Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 12: Entanglement

Mechanical devices require maintenance, some more than others. Maintenance is intended to keep them working, because mechanical parts tend to wear out. Maintenance is required so that they can still work "as new", that is, do the same thing they were built to do.

Software programs require maintenance, some more than others. Maintenance is intended to keep them useful, because software parts don't wear out, but they get obsolete. They solve yesterday's problems, not today's problems. Or perhaps they didn't even solve yesterday's problems right (bugs). Maintenance is required so that software can so something different from what it was built to do.

Looking from a slightly different perspective, software is encoded knowledge, and the value of knowledge is constantly decaying (see the concept of half-life of knowledge). Maintenance is required to restore value. Energy (human work) must be supplied to keep encoded knowledge current, that is, valuable.

Either way, software developers spend a large amount of their time changing stuff.

Ideally, changes would be purely additional. We would write a new software entity (e.g. a class) inside a new artifact (a source file). We would transform that artifact into something executable (if needed; interpreted languages don't need this step). We would deploy just the new executable artifact. The system would automagically discover the new artifact and start using it.

Although it's possible to create systems like that (I've done it many times through plug-in architectures), programs are not written this way from the ground up. Plug-ins, assuming they exist at all, usually appears at a relatively coarse granularity. Below that level, maintenance is rarely additional. Besides, additional maintenance is only possible when the change request is aligned with the underlying architecture.

So, the truth is, most often we can't simply add new knowledge to the system. We also have to change and remove existing parts. A single change request then results in a wave of changes, propagating through the system. Depending on some factors (that I'll discuss later on) the wave could be dampened pretty soon, or even amplified. In that case, we'll have to change more and more parts as the wave propagates through the system. If we change a modularized decisions, the change wave is dampened at module boundary.

The nature of change
Consider a system with two hardware nodes. The nodes are based on completely different hardware architectures: for instance, node 1 is a regular PC, node 2 is a DSP+ASIC embedded device. They are connected through standard transport protocols. Above transport, they don't share a single line of code, because they don't calculate the same function.
Yet, if you change the code deployed in node 1, you have to change some (different) code in node 2 as well, or the system won't work. Yikes! Aren't those two systems loosely coupled according to the traditional coupling theory? Sure. But still, changes need to happen on both sides.

The example above may seem paradoxical, or academic, but is not. Most likely, you own one of those devices. It's a decoder, like those for DVB-T, sat TV, or inside DivX players. The decoder is not computing the same function as the encoder (in a sense, it's computing the inverse function). The decoder may not share any code at all with the encoder. Still, they must be constantly aligned, or you won't see squat.

This is the real nature of change in software: you change something, and a number of things must be changed at the same time to preserve correctness. In a sense, change is affecting very distant, even physically disconnected components, and must be simultaneous: change X, and Y, Z, K must all change, at once.

At this point, we may think that all the physical analogies are breaking down, because this is not how the physical world behaves. Except it does :-). You just have to look at the right scale, and move from the familiar Newtonian physics to the slightly less comfortable (for me, at least) quantum physics.

Quantum Entanglement
Note: if you really, really, really hate physics, you can skip this part. Still, if you never came across the concept of Quantum Entanglement, you may find it interesting. Well, when I first heard of it, I thought it was amazing (though I didn't see the connection with software back then).

You probably know about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Briefly, it says that when you go down to particles like photons, you can't measure (e.g.) both position and wavelength at arbitrarily high precision. It's not a problem of measurement techniques. It's the nature of things.

Turns out, however, that we can create entangled particles. For instance, we can create two particles A and B that share the same exact wavelenght. Therefore, we can try to circumvent the uncertainty principle by measuring particle A wavelength, and particle B position. Now, and this is absolutely mind-blowing :-), it does not work. As soon as you try to measure particle B position, particle A reacts, by collapsing its wave function, immediately, even at an arbitrary distance. You cannot observe A without changing B.

Quoting wikipedia: Quantum entanglement [..] is a property of certain states of a quantum system containing two or more distinct objects, in which the information describing the objects is inextricably linked such that performing a measurement on one immediately alters properties of the other, even when separated at arbitrary distances.

Replace measurement with change, and that's exactly like software :-).

Software Entanglement
The parallel between entangled particles and entangled information is relatively simple. What is even more interesting, it works both in the artifact world and in the run-time world, at every level in the corresponding hierarchy (the run-time/artifact distinction is becoming more and more central, and was sorely missing in most previous works on related concepts). On the other hand, the concept of entanglement has far-reaching consequences, and is also a trampoline to new concepts. This post, therefore, is more like a broad introduction than an in-depth scrutiny.

Borrowing from quantum physics, we can define software entanglement as follows:

Two clusters of information are entangled when performing a change on one immediately requires a change on the other.

A simple example in the artifact space is renaming a function. All (by-name) callers must be changed, immediately. Callers are entangled with the callee. A simple example in the run-time space is caching. Caching requires cache coherence mechanisms, exactly because of entanglement.

Note 1: I said "by name", because callers by reference are not affected. This is strongly related with the idea of dampening, and we'll explore it in a future post.

Note 2: for a while, I've been leaning on using "tangling" instead of "entanglement", as it is a more familiar word. So, in some previous posts, you'll find mentions to "tangling". In the end, I decided to go with "entanglement" because "tangling" has already being used (with different meaning) in AOP literature, and also because entanglement, although perhaps less familiar, is simply more precise.

Not your granpa coupling
Coupling is a time-honored concept, born in the 70s and survived to this day. Originally, coupling was mostly concerned with data. Content coupling took place when a module was tweaking another module's internal data; common coupling was about sharing a global variable; etc. Some forms of coupling were considered stronger than others.

Most of those concepts can be applied to OO software as well, although most metrics for OO coupling takes a more simplified approach and mostly consider dependencies as coupling. Still, some forms of dependency are considered stronger than others. Inheritance is considered stronger than composition; dependency on a concrete class is considered stronger than dependency on an interface; etc. Therefore, the mere presence of an interface between two classes is assumed to reduce coupling. If class A doesn't talk to class B, and doesn't even know about class B existence, they are considered uncoupled.

Of course, lack of coupling in the traditional sense does not imply lack of entanglement. This is why so many attempts to decouple systems through layers are so ineffective. As I said many times, all those layers in business systems can't usually dampen the wave of changes coming from the (seemingly) innocent need to add a field to a database table. In every layer, we usually have some information node that is tangled with that table. Data access; business logic; user interface; they all need to change, instantly, so that this new field will be put to use. That's entanglement, and it's not going away by layering.

So, isn't entanglement just coupling? No, not really. Many systems that would be defined as "loosely coupled" are indeed "heavily entangled" (the example above with the encoder/decoder is the poster child of a loosely coupled / heavily entangled system).

To give honor to whom honor is due, the closest thing I've encountered in my research is the concept of connascence, introduced by Meilir Page-Jones in a little known book from mid-90s ("What Every Programmer Should Know About Object-Oriented Design"). Curiously enough, I came to know connascence after I conceived entanglement, while looking for previous literature on the subject. Stille, there are some notable differences between connascence and entanglement, that I'll explore in the forthcoming posts (for instance, Page-Jones didn't consider the RT/artifact separation).

I'll explore the implications of entanglement in future posts, where I'll also try to delve deeper into the nature of change, as we can't fully understand entanglement until we fully understand change.

Right now, I'd like to highlight something obvious :-), that is, having distant yet entangled information is dangerous, and having too much tangled information is either maintenance hell or performance hell (artifact vs run-time).

Indeed, it's easy to classify entanglement as an attractive force. This is an oversimplification, however, so I'll leave the real meat for my next posts.

Beyond Good and Evil
There is a strong urge inside the human being to classify things as "good" and "bad". Within each category, we further classify things by degree of goodness or badness. Unsurprisingly, we bring this habit into computer science.

Coupling has long been sub-classified by "strength", with content coupling being stronger than stamp coupling, in turn stronger than data coupling. Even connascence has been classified by strength, with e.g. connascence of position being stronger than connascence of name. The general consensus is that we should aim for the weakest possible form of coupling / connascence.

I'm going to say something huge now, so be prepared :-). This is all wrong. When two information nodes are entangled, changes will propagate, period. The safest entanglement is the one with the minimum likelihood of occurrence. Of course, that must be weighted with the number of entangled nodes. It's very similar to risk exposure (believe or not, I couldn't find a decent link explaining the concept to the uninitiated :-).

There is more. We can dampen the effects of some forms of entanglement. That requires human work, that is, energy. It's usually upfront work (sorry guys :-), although that's not always the case. Therefore, even if I came up with some classification of good/bad entanglement, it would be rather pointless, because dampening is totally context-dependent.

I'll explore dampening in future posts, of course. But just to avoid excessive vagueness, think about polymorphism: it's about dampening the effect of a change (which change? Which other similar change is not dampened at all by polymorphism?). Think about the concept of reference. It's about dampening the effect of a change (in the run-time space). Etc.

Your system is not really aligned with the underlying forcefield unless you have strategies in place to dampen the effect of entanglement with high risk exposure. Conversely, a deep understanding of entanglement may highlight different solutions, where entangled information is kept together, as to minimize the cost of change. Examples will follow.

What's next?
Before we can talk about dampening, we really need to understand the nature of change better. As we do that, we'll learn more about entanglement as well, and how many programming and design concepts have been devised to deal with entanglement, while some concepts are still missing (but theoretically possible). It's a rather long trip, but the sky is clear :-).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Design, Structure, and Decisions

Joe is a junior programmer in the IT department of SomeLargeCompany, Inc. His company is not in the business of software; however, they have a lot of custom programs that are constantly developed, adapted, tweaked to follow the ever-changing landscape of products, sales, regulations, etc.

Joe is largely self-taught. He doesn't know much about software engineering, but in the end, he gets things done.

Right now, Joe is writing some code dealing with money. He's using lots of floating points variables ("double" in his language) to store money.
Joe does not know about the inherent rounding error of decimal-to-binary conversion (and back). He doesn't know about a decimal floating point type. He doesn't know, and didn't look for, a Money class that could also store the currency. He's just coding his way out of his problem. He didn't choose to use a double after pondering on the alternatives, or based on previous experiences. It wasn't a choice at all. He just didn't know any better.

Joe is actually in the middle of a rather long function, doing some database lookup, some calculations, some reporting. He learned, the hard way, that is better to check for errors. He will handle any error in the simplest possible way: by opening an error box in the middle of the function, where the error can be diagnosed.
Joe doesn't know about design principles. He doesn't know that it's usually better to keep business logic decoupled from the user interface. He didn't choose to put some GUI code inside the business logic after thinking about alternatives. He just did it. He didn't know any better.

That function is so long because at some point Joe realized he had to handle several different cases. He did that the usual way: with a switch/case. He never really "got" objects and couldn't even think about using polymorphism there. He uses classes, somehow, but not at that fine granularity. So, again, he didn't choose the switch/case over something else. He just didn't know any better.

Structure vs. Design
Joe is a good guy, really; and his code kinda works, most of the times. But this story is not about Joe. It's about code, structure, design, and decisions: because in the end, Joe will write some serious amount of code. Code has an inner structure: in this case, structure will reveal heavy reliance on primitive types (double), will reveal that business logic is tangled with database access and with user interface concerns, and will also reveal that no extension mechanism is in place. Code never lies.

Now, the modern (dare I say post-agile?) way of thinking is that in the end, the code is the design. That is, if you want to know the real design, you have to look at the code. You'll find a lot of literature (not to mention blog posts), some from well-known authors, promoting or just holding on this idea. At some point, just about everybody gave in and accepted this as a truism. As you might guess, I didn't.

A process or a thing?
Software development is a young discipline, yet extremely dynamic. It's hardly surprising to find confusion and disagreement even on the fundamentals. That includes, of course, having several hundred different definitions of "software design". For some, it's a process. For some, it's the result of that process. We then have endless debates, like "is coding a form of design?", which again are often confusing "design" with "modeling" and wasting lot of ink about nothing.

It doesn't have to be that hard. Let's start with the high-level question: design as a process vs. design as a thing. It's a rather simple choice; we may even benefit from the digital version of some old, dusty etymology dictionary, where design is commonly defined as "mark out, devise, choose, designate, appoint". Design is an act, and therefore a process. Please don't read "process" as "a series of mechanical acts"; just consider a process as something you carry out over a period of time.
More exactly, design is decision process. We choose between alternatives, balancing forces as we go. We make decisions through a reflective conversation with our materials, taking place all the time, from early requirements to bug fixing.

Design, however, is not the code. It is not the diagram. It is not an artifact. If we really want to transform design into "a thing", then it is best defined as the set of choices that brought us to the artifact; assuming, of course, that we actually made any choice at all.

Side note: not every decision is a design decision. Design is concerned with form, that is, with the shape of our material. Including or excluding a feature from a product, for instance, is not a design decision; it is best characterized as a marketing decision. In practice, a product often results from the interplay of marketing and design decisions.

Design as a decision process
Back in 2006 I suggested that we shouldn't use terms like "accidental architecture" because architecture (which is just another form of design) is always intentional: it's a set of choices we make. I suggested using "structure" instead.

Artifacts always have structure. Every artifact we use in software development is made of things (depending on our paradigm) that are somehow related (again, depending on our paradigm). That's the structure. Look at a diagram, and you'll see structure. Look at the code, and you'll see structure. Look at the executable, and if you can make sense of it, you'll see structure.

There is a fundamental difference between structure and design. Structure can be the result of an intentional process (design) or the result of an accidental process (coding your way out of something). Design is always intentional; if it's not intentional, it's not design.

So, if you want to know the real structure (and yes, usually you want to), you have to look at the code. You may also look at diagrams (I would). But diagrams will show an abstract, idealized, and yes, possibly obsolete high-level structure. The "real" structure is the code structure. It would be naive, however, to confuse structure with design.

Consider Joe's code. We can see some structure in that code. That structure, however, is not design. There is no rationale behind that structure, except "I didn't know any better". Joe did not design his code. He just wrote it. He didn't make a single decision. He did the only thing he knew. That's not design. Sorry.

What is design, again?
Once we agree that design is a decision process, we can see different design approaches for what they are: different ways to come to a decision.

The upfront school claims that some decisions can be made before writing code, perhaps by drawing models. Taken to the extreme (which is always naive), it would require that we make all design decisions before writing code.

The emergent design school claims that system-level decisions should emerge from the self-organization of lower-level decision, mostly taken by writing code according to "good practices" like Don't Repeat Yourself. Taken to the extreme (which is always naive), it would require that we make no system-level choices at all, and wait for code to jell into a well-formed structure.

The pattern school claims that we can recognize forces and adopt pre-packaged decisions, embodied into a pattern.

Systematic techniques like my good old SysOOD claim that we can systematically recognize some problems and choose from a set of sound transformations.

The MDA school claims that we can organize decisions along two axes: decisions that we store in models, and decisions that we store in transformation tools. This would be a long story in itself.


If you have a favorite design approach (say, TDD or Design by Contract) you may consider spending a little time pondering on which kind of decisions are better supported by that approach.

There is no choice
If there is no choice to be made, or if you can't see that there is a choice to be made, you are not doing design. This is so big that I'll have to say it again. If there is no choice to be made, you're not doing design. You might be drawing some fancy diagram, but it's not design anyway. I can draw a detailed diagram of the I/O virtualization layer for an embedded device in 10 minutes. I've done that many times. I'm not choosing anything, just replicating something. That's not design. It's "just" modeling.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've been writing quite a bit of code lately, based on various Facebook APIs (the graph api, the javascript sdk, fbml, whatever). Like many other APIs, things never really work as documented (or lacking documentation, as it would be reasonable to assume). Here and there, in my code, I had to do things not the way I wanted, but the only way that actually worked. In light of the above, I can honestly say that I did not design those portions. I often couldn't make a choice, although I wish I could (in this sense, it would be terrible to have someone look at that code and think that it represents "my design").

Of course, that's not my first web application ever. Over time, I've written many, and I've created a lot of small reusable components. I know them well, I trust them, I have the source code, and I'm familiar with it. When I see a problem that I can easily solve by reusing one, I tend to do it on the spot.
Now, this is a borderline case, as I'm not really making a choice. The component is just there, crying to be reused. I'm just going with the flow. It's perhaps 5% design (recognizing the component as a good candidate and choosing to use it) and 95% habits.
Reusing standard library classes is probably 1% design, 99% habits. We used to write our own containers and even string classes back in the early 90s. Today, I must have a very compelling case to do so (the 1% design is recognizing I don't have a very compelling case :-).

Trying to generalize a little, we may like to think that we're making decisions all the time, but this is far from true. In many cases, we don't, because:

- Like Joe, we don't know any better.

- Like above, we're working with an unstable, poorly documented, rather crappy third party library. It's basically trial and error, with a little clean-up in the end (so, let's say 2-5% design). The library is making the choices (95-98%).

- We've done this several times in the past, and we're just repeating ourselves again. It's a habit. Perhaps we should question our habit, but we don't. Perhaps we should see that we're writing the same code over and over and design a reusable component, but we don't.

- We (the company, the team, the community) have a standard way to do this.

- The library/framework/language we're using has already made that choice.

- We took a high-level decision before, and the rest follows naturally.

After pondering on this for a while, I came to the conclusion that in the past I've been mixing two aspects of the decision making process. The need to make a decision, and the freedom to make a decision. You can plot this as a quadrant, if you want.

Sometimes, there is just no need to make a choice. This can actually be a good thing. It could be a highly productive state where you just have to write down your logic. There might be short "design moments" where we make low-scale decisions (the fractal nature of software makes the decision process fractal as well), but overall we just go with the flow. As usual, the issue is context. Not making a decision because there is a natural solution is quite different from not making a decision because we can't even see the possibilities, or the need.

Sometimes, we need to make a choice. At that point, we need the freedom to do so. If the code is so brittle that you have to find your way by trial and error, if company standards are overly restrictive, if our language is too limited, if the architecture is too constraining, we lack freedom. That leads to sub-optimal local and global choices. Here is the challenge of architecture: make the right decisions, so that you offer a reasonable structure for growth, yet leave enough freedom for local choices, and a feedback loop from local to global.

Design, as a decision process, is better experienced in bursts. You make a set of choices, and then you let the natural consequences unravel themselves. You may unravel some consequences using models, if you like it. In some cases, it's very effective. Some consequences are best unraveled by writing code. Be smart, not religious.

Be aware when you have to make too many choices, too often. It's fine in the beginning, as the decision space is huge. But as you progress, the need for new choices should naturally decrease, in frequency and in scale. Think of coding as a conversation with your artifacts. Just like any conversation, it can turn into an argument and then into a fight. Your code just does not want to be shaped that way; it was never meant to be shaped that way; it is resisting your change. You change something here, just to find out that you really need to patch that other part, and so on. You have to think, think, think. Lot of effort, little progress. On a deeper level, you're fighting the forcefield. The design is not aligned with the forcefield. There is friction (in the decision space!) and friction energy is wasted energy.

Finally, if you draw a quadrant, you'll see an interesting spot where there is no need to make choices, but there is freedom to. I like that spot: it's where I know how to do it, because I've done it before, but it's not the only way to do it, and I might try something new this time. Some people don't take the opportunity, and always take the safe, known way. Depending on the project, I don't mind taking a risk if I see the potential for a sizeable reward.

What about good design?
Back in 1972, David Parnas wrote one of the most influential papers ever ("On the criteria to be used in decomposing systems into modules"), where two alternative modular structures were proposed for the same system. The first used the familiar functional decomposition. The second was based on the concept of Information Hiding. Later on, that paper has been heavily quoted in the OOP literature as an inspiration for encapsulation. Indeed, Parnas suggests hiding data structure details inside modules, but that was just an example. The real message was that modules should encapsulate decisions: every module [...] is characterized by its knowledge of a design decision which it hides from all others"; again: "we propose instead that one begins with a list of difficult design decisions or design decisions which are likely to change. Each module is then designed to hide such a decision from the others".

Think about it, and it makes lot of sense. Design is a decision-making process. Decisions may turn out to be wrong, or may become obsolete as business and technology change. Some decisions are also meant to be temporary from the very beginning. In all cases, we would like to modularize those decisions, so that we can change them without global impact.

Unfortunately, this is not how most people design software. Most decisions are not modularized at all. Worse yet, most decisions are not made explicit, either in code, diagrams, sketchy notes, whatever. And worst of all, a lot of code is written without taking any decision at all, just like good ol' Joe does. "Seat of your pants" is not a design strategy.

Note: given current programming technology and tools, modularizing decisions is easier said than done. For instance, I decided to use AJAX in the web application I mentioned above. I would love to modularize that decision away. But it would be damn hard. Too hard to be worth it. So I let this decision influence the overall structure. There are many cases like this. Quite often, during a joint design session, I would say something like - guys, here we're making a pervasive, non-linear choice. This is like a magic door. Once we choose, we enter into a different world.

So, we're doing a good design job when we make modular decisions, that we can change later without global impact. I think this may shed a different light on delaying decisions (design decisions, not (e.g.) marketing decision).

The folklore is that if you wait, you can make a more informed decision. Of course, if you wait too much, you reach a state of paralysis where you can't progress anymore, and you may also miss some opportunity along the road.

From the decision modularization perspective, things are slightly more precise:

- If, given our current knowledge, the decision can't be modularized, it's better to wait, because we might find a way to make it modular, or get a better picture of our problem, and hopefully make the "right" nonmodular decision. Note that when a decision is not modular, undoing/changing it will incur a substantial cost: the mass to move in the decision space will be high, and that's our measure of work.

- If the decision can be modularized, but you think that given more knowledge you could modularize it better, it makes sense to wait. Otherwise, there is little or no value in waiting. Note that postponing a decision and postponing implementation are two different things (unless your only way to make a decision is by writing code). There is a strong connection with my concept of invariant decision, but I'll leave it up to you to dig around.

As an aside, I'm under the impression that most people expect to just "learn the right answer" by waiting. And by "right" they mean that there is no need to modularize the decision anymore (because it's right :-). This is quite simplistic, as there is no guarantee whatsoever that a delayed decision will be particularly stable.
So, again, the value of delaying should be in learning new ways to modularize away the decision. Learning more about the risk/opportunity trade-off of not modularizing away the decision is second best.

In a sense, software development is all about decisions. Yet, the concept is completely absent from programming and modeling languages, and not particularly explicit in most design methods as well.
In the Physics of Software I'm trying to give Decisions a central role. Decisions are gateways to different forcefields. Conversely, we shape the forcefield by making decisions. Decisions live in the Decision Space, and software evolution is basically a process of moving our software to another position in the Decision Space. Decisions are also a key ingredient to link software design and software economics. I have many interesting ideas here, mostly based on real option theories, but that's another story.

Next time: tangling.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 11: Friction in the Artifacts world

When I first "got" the concept of run-time friction, I thought it made sense only in the run-time world. I was thinking of friction as "everything that gets in the way as we process the Function", and since there is no Function in the artifact world, there can be no friction as well. That disturbed me a little, because every other concept was present in both worlds.

Later on, I realized I could extend that notion to the artifact side in two distinct ways. One didn't survive scrutiny. It was too informal, although somehow I'd like to bring back some of the underlying reasoning, probably as part of a different property. The other proved more solid. Since a few people asked me (in real life) how do I get these ideas, I think it might be interesting to tell the story behind the concept; after all, a blog ought to be a... log :-). The story is not really linear, but then, very few things in life are linear.

Step 1
It was an early morning back in July. I was running. At some point (within the first few kilometers) I had a flash that perhaps the notion of mass was not a primitive concept. Perhaps there was a concept of volume (and LOC would give volume, not mass) and a concept of density (after all, lines can be quite different). I spent a few minutes thinking about density (the simplest idea being that perhaps something like cyclomatic complexity could explain density), then thinking that I didn't like volume because it reminded me of Halstead's Software Science, and I didn't want my work to be so disconnected from practice. Then I started to think about a concept of surface; maybe there was an ideal volume / surface ratio too? Then the zen effect of running took over and I blissfully stopped thinking :-)). [most of those ideas were good, and at some point I'll have to reconsider a few things].

Step 2
Days later, I was thinking about giving a name to this stuff I'm writing. I came up with a few ideas, and also run a trademark / domain name search, because you never know. Looking for "Physics of Software", I found a remotely related entry in the C2 wiki: Physical Cues In Software Development.
Now, that stuff seems more concerned with the geometry/topology of code than with the physics of software, but while reading that page I was slightly tantalized by this sentence: "Too dense to refactor easily". Interesting. I did some literature research on density vs. refactoring, but nothing substantial came up.

Step 3
Days later again. I was writing some code (yeah, I write real world code too :-). I tend to write short methods: I practice what I preach. Still, I was in the middle of a rather long function (by my standards, that is, about 100 lines). I was looking at it, trying to understand how it got to be that big. I could see the gravitational effect of having used a massive third party component; that was consistent with my current understanding of the scale-free nature of software (more on this another time).
I could also see a few small, simple improvements, but in the end it was not trivial to refactor that method into a few shorter functions. Sure, it could be done, just not by selecting a few lines and choosing "extract method" from the refactoring menu. I had to create new classes, shuffle responsibilities around. Overall, it was a large effort (given the relatively small mass). I contemplated the idea of leaving that function alone :-). Too dense to refactor easily? Hmm.

Step 4
Perhaps a couple of weeks later. This thing kept bouncing in my head. I always assumed I could refactor every single method into a set of smaller methods, perhaps introducing new classes. Sure, run-time friction could grow as a result, but that's just something to be balanced. But was that actually true? Could I write a function that was basically impossible to refactor, that is, where extracting a few lines required either a huge effort or, even better, where to move N symbols outside, you basically have to add N symbols inside (to call the extracted method)? Having too much to do, I left the question unanswered.

Step 5
Just a few days later. Late evening, but unwilling to call it a day :-), I sat down trying to write a gordian function :-), a simple sequence of lines that couldn't easily be refactored. This is what I end up with:

void f( int a, int b )
int c = a + b;
int d = a + c;
int e = b + c;
int f = a + d;
int g = b + d;
int h = c + d;
int i = c + e;
int j = b + e;
int k = a + e;
// ... use f, g, h, i, j, k as above

It may be easier to visualize the pattern through a graphical view:

the idea is pretty simple: at every level, I'm using nearby concepts and distant concepts; I'm also creating nodes for subsequent use in lower levels. Now, this function is trivial. Cyclomatic complexity is just 1. Yet is hard to refactor. It is hard to move things (lines, symbols, concepts) around. So I thought perhaps this was "density".

Step 6
Out of nowhere, a few days later I realize that density was not the right name. When you have troubles moving things around, we call it viscosity, not density. That triggered an internal alert: viscosity has already been used in some computing literature, and I hate to redefine existing terms, so let's check literature again.

Step 7
To my knowledge, "viscosity" has been used in:
- The Cognitive Dimensions of Notations literature, where it is defined as "the difficulty of making small changes to the information structure" or "resistance to change", both of which are rather similar to what I'm thinking. Note that although the papers above are about the notation, not the code, I discussed extending those concepts from tools to materials almost three years ago.
- The well known Design Principles and Design Patterns paper from Robert Martin, where it is defined as "When the design preserving methods are harder to employ than the hacks, then the viscosity of the design is high". This is completely unrelated, and honestly I'm not sure that "viscosity" is the right term. Indeed, Martin is using several physics-lookalike properties (immobility, fragility, rigidity), but it seems like they've been adopted on the basis of some vernacular usage of terms, not on the basis of strong correlation between the software world and the physical world (there is certainly no notion of "preserving a design vs. hacks" in viscosity as defined in physics).

In the end, I considered viscosity as a good choice for the difficulty of moving knowledge around in the artifact world.

Step 8
Guess what. Viscosity is basically friction (in fluids). Ok, I got it :-).
Just like run-time friction kicks in when you try to move run-time knowledge around, artifact-side friction kicks in when you try to move artifact-side knowledge around. Code is one way of representing artifact-side knowledge. Diagrams are another way. They both manifest some resistance to change.
Once you get the concept (almost) right, it's time to clean things up, come up with a more precise definition, see if it's useful and what you can learn from it.

Defining viscosity
Why is the artifact in step 5 viscous, that is, what makes it difficult to move knowledge around? The main issue is that we can't find sub-centers, because every line has local interactions (with nearby knowledge) and non-local interaction (with distant knowledge). So although every single line is using just a few symbols, you can't simply find a subset of lines that is relatively isolated from the rest. Every line is also very simple on its own, and unworthy to be moved outside alone.

So, I could define a viscous artifact A like this:

A is viscous when given any subset B of A, the mass of knowledge inside B is not significantly higher than the amount of knowledge exchanged between B and A-B

I crafted this definition rather carefully :-). In fact, the problem with the function above is not just that every line depends on nearby and distant knowledge. It's also that it's doing very little. Otherwise, we could move a significant portion of code (doing "lot" of stuff) outside the function, of course by passing parameters. But then, the mass of knowledge inside the subset B would be higher than the mass of knowledge exchanged (the parameters). That is not the case in function f.

Viscous artifacts resist shear/tensile stress, that is, they resist extraction of knowledge. As we try to move the knowledge in B outside A, the knowledge exchanged with A-B is opposing the movement. The effort we have to spend to reorganize viscous artifacts is the equivalent of friction energy in the run-time world. Only, this time, it's human work, not CPU work.

Note: I could come up with some kind of formula for a viscosity coefficient. I did not because I feel I'm not yet at that stage. Still, the minimum ratio between exchanged and internal knowledge (quantified over the subsets B, not over A) seems like a good candidate.

It is important to understand that viscosity is an internal property of an artifact. It has nothing to do with the artifact interface. It's about the artifact internals. Of course, given the hierarchy of artifacts, an artifact may have low [internal] viscosity, yet be part of a viscous higher-level artifact. For instance, a low-viscosity function can be part of an high-viscosity class. In that case, it would be easy to move some portions of code outside the function, but not outside the class.

Once again, we have to resist the temptation to define some property as "bad". In the physical world, viscosity is not "bad". It can be useful, or it can be a problem: it's a matter of context.

Besides, when you look at the definition above, you may see some relationship with a vague notion of cohesion: a viscous artifact is "more cohesive". Cohesion is usually considered a good property. What's wrong here?

My current understanding is that it's fine to be viscous when the mass is small. Actually, it's good to be viscous when the mass is small. A small viscous chunk of knowledge is a good center: it stands on its own, and can't be easily broken. However, viscosity should decrease as mass increases. That gives an opportunity for extraction of knowledge, thereby forming new centers. Note that by saying so, I'm implicitly accepting the existence of high-mass artifacts. Still:

- high-mass, low-viscosity artifacts can be considered as rather innocent underengineering, a form of technical debt that can be easily repaid (see also the latest comments to Chapter 0). The high gravity of the artifact will bring in more stuff: that would be the ideal time to refactor the code, which will be easy, since viscosity is low.

- high-mass, high-viscosity artifacts are a serious design weakness that should be dealt with as soon as you notice, possibly while you're still creating the artifact. Gravity will bring in more stuff, and things can only get worse.

Note: a trivial refactoring of a viscous artifact will significantly increase run-time friction, as we'll have to pass a lot of parameters around. In most cases, we'll have to rethink the artifact and perhaps a significant portion of the surroundings, as we may have chosen the wrong centers.

It's sort of revealing that I started with a notion of density but ended up with a notion of viscosity, and had to reject an existing definition of viscosity in the process. Labeling software phenomena after physical phenomena is simple. Doing so in a meaningful way is not so trivial.

I think that keeping the duality run-time / artifact in mind is helping me a lot in this journey. Things are much easier once you can clearly see that you're dealing with two different worlds. A recent post by Rico Mariani, for instance, raises an interesting point, which is trivially explained within my frame of reasoning, but seems unnecessarily obscure when you simply talk about "coupling" and ignore the artifact/run-time duality.

As I progress in cleaning up some ideas on the decision space, I hope to bring in even more clarity. Which reminds me that I have something really important to say about design and decisions. It's short, and I'll let it preempt :-) the next chapter on tangling.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 10: Run-Time Friction

So, here is the story. I keep a lot of notes. Some are text files with relevant links and organized ideas. Most are rather embarrassing scribbles on just about any piece of paper that is lying around when I need it. From time to time, I move some notes from paper to files, discard concepts that didn't prove themselves, and rearrange paragraphs to fake some kind of logical, sequential reasoning over a process that was, in fact, rather chaotic. Not surprisingly (since software is just another way to encode knowledge), David Parnas suggested long ago that we could do the same while documenting software design (see "A rational design process: How and why to fake it").
Well, it's not always easy. Sometimes, I try to approach the storytelling from an angle, see that it doesn't work out so well, and look for another. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't (although, of course, the reader is the ultimate judge). This time, I have to confess, I feel like I couldn't find the right angle, the right way to start, to unfold a concept in a way that makes it look simple and natural. So I'll trust you to be smart enough to make sense of what follows :-). It's a very long post, and you may want to digest it in more than one session.

The physical world
I guess you all had to push some furniture around at one time or another. You have probably felt a stronger resistance in the beginning, followed by a milder form of resistance as soon as you got some movement.
The mild resistance is due to kinetic friction, while the initial, stronger resistance is usually due to static friction, that you have to overcome before moving the object (if you're not familiar with kinetic and static friction, wikipediawill tell you more than you want to know :-).

As you move your stuff around, friction makes you waste some energy, in a way that is basically proportional to the normal force, the distance, and the coefficient of kinetic friction (see the page above for the actual equation). I'll get back to this later, but if you move a constant mass on a flat surface, the energy you waste is proportional to the mass you move, the distance you go, and the magic coefficient of friction.

The beauty of all this is that it's simple and rather unambiguous. Friction is always present in mechanical engineering, but it's a well understood concept (as far as engineering is concerned; it's still blurry at the quantum level, at least for the uninitiated like myself), and there is usually no wishy-washy talking about friction. It's not a broad concept, that is, you won't be able to design the next-generation jet engine if all you have in your conceptual toolbox is friction, yet you won't be able to design an engine at all without an appreciation of friction.

The software world
I'm first and foremost a software design practitioner: I design software, almost every day. Sometimes by myself, most often with other people; therefore, I do a lot of "design talk". In many cases, at one point or another, someone is going to bring in "performance" or "efficiency" to support (or reject) a design decision.
We use those words a lot, with different meaning depending on who's saying it and why he's saying it. It seems like I'm never tired of linking wikipedia, so here is a page on computer performance. Just look at the initial list of different, context-dependent meanings. It's not surprising, then, to find out some people have very peculiar views of performance. "I use arrays because they're more efficient". Sure, except that then you do a linear search because you need multiple indexes; say "efficient" again :-)?

One might expect Computer Science (with capital letters :-) to come to the rescue and define terms more precisely, and hopefully with some relevance for practice. However, computer science is more concerned with computational complexity theory than with the nitty-gritty details of being "fast".
Now, don't get me wrong. You won't get too far as a programmer (and definitely not as a software designer) if you don't get the concept of complexity classes, if you can't see that an algorithm is O( n^2 ) and another is O( n log n ), or if you don't even know what the Big Oh notation is all about. You have to know this stuff, period. In a sense, complexity theory is part of the math of software, and there is little point in investigating a physics of software if you don't get the math first. But math alone won't cut it. However, once we get past the complexity class we get very little assistance from computer science (and I'm purposely ignoring the fact that just because an algorithm is in the O( n log n ) class in the average case doesn't mean I can't beat it with an O( n^2 ) algorithm in my practical cases).

On the "software engineering" side, the usual advice is to build the program and then use a profiler. Yeah, well, sure, beats banging your head against the wall :-), but it's not exactly like knowing what you're doing all along. Still, we make a lot of low-level design decisions while coding, and many of them will ultimately impact "performance". Lacking the basic terminology to think (and talk) about this kind of stuff is rather depressing, so why don't we try to move just a tiny step forward?

Wasting energy in software
So, here I have this piece of software (executable knowledge). For most practical applications, what I need is to get some data (interactively, from a DB, through some kind of device, whatever), transform it in a meaningful way (which could be a complex process encoded in thousands of lines), and spit out some results (which is still data, anyway). The transformation is the Function.

On the artifact side, our software may be using global variables all around, or be based on a nice polymorphic structure, yet the Function doesn't care. The structure we provide on the artifact side is the domain of Form (by now, you're probably familiar with all this stuff).

Now, transformation is a process, and no real-world process is 100% efficient; it's always going to waste something. Perhaps we should look better at that "waste" part. Something I learnt a long time ago, while pondering on principles and patterns, is that overly general concepts (like "performance") must give way to more specialized notions.

Some code, please :-)
Consider this short portion of C code. I'm using C because it's a low-level language, where the implications of any given choice are relatively easy to understand.
double max( double x, double y )
if( x > y )
return x;
return y;

double max3( double x, double y, double z )
double d = max( x, y );
d = max( d, z );
return d;
The code is pretty obvious. In a common, stack-based CPU architecture, max3 will copy x and y on the stack and call max; then it will copy d and z and call max again. The return value might be stored in a CPU register or in RAM, depending on the compiler.

Copying those values is a waste of energy, of course. I could manually inline max inside max3 and get rid of that waste. I would sacrifice reusability and perhaps clarity for "higher performance" or "higher efficiency" or "reduced waste". Alternatively, the compiler could inline the function on my behalf (see Chapter 6 for the role of languages on balancing the two worlds).

What if I'm working on some large data structure? The Fortran guy down the corner will suggest that by keeping your structures in the common area / global memory, you won't even have to pass parameters around: every function knows exactly where to get input and where to store output! Again, we'll sacrifice reusability, and perhaps duplicate large portions of code, for sake of efficiency. As you go through most literature on High Performance Computing (see, for instance, The Ideal HPC Programming Language, recently reprinted in Communications of ACM), you'll see that the HPC community is constantly facing the problem of wasted cycles, and is wasting a lot of LOC to prevent that.

Moving data around is not the only way to waste energy. Consider this portion of real-world code, written by a (supposedly) performance-conscious "little meritocracy":
static int is_rfc2822_header(char *line)
int ch;
char *cp = line;
if (!memcmp(line, "From ", 5) || !memcmp(line, ">From ", 6))
return 1;
while ((ch = *cp++)) {
if (ch == ':')
return cp != line;
if ((33 <= ch && ch <= 57) ||
(59 <= ch && ch <= 126))
return 0;
yeah, it's ugly as hell, but it's also wasteful (which is funny, for reasons that are too long to explain here). If you read it carefully, you'll find a way to optimize the "while" body quite a bit, and while you're at it, you can easily make it more readable. Also, the two memcmp in the beginning are wasting cycles (going through the first 5 characters twice), but just like the coefficient of friction must be measured in practice, at this level any alternative should really be measured on a real-world CPU.

Note: as we optimize code, we have to assume that is correct. We don't change Form unless we know that the Function is right. Before posting this, I checked for any update to the codebase (I got that code a few years ago, and it never looked right to me). The code is still the same, but now there is also a comment explaining what the function is intended to do. Unfortunately, it's not what it's doing, which is even more ironic, for the same unspoken reasons above. Anyway, we could easily fix the bug and still optimize the code.

Run-time Friction
Just like in the physical world we move object around, in the run-time world of software we move knowledge around. More exactly, we move data around (we call it data flow) and we move the execution point around (we call it control flow). We move that stuff around to calculate some Function. In the process of calculating the Function, we usually waste some cycles. We waste cycles because we have to copy data on the stack, or from one data structure to another. We waste cycles because we do unnecessary comparison, computations, jumps. We waste cycles because we process the same data more than once. Most often, we waste those cycles because we get something in exchange in the Form (artifact) domain. Sometimes, we waste cycles just because of bad coding.

The energy waste is not a constant: copying an integer is different from copying an array of integers (that's weight, of course). Also, if your array has been swapped out to the paging file, the copy is going to cost you more: that's the contribution of distance, and I'll get back to this later. Right now, remember that wasted energy is a consequence of friction, but is not friction.

Causes and types of software friction
We have already seen a few cases of software friction: when you copy data, you waste cycles. Max3 didn't strictly need to copy data: the Function didn't care about reusing max, only Form did. Before we try do define friction more precisely, it's interesting to see how deep the analogy with real-world friction really is. Indeed, we even have static software friction, and kinetic software friction!

Consider a Java (or .NET) virtual machine. When you hit a function for the first time, the code is compiled just in time. This has nothing to do with Function. It is a byproduct of a technological choice. It will cost you some cycles: that's friction. Also, it happens only once, to "put things in motion": that's static friction. In general, static friction will increase latency, while kinetic friction will reduce throughput. Good: we just sorted out the two main components of "performance".

Consider a web service. Before you can call the server, you go through a relatively lengthy process, from high-level stuff (marshaling your data) to low level stuff (establishing a network connection). This is all friction: the Function is happening on the other side, inside the service code. Here we see both static and kinetic friction at play: establishing a connection adds latency, exchanging data over the network reduces throughput.

Consider stored procedures. The ideal stored procedure takes little data in input, does significant CRUD inside, and returns little. This way, we have minimal waste due to kinetic friction, as we exchange little data with the database. Of course, this is not the only way to minimize energy waste: another approach would be to reduce distance, by bringing the database itself in-process. Interestingly, most real-time databases use the second approach.

So, what is causing friction in software? Friction is caused by:
  • A copy of data from one place to another (e.g. parameter passing, temporary variables, etc), as this adds no meaning to data, and therefore is useless as far as Function is concerned.

  • Syntactical transformation of data (e.g. marshaling) which adds no semantics (as above: this processing is not part of the Function). This includes any form of data transformation needed to talk over a non-native protocol.

  • Unnecessary statements (like those that could be removed in the C function above).

  • Redundant access / processing (some will be removed by the compiler, but some won't)

  • Bookkeeping (allocation, deallocation, reference counting, heap defragmentation, garbage collection, paging, etc). All this adds no semantics, and it's irrelevant for the Function: indeed, a well-written garbage collected program should behave properly under the so-called null garbage collector.

  • Unnecessary indirection. This is a long story and I'll leave for another time, as I've yet to talk about indirection in the physics of software.

  • In general, everything that is not strictly necessary to calculate the Function, but has been added because of Form, or because of the programmer's inability to streamline the code to the mere Function, is a source of friction and will waste run-time energy.

Defining friction
At this stage in my understanding of the physics of software, it's still hard to come up with numbers, coefficients, sometimes even formulas. Actually, I'm usually happy when I get some concept right. Still, let's look at a simplified formula for the energy wasted through friction (in the real world):

Normal Force * Coefficient of Friction * Distance.

That would hold pretty well in the software world as well, both at the qualitative (easier) and probably quantitative (not there yet) level. At the qualitative level, it tells us what we can control and perhaps leverage. I'll explore this in the next paragraph. At the quantitative level, it could help to evaluate low-level choices. First, however, we have to define Normal Force, Coefficient of Friction, and Distance.

I've defined distance in the run-time world in Chapter 9. Unfortunately, it's an ordinal scale, so we can't do math with distance. This sort of rules out any chance to have a quantitative definition of friction, but we can also look at it from the other side: a better understanding of friction energy (like: wasted cycles) could shed light on the right measurement scale for distance!

Assuming a flat world (I have no reason to think otherwise) the Normal Force is just weight. Weight could be easily defined as the number of bytes involved. For instance, the cost of a copy is linear with the number of bytes you copy.

The coefficient of friction is a dimensionless parameter. Interestingly, if we decide to measure energy in cycles (which makes some sense, although we usually think of cycles as time, not energy) that would imply that unit of measurement for Distance is cycles/byte. I'll have to think more about this.

Although the coefficient of friction, in the real world, cannot be predicted but only measured, we have some intuitive grasp of it being related to the materials. As the aforementioned wikipedia page explains, it's a relatively complex "system property", depending on many factors. The same applies in the software world. The cost to move a bunch of bytes from one position to another dependes on a bunch of factors. If we want to raise the abstraction level and think in terms of objects, and not bytes, things become more complex. The exact copy semantics (reference, shallow, deep) kicks in. That's fine: a software material with shallow copy semantics would have a different coefficient of friction than one with reference copy semantics.

Overall, I think we have little control over the coefficient of friction (I might be wrong), so for any practical purpose, distance and weight are the most interesting parameters.

Is it useful, anyway?
A good theory, and a good concept, must have a good explanatory power, that is, we should be able to use them to explain known phenomena, explain why something works, rationalize widespread practice or beliefs, etc.

As I've already discussed, the evolution of programming languages can be largely seen as an attempt to balance the world of artifact / form with the run-time / function world. In this sense, we can look for instance at the perfect forwarding problem, solved by right value references in the next C++ standard, as a further attempt to remove some energy waste, by avoiding unnecessary copy of data. C++ provides many ways to control friction energy, mostly in the area of generic programming and also template metaprogramming. The Curiously Recurring Template Pattern, for instance, provides a form of static polymorphism exactly to avoid some friction due to unnecessary indirection (virtual dispatch).

More generally, the simple equation for energy waste provides a clue on what we can actually control: weight, distance, coefficient of friction. This is it. As we shape software, this is what we can actually change if we want to reduce friction energy.

Consider HTTP compression: distance couldn't be changed, so we had to change weight.

Also, understanding the difference between static and kinetic friction explains a lot of existing practices. Think of the Nagle's algorithm. It works by increasing static friction (therefore latency) in exchange for lower kinetic friction (therefore throughput). Once you get your concepts right, so many things unfold so easily :-).

Finally, the analogy holds to the extremes: just like excessive friction in mechanical systems can lead to jam, excessive friction due to paging can jam a software system. This is commonly known as Trashing.

I think a caveat is in order: friction in the physical world is not necessarily evil. Wasn't it for friction, we couldn't even walk. Mechanical devices have to deal with friction all the time, but they also exploit friction all the time. It's harder to exploit friction in software (although the Nagle's algorithm does). Most often, we must see friction as a trade/off with other properties, mostly in the artifact side. Still, an understanding of the different types of friction, and of the constituents of friction energy, can help evaluate alternatives and even generate new, better ideas in a more systematic and (dare I say it :-) scientific way.

A different angle
I choose friction as a physical analogy because it's a simple, familiar concept. Intuition and everyday experience can easily compensate any lack of engineering knowledge. Still, I've been tempted to use different analogies, like hydraulic or electrical analogies. Indeed, there are several analogies between electrical, mechanical, hydraulic and even acoustic and optical systems (see here for a start), so it's always possible to choose a different reference system.

Anyway, my alternative would have been to model everything after resistance and current. Current would be the equivalent of throughput, or "performance", and resistance would cause thermal dissipation. In the end, I didn't go this way for a number of reasons; for instance, one-shot stuff like JIT would require something like a thermistor (think of a PTC in CRT degaussing), but I would lose a few readers that way :-).

Still, if you followed so far, there is an interesting result I'd like to share. Consider a trivial circuit where we apply 1V to a 1 ohm resistor, resulting in 1A current. Now, I'll replace the resistor with a series of 2, with resistance (1-P) and P ohms. Nothing changes, same current. Resistors represent processes.

Now say that we have this concept of parallel execution, so the process carried out by P can be parallelized. By way of the analogy, to increase throughput (current) I can simply add up to N resistors in parallel. Now the circulating current is obviously 1 / (1-P + P/N) A. Guess what, I just rediscovered Amdahl's Law using Ohm's Law. That's cute :-).

Ok guys, next time I'll have a much shorter post on the artifact-side notion of friction. If we survive that, we'll be ready for tangling.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 9. A simple property: Distance (part 2)

What is Distance in the run-time world? As I began pondering on this, it turned out I could define distance in several meaningful ways. Some were redundant with other notions I have yet to present. Some were useless for a theory of software design. In the end, I picked up a very simple definition, with some interesting ramifications.

Just like the notion of distance in the artifact world is based on the hierarchy of artifacts, the notion of distance in the run-time world is based on a hierarchy of locations. These are the locations where executable knowledge is located at any given time. So, given two pieces of executable knowledge P1 and P2, we can define an ordinal scale:

P1 and P2 are inside the CPU registers or the CPU execution pipeline - that's minimum distance.
P1 and P2 are inside the same L1 cache line
P1 and P2 are inside the L1 cache
… etc

for the full scale, see the (updated) Summary at the Physics of Software website.

Dude, I don't care about cache lines!
Yeah, well, but the processor does, and I'm looking for a good model of the real-world, not for an abstract model of computing disconnected from reality (which would be more like the math of software, not the physics).
You may be writing your code in Java or C#, or even in C++, and be blissfully unaware of what is going on under the hood. But the caches are there, and their effect is absolutely visible. For a simple, experimental, and well-written summary, see Igor Ostrovsky's Gallery of Processor Cache Effects (the source code is in C#, but results wouldn't be different in Java or C++).
Interestingly enough, most algorithms and data structures are not optimized for modern processors with N levels of cache. Still, there is an active area of research on cache-oblivious algorithms which, despite the name, are supposed to perform well with any cache line size across any number of cache levels (you can find a few links to specialized algorithms here but you'll have to work around broken links).

What about virtual memory? Again, we can ignore the magic most of the times, but when we're looking for high-performance solutions, we have to deal with it. Unconvinced? Take a look at You're Doing It Wrong, where Poul-Henning Kamp explains (perhaps with a bit too much "I know it all and you don't" attitude :-)) why textbooks are not really talking about real-world computers [anymore].

What happens when run-time distance grows? We're bound to see a staircase-like behavior, as in the second picture in the gallery above, just with more risers/treads. When you move outside your process, you have context switching. When you move outside your computer, you have network latency. When you move outside your LAN, you also have name lookup and packet hops. We'll understand all this stuff much better as we get to the concept of friction.

There is more. When talking about artifact distance, I said that coupling (between artifacts) should decrease as distance increases. In the run-time world, coupling to the underlying platform should decrease as distance increases. This must be partially reflected in the artifacts themselves, but it is also a language / platform / transformation concern.
Knowledge at short distance can be tightly coupled to a specific hw / sw platform. For instance, all code inside one component can be tightly bound to:
  • An internal object model, say the C++ object model of a specific compiler version, or the C# or Java object model for a specific version of the virtual machine.

  • A specific operating system, if not virtualized (native code).

  • A specific hardware, if not virtualized.

This is fine at some level. I can even accept the idea that all the components inside a single application have to share some underlying assumptions. Sure, it would be better if components were relatively immune from binary issues (a plague in the C++ world). But overall (depending on the size of the application) I can "control" things and make sure everything is aligned.
But when I'm talking to another service / application over the network, my degree of control is much smaller. If everything is platform-dependent (with a broad definition of platform, mind you: Java is a platform), we're in for major deployment / maintenance issues. Even worse, it would represent a huge platform lock-in (I can't use a different technology for a new service). Things get just worse on a global network scale. This is why XML took the world by storm, why web services have been rather successful in the real world, and so on. This is also why I like technologies / languages that take integration with other technologies / languages seriously, and not religiously.
As usual, the statement above is bi-directional. That is, it makes very little sense to pursue strong decoupling from the underlying platforms at micro-level. Having a class talking to itself in XML is not a brilliant strategy. Again, design is about balance: in this case, balance between efficiency and convenience on one side, and flexibility and evolvability on the other. Balance is obtained when you can depend on your platform locally, and be increasingly independent as you move farther.

Run-time Distance is not a constant
Not necessarily, anyway; it depends on small-scale technical choices. In C++, for instance, once you get two objects in the same cache line, they will stay there for their entire life, because identity in C++ is address-based. In a garbage collected environment, this is not true anymore: objects can move freely during collection.
Moreover, once we move from the cache line to the entire cache, things come and go, they become near and distant along time. This contributes to complex performance patterns, and indeed, modern hardware makes accurate performance prediction almost impossible. I'm pretty sure there are some interesting phenomena to be studied here - a concept of oscillating distance, perhaps the equivalent of a performance beat when two concurrent threads have slightly different oscillating frequency, and so on, but I'm not currently investigating any of this - it's just too early.
At some point, distance becomes more and more "constant". Sure, a local service may migrate to LAN and then to WAN, but usually it does so because of human intervention (decisions!), and may require changes on the artifact side as well. Short-range distance is a fluid notion, changing as executable knowledge is, well, executed :-).

By the way: distance in the artifact world is not a constant, either. It is constant when the code is frozen. As soon as we change it, we change some distance relationships. In other words, when the computer is processing executable knowledge, run-time distance changes. When we process encoded knowledge (artifacts), artifact distance changes.

Distance-preserving transformations
Knowledge encoded in artifacts can be transformed several times before becoming executable knowledge. Most of those transformations are distance-preserving, that is, they map nearby knowledge to nearby knowledge (although with some jumps here and there).

For instance, pure sequences of statements (without choices, iterations, calls) are "naturally" converted into sequential machine-level instructions that not only will likely sit in the same cache line, but won't break the prefetch pipeline either. Therefore, code that is near in the artifact world will end up near in the run-time world as well.
In the C/C++ family, data that is sequentially declared in a structure (POD) is sequential in memory as well. Therefore, there is a good chance of sharing the same cache line if you keep your structures small.
Conversely, data and code in different components are normally mapped to different pages (in virtual memory systems). They won't share the same cache line (they may compete for the same cache line, but won't be present in the same line at once). So distant things will be distant.

Even "recent" advances in processor architecture are increasing the similarity between the artifact and run-time class of distance. Consider predicated execution: it's commonly used to remove branches at machine-level for short sequence of statements in if/else conditionals (see Fig. 1 in the linked paper). In terms of distance, it allows nearby code in the artifact space to stay close in the run-time space, by eliminating branches and therefore maximizing proximity in the execution pipeline.

Some transformations, however, are not distance-preserving. Inlining of code (think of C++ inline functions, for instance) will shrink distance while moving from the artifact world to the run-time world.
Aspect Oriented Programming is particularly interesting from the point of view of distance. On the artifact side, aspects allow to isolate cross-cutting concerns. Therefore, they allow to increase distance between the advice, that is factored out, and the join points. A non-distance-preserving transformation (weaving) brings the two concepts back together as we move toward execution.

Curiously enough, some non-preserving transformations work in the opposite way: they allow things to be near in the artifact space, yet be distant in the run-time world. Consider the numerous technologies (dating back to remote procedure calls) that allow you to code as if you were invoking a local function, or a method of a local object, while in fact you are executing a remote function, or a method of a remote object (through some kind of local proxy). This is creating an illusion of short distance (in the artifact world) while in fact maintaining high distance in the run-time world. As usual, whenever we create software over a thin layer of illusion, there is a potential for problems. When you look at The 8 fallacies of distributed computing , you can immediately recognize that dealing with remote objects as if they were local objects can be rather dangerous. Said otherwise, the illusion of short distance is a leaky abstraction. More on distributed computing when I'll get to the concept of friction.

A closing remark: in my previous post, I said that gravity (in the artifact world) tends to increase performance (a run-time property). We can now understand that better, and say that it is largely (not entirely) because:
- the most common transformations are distance-preserving.
- performance increases as the run-time distance decreases.
Again, friction is also at play here, but I have yet to introduce the concept.

Addenda on the artifact side
Some concepts on the artifact side are meant to give the illusion of a shorter distance, while maintaining separation. Consider extension methods in .NET or the more powerful concept of category in objective C. They both give the illusion of being very close to a class (when you use them) while in fact they are just as distant as any other class. (By the way: I've been playing with extension methods [in C#] as a way to get something like partial specialization in C++; it kinda works, but not inside generics, which is exactly were I would need it).

Distance in the Decision Space
While thinking about distance in the artifact and in the run-time world, I realized that the very first notion of distance I introduced was in the decision space. Still, I haven't defined that notion at the detail level (or lack thereof :-) at which I've defined distance in the artifact and run-time world. I have a few ideas, of course, the simplest definition being "the number of decision that must be undone + the number of [irreversible?] decisions that must be taken to move your artifacts". Those decisions would involve some mass of code. Moving that mass for that "space" would give a notion of necessary work. Anyway, it's probably too early to say more, as I have to understand the decision space better.

Coming soon, I hope, the notion of friction.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Notes on Software Design, Chapter 8. A simple property: Distance (part 1)

You're writing a function in your preferred language. At some point, you look at your code and you see that a portion just does not belong there. You move it outside, creating another function. Asked why, you may answer that by doing so you made it reusable; that you want to respect the Single Responsibility Principle; that you want to increase cohesion; that code just looks "cleaner" and "easier to read" that way; and so on. I guess it sounds rather familiar.

By moving the code outside the function, you also increased its distance with the code that is left inside. This is probably not so familiar: distance is not a textbook property of software. However, the notion of distance is extremely important. Fortunately, distance is a very simple concept. It has an immediate intuitive meaning, and although it's still rather informal, we can already use it to articulate some non-trivial reasoning.

I'm trying to keep this post reasonably short, so I'll cover only the artifact side of the story here. I'll talk about the run-time world next time.

A Concept of Distance
Consider this simple function (it's C#, but that's obviously irrelevant)

int sum( int[] a )
int s = 0;

foreach( int v in a )
s += v ;

return s;

I used two blank lines to split the function in three smaller portions: initialization - computation - return. I didn't use comments - the code is quite readable as it is, and you know the adage: if you see a comment, make a function. It would be unnatural (and with dubious benefits) to split that function into sub-functions. Still, I wanted to highlight the three tiny yet distinct procedural portions (centers) within that function, so I used empty lines. I guess most of you have done the same at one point or another, perhaps on a larger scale.

Said otherwise, I wanted to show that some statements were conceptually closer than others. They don't have to be procedural statements. I have seen people "grouping" variable declarations in the same way, to show that some variables sort of "lump together" without creating a structure or a class. I did that by increasing their physical distance in the artifact space.

A Measure of Distance
Given two pieces of information P1, P2, encoded in some artifacts A1, A2, we can define their distance D( P1, P2 ) using an ordinal scale, that is, a totally ordered set:

P1 and P2 appear in the same statement - that's minimum distance
P1 and P2 appear in the same group of consecutive statements
P1 and P2 appear in the same function
… etc

for the full scale, including the data counterpart, see my Summary at the Physics of Software website.

Note that Distance is a relative property. You cannot take a particular piece of information and identify its distance (as you could do, for instance, with mass). You need two.
Also, the ordinal scale is rather limiting: you can do no math with it. It would be nice to turn it into a meaningful interval or ratio scale, but I'm not there yet.

Is Distance useful?
As in most theories, individual concepts may seem rather moot, but once you have enough concepts you can solve interesting problems or gain better understanding of complex phenomena. Right now, I haven't introduced the concept of tangling yet, so Distance may seem rather moot on itself. Still, we can temporarily use a vague notion of coupling to explore the value of distance. It will get better in the [near] future, trust me :-).

Consider a few consecutive statements inside a function. It's ok if they share intimate knowledge. The three segments in sum are rather strongly coupled, to the point that it's ineffective to split them in subfunctions, but that doesn't bother me much. It's fine to be tightly coupled at small distance. As we'll see, it's more than fine: it's expected.

Functions within a class are still close together, but farther apart. Again, it's ok if they share some knowledge. Ideally, that knowledge is embodied in the class invariant, but private functions are commonly tied with calling functions in a rather strong way. They often assume to be called in specific states (that could be captured in elaborated preconditions), and the caller is responsible to guarantee such preconditions. Sequence of calls are also expected to happen in specific orders, so that preconditions are met. Again, that doesn't bother me much. That's why the class exists in the first place: to provide a place where I can group together "closely related" functions and data.

Distinct classes are even more distant. Ideally, they won't share much. In practice, classes inside the same component often end up having some acquaintance with each other. For instance, widgets inside a widget library may work well together, but may not work at all with widgets inside a different library. Still, they're distant enough to be used individually.

We expect components / services to be lightly coupled. They can share some high-level contract, but that should be all.

Applications shouldn't be coupled at all – any coupling should appear at a lower level (components).

The logical consequence here is that coupling must decrease as distance increases. There is more to this statement than is immediately obvious. The real meaning is:
a) large distance requires low coupling
b) small distance requires high coupling

When I explain the concept, most people immediately think of (a) and ignore (b). Yet (b) is very important, because it says:
1) if coupling with the surroundings is not strong enough, you should move that portion elsewhere.
2) the code should go where the coupling is stronger (that is, if code is attracted elsewhere, consider moving it elsewhere :-)). That's basically why feature envy is considered a bad smell – the code is in the wrong place.

Cohesion as an emergent property
Cohesion has always been a more elusive concept than coupling. Looking at literature, you'll find dozens of different definitions and metrics for cohesion (early works like Myers' Composite/Structured Design used to call it "strength"). I've struggled with the concept for a while, because it didn't fit too well with other parts of my theory, but then I realized that cohesion is not a property per se.

Cohesion is a byproduct of attraction and distance: an artifact is cohesive if its constituents are at the right distance, considering the forces of attraction and rejection acting upon that artifact. If the resulting attraction is too strong or too weak, parts of that artifact want to move either down or up in the distance hierarchy, or into another site at the same level.

Attraction is too weak: the forces keeping that code together are not strong enough to warrant the short distance at which we placed the code. For instance, a long function with well-identified segments sharing little data. We can take that sequence of statements and move it up in the hierarchy - forming a new function.

Attraction is too strong: for instance, we put code in different classes, but those classes are intimately connected. The easier thing is to demote one class to a set of functions (down in the hierarchy) and merge those functions with the other class. But perhaps the entire shape is wrong, at odd with the forcefield. Perhaps new abstractions (centers) must be found, and functions, or even statements, moved into new places.

This is closing the circle, so to speak. Good software is in a state of equilibrium: attraction and rejection are balanced with proper distance between elements.

Note: I'm talking about attraction and rejection, but I have yet to present most attractive / repulsive forces. Still, somehow I hope most of you can grasp the concepts anyway.

An Alexandrian look on the notion of distance
I've quoted Christopher Alexander several time in an early discussion on the concept of form. Now, you may know that Alexander's most recent theory is explained in 4 tomes (which I haven't deeply read yet) collectively known as "The Nature of Order". A few people have tried to relate some of his concepts with the software world, but so far the results have been rather unimpressive (I'm probably biased in my judgment :-).

On my side, I see a very strong connection between the concept of equilibrium as an interplay between distance and the artifact hierarchy and the Alexandrian concept of levels of scale: “A balanced range of sizes is pleasing and beautiful”.
Which is not to say that you should have long functions, average functions, small functions :-). I would translate that notion in the software world as: a balanced use of the artifact hierarchy is pleasing and beautiful. That is:
Don't use long function: use multiple functions in a class instead.
Don't use long classes: use multiple classes in a component instead.
Don't create huge components: use multiple components inside an [application/service/program] instead

This is routinely ignored (which, I think, contributes to the freescale nature of most source code) but it's also the very first reason why those concepts have been introduced in the first place! Actually, we are probably still missing a few levels in the hierarchy, as required for instance to describe systems of systems.

Gravity, efficiency, and the run-time distance
Remember gravity? Gravity (in the artifact world) provides a path of least resistance for the programmer: just add stuff where there is other vaguely related related stuff. Gravity works to minimize distance, but in a kind of piecemeal, local minimum way. It's easy to get trapped into local minimum. The minimum is local when we add code that is not tightly connected with the surroundings, so that other forces at play (not yet discussed) will reject it.

When you point out incoherent, long functions, quite a few programmers bring in "efficiency" as an excuse (the other most common excuse being that it's easier to follow your code when you can just read it sequentially, which is another way to say "I don't understand abstraction" :-).
Now, efficiency is a run-time concept, and I haven't explained the corresponding concept in my theory yet. Still, using again the informal notion of efficiency we all have, we can already see that efficiency [in the run-time world] tends to decrease as distance [in the artifact world] increases. For instance, moving lines into another function requires passing parameters around. This is a first-cut, rough explanation of the well-known trade-off between run-time efficiency and artifact quality (maintainability, readability, reusability).

Coming soon:
the concept of distance in the run-time world, and distance-preserving transformations
efficiency in the physics of software
not sure yet : ), but probably isolation and density

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Kent Beck's Responsive Design

I try to keep an eye on software design literature. I subscribe to relevant publications from IEEE and ACM; I get a copy of conference proceedings; I read blogs and, just like everybody else, I follow links and suggestions. Being aware of the potential risk of filtering out information that is not aligned with the way I think, I'm also following a few blogs that are definitely not aligned with my belief system, just to make sure I don't miss too much. I'm bound to miss something, anyway, but I can live with that :-).

A few weeks ago I realized that I wasn't following Kent Beck's blog. I don't know why: I'm not a fan of XP, but I'm rather fond of Kent. He's an experienced designer with many good ideas. So, I took a tour of his posts and discovered that I had completely missed the concept of Responsive Design. That's weird, because I'm reading/scanning quite a few agile-oriented blogs, and I've never seen any mention of it. Oh, well; time to catch up.

I did my homework and spent some time reading all posts in the Responsive Design category and watching Kent's interesting QCon presentation. Looking at blog dates, it seems like activity peaked in April 2009, but rapidly declined during 2009 to almost nothing in 2010. So, apparently, Responsive Design hasn't taken the world by storm yet. Well, design wasn't so popular in the pre-agile era, and it's not going to be popular in the post-agile era either :-).

Anyway, the presentation inspired me with a stream of reflections that I'd like to share with you guys. I would recommend that you watch the presentation first (I know, it takes about 1 hour, but I think it's worth it). What follows is not intended to be a critic. I'm mostly trying to relate Kent's perspective on "what software design is about" with mine. It's a rather long post, so I split it in three paragraphs. The first two are about concepts in the presentation itself. The third is about an interesting difference in perspective, and how it affects our thinking.

Reflections on the introductory part
The idea of taking notes as we design, to uncover our own strategies and tactics, sounded so familiar. I guess at some point some of us feel an urge to understand what we're really doing. Although I'm looking for something different from Kent, I share some of his worries: trivial or extremely complicated insights might be just around the corner :-)

The talk about the meaning of "responsive" around 0:13 is resonating very well with the concepts of forcefield, design as "shaping a material", and backtalk. From my perspective, Kent is mostly saying: am I going to look at the forcefield, and design accordingly, or am I going to force a preconceived set of design decisions upon the problem? (see also my empty cup post).

Steady flow of features. We all love that, of course, and in a sense it's the most agile, XP-ish concept in the entire talk. The part about "the right time to design" seems rather connected with the Least Responsible Moment, so I can't really spare you a link to my own little idea of Invariant Decisions.
Again, I have a feeling that there is never enough context when talking about timing. I've certainly designed systems with a large separation (in time) between design and implementation. In many cases, it worked out quite well (of course, we always considered design as something fluid, not cast in stone). I guess it has a lot to do with how much domain knowledge you can leverage. Not every project is about doing something nobody has done before. Many are "just" about doing something in a much better way. Context, context, context...

Starting with values: it's something I have to improve in my Physics of Software work. Although I've said several times that all new methods should start with a declaration of values and beliefs, so far I haven't been thorough on this side. For instance, I value honest, unbiased, free, creative communication and thinking about software design issues, where the best ideas, and not the best talkers, get to win (just because I'm a good talker doesn't mean I want to win that way :-)). That's why I'm trying to come up with a less ambiguous, wishy-washy way to think and talk about design.

"Most of the decisions I make while designing have nothing to do with the problem domain [… but ...] are shaped by the fact that I'm instructing a computer. Weird. This is not my experience. I surely reuse solutions across domains, but the problem domain is heavily shaping the forcefield. When you go down to small-scale decisions, yeah, it gets more domain-independent, but high-level design is heavily problem-dependent. For instance, while you can usually (but not always) implement a chosen data structure in a rather domain-independent way, choosing the right data structure is usually a domain-dependent choice.
Don't get me wrong: I know I can safely ignore some portions of the problem domain when I design - I do that all the time. My view is that I can ignore the (possibly very complex) functional issues that have little impact on the forcefield, and therefore on the form. This is a complex subject that would require an in-depth study.

Principles. I don't quite like the term "principle" because is so wide in meaning that you can use it for just about everything. So, while the "don't repeat yourself" is a commonly accepted design principle, Kent's examples of principles from the insurance world or from Dynamo looks much more like pre-made [meta] decisions to me.
"You should never to lose a write". Fine. It's a decision, you can basically consider that a requirement.
"We're there to aid human decision making". Fine. It's a meta-decision, meaning, it's not just a design decision: it will influence everything, from your value proposition down to functional requirements and so on. It's not really a design principle, not even a project-specific design principle: it's more akin to a metaphor or to a goal.
Aside from that distinction, I agree that sometimes constraints, whatever form they take, are actually helpful during design, because they prune out a lot of the decision space (again, see my post above on the empty cup). Of course, the wrong constraints can prevent you from finding the sweet spot, so timing is an issue here as well - some constraints should be considered fluid early on, because you may learn that they're not the right constraints for your project.

The short part about patterns and principles reminded me of my early work on SysOOD, some of which got published in IEEE Software exactly as Principles Vs. Patterns. So, while Kent wants to understand principles better, I've always been trying to eliminate principles altogether (universal principles, that is). Still, I'd like to see the "non-universal" or "project-specific" principles recast under some other name and further explored, because I agree that having a shared set of values / goals / constraints can help tremendously in any significant project. Oh, I still have the Byte smalltalk balloon issue somewhere : ).

Reflection on the 4 strategies
I see the "meat" of the talk as being about [meta] strategies to move in the decision space. Your software is at some point A in the multi-dimensional decision space; for instance, you decided early on that you would use filenames and not streams. Now you want to move your software to another point B in the decision space (where, for instance, streams are used instead of filenames). How do you go from A to B?
That's an interesting issue, where experienced designers/programmers routinely adopt different approaches compared to novices (see the empty cup post again), so it's both interesting and promising to see Kent articulate his reasoning. In a sense, it's completely orthogonal to both patterns/antipatterns (which may point you to B / away from A) and to my work (which is more concerned with understanding and articulating why B is a more desirable point than A, or to find B in the first place).
Actually, strictly speaking I'm not even sure this stuff is really about "design". In my view, design is more about finding B. The execution/implementation of design, however, is about moving to B. Therefore, Kent's strategies looks more like "design execution strategies" than "design strategies".

That said, there is a subtle, yet striking difference between Kent's perspective and mine. Kent is talking about / looking to software design in a "first-person perspective", while I'm looking through the "I'm shaping a material" metaphor. He says things like: "I'm here; how do I get there?", and he's literally mimicking small steps. I'm saying things like: "my software is here; how do I move it there?"; it may seem like a small, irrelevant distinction, but I think it's shaping our thoughts rather deeply. It surely shapes the names we use: I would have never used "stepping stone", because I'm not thinking of myself going anywhere : ). More on this on the third paragraph below.

Although this is probably the most “practical” part of the talk, concepts are a little fuzzy. Leap can be seen as a strategy, actually the simplest strategy of all: you just move there. Safe Steps is more like a meta-strategy to move inside the decision space (indeed, around 42:00 Kent talks about Safe/Small Steps as a "principle"). Once you choose Safe Steps, you have many options left, Parallel, Stepping Stones and Simplifications being 3 of them. Still, the granularity of those strategies is so coarse that it's rather surprising Kent found only 3 of them.

For instance, I probably wouldn't have used Parallel to deal with the filenames/streams issues. I can't really say without looking at the code, but assuming I wanted to take small steps, I could have created a new class, which IS-A stream and HAS-A filename, moved the existing code to use that class (a very simple and safe change, because both the stream and the filename are there), gradually moved all the filename-dependent code inside that class, removed the filename from the interface (as it's no longer used), moved the filename-dependent code in a factory (so that I could make a choice on the stream type). At that point I could have killed the temporary class, using a plain stream again. This strategy (I could call it wrap/extract/unwrap) is quite simple and effective when dealing with legacy code, and doesn't really fit in any of the strategies Kent is proposing.

Stepping Stone. While Leap and Parallel are more like strategies to implement a decision you have already taken, it seems to me that Stepping Stone is different. Although this might be my biased understanding of it, it's also the only interpretation I can give that makes Stepping Stone different from good old top-down decomposition (which Kent makes clear is different, at about 50:30).
I would say that Stepping Stone is about making progress where you can, and while doing so, shed some light on the surroundings as well. This is not very clear in the beginning, but as Kent moves forward, it's more and more obvious that he's thinking about novel situations, where you don't know exactly what you want to build.
Indeed, sometimes the forcefield is just too blurry. Still, we often can see a portion of it rather clearly, and we may have a sensible idea about the form we want to shape locally. Stepping Stone is a good strategy here: build (or design) what you understand, get feedback (or backtalk), get progress, etc. I usually keep exploring the dark areas while I'm building stepping stones. I'm also rather careful not to overcommit on stepping stones, as they may turn out not to fit perfectly with what's coming next. That's fine, inasmuch as we understand that design is a process, not a phase with a beginning and an end.
I can also build "stepping stones" when I know where I'm going to, but as I said, at that point it's hard to tell the difference between building stepping stones and executing top-down design. Oh, by the way, for the agile guys who hated me so much for saying that TDD is a limited design strategy: move around 50:20. Play. Rewind. Play again. Repeat till necessary :-). But back to Stepping Stones: I think the key phrase here is around 55:40, when Kent says that by standing on a stepping stone he can see where to go next, which I read like: a previously blurry portion of the forcefield is now visible and clear, and I can move further.

Simplification. This is more akin to a design strategy, not to an execution strategy. I could see Simplification as a way to create small steps (perhaps even stepping stones). Indeed, the difference between Stepping Stones and Simplification is not really obvious (around 1:02:00 a participant asks about the similarity and doesn't seem like Kent can explain the difference so well either). I guess simplification is about to solve one single problem by solving a simpler version of the same problem first, whereas Stepping Stones are about solving a complex problem by solving another problem first (one that, however, brings us closer to solving the initial problem). In this sense, Simplification can be used where you can see where you wanna go (but it's too big / risky / ambitious) but also where you can't see exactly where you want to go, but you can clearly see a smaller version of it. Or, from my "I'm shaping a material" perspective, you can't really see the form of the real thing, but you can see the form of a smaller version of it. As I said, this stuff is interesting but rather fuzzy, and honestly, I'm not really sold on those 4 strategies.

Overall, I'd like to see Responsive Design further developed. It would probably benefit from a better distinction between design, design execution, principles, values, goals, and so on, but it's interesting stuff in the almost flat landscape of contemporary software design literature.

Perspective Matters
As I said, Kent is looking at the decision space in first-person perspective, while I see myself moving other things around. There is an interesting implication: when you think about moving yourself, you mostly consider distance. You are who you are. You want to go elsewhere. Distance, and therefore Leaps, Small Steps, Stepping Stones, it's all that matters.

When you think about moving something else, you have to consider two more factors. That, in my opinion, allows better reasoning.

Sure, distance is an important factor. But, as I explained in my post about Inertia, another important factor is Mass. You cannot ignore mass, but it's unnatural to consider a varying mass from a first-person perspective.

A simple example: I use Visual Studio (yeah yeah I know, some of you don't like it : ). Sometimes, as I'm creating a new project, I click in the wrong place (yeah yeah I'm kinda dumb :-) and I get the wrong project type. I want a C# project and I get a VB.NET project (yikes!! :-)). That's quite a distance in the decision space. Yet there is a very simple, safe step (Leap): delete the project and start from scratch. The distance is not a problem, because mass is basically null. I can use Leap not because the distance is small, but because the mass is small. I wouldn't do that with an existing, large project (I may consider going through an IL -> C# transformation though :-).

There is more: when I discussed Inertia, I talked about software being in a state of rest or motion in the decision space. This is the third factor, and again, it's hard to think about it in first-person perspective. You want to go somewhere, but you're already going elsewhere. It's not truly natural. Deflecting a moving object, however, is quite ordinary (most real-life games involving a ball, for instance, involve deflecting a moving object).

Consider a large project. Maybe a team is busy moving a subsystem S1 to another place in the decision space. Now you want to move subsystem S2 from A to B. It's not enough to consider distance and mass. You have to consider whether or not S2 is already moving, perhaps by attraction from S1. So S2 may be small (in mass) and the distance A-B may be small too, but if S2 is already moving into a different direction your job is harder, more risky, and in need of a careful execution strategy.

A real-world example: you have a legacy C++/MFC application. Currently, the UI is talking with the application through a small, homebrew messaging component (MC), of which you are in charge. You just found a better messaging component (BMC) on the internet, say something that is more efficient, portable, and actively developed by a community. You want to move your subsystem to another place in the decision space, from MC to BMC. Part of BMC being "portable" is based on the reasonable assumption that messages are strictly C++ objects.

Meanwhile, another team is moving the UI toward .NET (that's a big mass - big distance issue, but it's their problem, not yours :-). Now, there is an attraction between your messaging component and the UI. A .NET UI may have some issues dealing with native C++ messages. So, like it or not, there is another force at play, trying to move your component to a different place (say, NMC). Now, the mass of the messaging component might be small. The distance between MC and BMC may be small too - perhaps something you can deal with by using an adapter. But probably BMC is in a very different direction than NMC, where the UI team is pushing your component to move. So it's not just a matter of distance. It's not even enough to consider mass. You need to consider distance + full-blown Inertia. Or, to cut it short, work

Of course, depending on your project, some factor may dominate over the others, and a simpler model might be enough, but usually, distance alone won't cut it.

There is more...
At the end of the presentation, Kent mentions power law distribution. This is something that has got me interested too in the past few months (I mentioned that in Facebook), but it's too early to say something about it, and I want to check a few ideas with the author of an interesting paper first, anyway.

See you guys soon with a post on Distance (not in the decision space, but in the artifact space!)