Monday, March 30, 2009

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 5: Multiplicity

Gravity, as we have seen, provides a least resistance path, leading to monolithic software. If gravity was the only force at play, all software would be a monolithic blob. That being not the case, there must be other forces at play. Pervasive, primitive forces just like gravity, setting up a different forcefield, so that it's more convenient to keep things apart.

Consider an amateur programmer, writing a simple program to keep track of his numerous books. He starts with a database-centric approach, and without much knowledge of conceptual modeling, he jumps into creating tables. He creates a Book table, and adds a few fields:
AuthorFirstName, AuthorLastName, Title, Publisher, ISBN, …
It doesn't take much for him to realize that an author could be present several times in his database. He may begin to realize that he could perhaps add an Author table and move AuthorFirstName and AuthorLastName to that table.

Why? He doesn't know squat about database normalization. It's just a simple matter of multiplicity. One author - many books. Different multiplicity suggests to keep things apart. It is quite a good suggestion, as different multiplicity basically requires different gravitational centers, lest we end up with an unfavorable forcefield.
Consider what happens when our amateur programmer discovers he wants to add more biographical data about authors. Without an Author table, there is not any good gravitational center that could possibly attract those data. There is only the Book table, so there they go - adding more data redundancy.

Our amateur programmer, however, might not be so eager to give in. A single table is easier to manage. No foreign keys, no referential integrity, no nothing. It's just simpler, and he doesn't live in the future. He wants to do the simplest thing that could possibly work, so he keeps the Author fields inside the Book table.

He doesn't need much more, however, to realize that many books have more than one author. One book - many authors. That's a different forcefield again, with a many-to-many relationship. Now, our amateur is rather stubborn. He wants to keep things inside a single table anyway. So he goes on and adds more fields:

AuthorFirstName1, AuthorLastName1, AuthorFirstName2, AuthorLastName2, AuthorFirstName3, AuthorLastName3, Title, Publisher, ISBN, …

Of course, at this point he can basically feel he's no longer going along the path of least resistance. Actually, he's fighting the forcefield. Sure, gravity wants him to keep things together, but multiplicity doesn't. The form he's trying to give to the Book table is not in frictionless contact with the forcefield. The forcefield wants Book and Author to stay on their own.

Multiplicity is the primordial force that keeps [software] things apart. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that a great emphasis is given to multiplicity in the Entity-Relationship model and also in the static view of OO models (class diagram).
Multiplicity, however, goes much deeper than that. Reusability is a special case of multiplicity. What? :-). Well, it that sounds odd, you're not thinking fourth dimensionally (as Doc said in "Back to the future").

Consider a different problem, at a different granularity. Our amateur programmer is writing another small application, to keep track of who has borrowed some of his precious books. He's doing the simplest thing again, so he's basically going GUI-centered, and he's putting all the business logic inside the form itself. When you click on "Ok", the form will validate data and store a record into some table. The form requires, among other things, a phone number, which must be validated. It's the only place where he has to validate a phone number, so he puts the validation logic right inside the OnOk method generously provided by his RAD tool.

What's wrong? Apparently, there is no multiplicity at play here. There is one function, where he's doing two distinct things (validation and insertion), and inside validation he's doing different things, but each one is intended to validate one field, so it wouldn't pay to move the field validation logic elsewhere. Gravity keeps things together.

Multiplicity is hidden in the fourth dimension: time. Reusability means being able to take something you have already written (in the past) and use it again, unchanged, in the future. It means you have multiple callers, just not at the same time. If you think fourth dimensionally, multiplicity comes out quite clearly.

Multiplicity is an interesting force, one we need to be very familiar with. It will take a few posts to give it justice. Right now, it's time for me to put my running shoes on and hit the road :-). Still, here are a few pointers to some important issues that I'm going to cover in the next weeks (or months :-)

The fractal nature of multiplicity
Conway's Law
Tools and Languages - lowering costs
Good questions to ask while doing analysis and design.
Is multiplicity stronger than gravity?
Examples from patterns. On truly understanding Abstract Factory.
N-degrees of separation.
Interfaces and Multiplicity - what is separation, anyway?
Cross-cutting concerns.
Down-to-earth guidelines.
The Display problem, once again.

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