fixing bad smells as they go, we can also use automatic tools to help us keep the code within some quality bounds. See Simple Metrics and More on Code Clones for a few ideas. Of course, measures provide guidance, but then the usual refactoring techniques must be applied.

- Visualization. More on this another time.

- Better Languages and Technologies. At some granularity level, technology becomes either a boon or an hindrance. Consider components: creating binary, release-to-release compatible components in C++ is a nightmare. .NET, for instance, does a much better job. Languages with a simple grammar, like Java and C#, or with strong support for reflection, also allows better tools to be built (see next point)

- Better Tools. Consider web services. They provide a relatively painless way to create a distributed system. The lack of pain doesn't really come from SOAP (which isn't that stroke of genius), but from the underlying HTTP/XML infrastructure and from the widely available, easily interoperable WSDL tools. Consider also refactoring: without good tools, it's a relatively error-prone activity. Refactoring tools make it much easier to fight gravity, moving code around with relatively little effort.

On Inertia
Mass brings gravity. Gravitational attraction works to preserve the existing structure (at the fractal levels I discussed in Chapter 1). In the physical world, however, we have another interesting manifestation of mass, called Inertia. There are many formulations of the concept (see the wikipedia page for details), but what is most interesting here is the simple F=m*a equation. We apply external forces (human work) to a system, but systems with a large mass won't easily change their state of rest or motion (including their current direction).

What is, then, the state of rest/motion for a software system? We could provide several analogies. To find the best analogy for acceleration, we need the best analogy for speed. To find the best analogy for speed, we need the best analogy for space.

The underlying idea must be that we apply some effort to move our software through space. What is the nature of that space? A few real-world examples are needed. Consider a C++/MFC application; we want to migrate the GUI layer to C#/.NET (interestingly, "migration" is commonly used to indicate motion in space). Consider a monolithic, legacy application that must be exposed as a service; or a web application that requires some performance improvement. Sure, all this may require some change in mass too (as some code will be added, some removed), but what is required is to move the software to a different place. What is that place, or, inside which kind of space do we want to move? I encourage you to think about this on your own for a while, before reading further.

My answer is rather simple: that space is the decision space. Software is built by making a number of decisions: we choose languages, technologies, architectural styles, coding styles (e.g. error handling styles, readability/efficiency trade offs, etc.), and so on. We also choose a development process, a team, etc.
Some of those decisions are explicit and carefully worked out. Some are taken on the fly as we code. At any given time, our software is located in a specific (albeit difficult to define) place inside a huge, multi-dimensional decision space. Each decision affects some portion of code. Some are clearly separated. Some are pervasive or cross-cutting.

Software development is a learning process; therefore, some of those decisions will be wrong. Some will be right for a while, but since real-world software does not live in a vacuum, we'll have to change them anyway later.
Changing a decision requires moving our software through the decision space: every decomposition unit affected by that decision will be touched, therefore adding to the mass to be moved (hence the deadly cost of cross-cutting, pervasive concerns).

Inertia explains why some decisions are so hard to change. Any decision we change is bound to require a change in the state of rest, or motion, of our software, because we want to move it into another place.
Some of those decisions impact a large mass of software, and therefore a strong force must be applied. Experience shows that after a critical mass is reached, it becomes so hard to even understand what to do, that software becomes an immovable object (therefore requiring an irresistible force :-).

Of course, small systems won't show much inertia, which explains why the dynamics of programming in the small are different from the dynamics of programming in the large.

Also, speed and acceleration depends also on time. I'll save this for a later time, as I still have to understand a few things better :-)

Enough for today. See you guys soon!


Miki said...

Con questo Chapter 3, il discorso diventa sempre più intrigante! Ho però un tarlo per la testa: l'analogia tra la forza di gravità e le forze in gioco nello sviluppo di software (ma probabilmente l'analogia si può estendere ai progetti di "umano ingegno" in generale) è convincente, ma lo sviluppo di un progetto ha un fine, un obiettivo, un traguardo, mentre la gravità classica e in generale la "fisica" non prevedono forze "finalistiche".
Mi viene però in mente un libro di Seth Lloyd, "Il programma dell'universo", che ho letto qualche anno fa sulla teoria quantistica dell'informazione, dove invece viene teorizzata una forza che tende in qualche modo a milgiorare la qualità dell'informazione (l'ho fatta un po' semplice, in realtà in discorso è molto più articolato)... spero, meditandoci un po' su, di riuscire a formulare qualche pensiero interessante sulle forze "organizzative": del resto è innegabile che con il tempo in qualche modo i manufatti sw migliorino, per cui se è vero che combattere la "gravità" richiede una "forza", è possibile che si riesca a trovare qualche altra interessante analogia con la fisica per descriverla.
Aspetto con ansia il Chapter 4!


Carlo.Pescio said...

Credo che la risposta sia molto semplice e senza risvolti metafisici :-).

Anche nel mondo fisico i progetti hanno un fine. Questo fine deve tenere conto della forza di gravita'. Se voglio spedire un razzo sulla luna, la gravita' e' un fattore determinante (anche per il ritorno ;-).

Lo stesso vale per il software. Il fatto che esistano alcune "dinamiche" ("leggi" mi pare eccessivo) va tenuto presente mentre si sviluppa. Poi i nostri progetti hanno i loro fini, esattamente come quelli che hanno luogo nel mondo fisico "tradizionale".

Tra l'altro, la gravita' e' solo la prima tra le varie forze che prendero' in esame (non tutte hanno un corrispondente fenomeno fisico). Tutte queste forze sono "non finalistiche", ma dobbiamo tenerle presenti mentre plasmiamo la forma del nostro software. Penso che le cose si chiariranno ulteriormente con le prossime puntate...