Posts Tagged ‘software design’

Slice By Slice Over Layer By Layer

December 5, 2014 2 comments

Assume that your team was tasked with developing a large software system in any application domain of your choice. Also, assume that in order to manage the functional complexity of the system, your team iteratively applied the “separation of concerns” heuristic during the design process and settled on a cleanly layered system as such:

Three Layers

So, how are you gonna manifest your elegant paper design as a working system running on real, tangible hardware? Should you build it from the bottom up like you make a cake, one layer at a time?

Layer By Layer

Or, should you build it like you eat a cake, one slice at a time?

Slice By Slice

The problem with growing the system layer-by-layer is that you can end up developing functionality in a lower layer that may not ever be needed in the higher layers (an error of commission). You may also miss coding up some lower layer functionality that is indeed required by higher layers because you didn’t know it was needed during the upfront design phase (an error of omission). By employing the incremental slice-by-slice method, you’ll mitigate these commission/omission errors and you’ll have a partially working system at the end of each development step – instead of waiting until layers 1 and 2 are solid enough to start adding layer 3 domain functionality into the mix.

In the context of organizational growth, Russell Ackoff once stated something like: “it is better to grow horizontally than vertically“. Applying Russ’s wisdom to the growth of a large software system:

It’s better to grow a software system horizontally, one slice at a time, than vertically, one layer at a time.

The above quote is not some profound, original, BD00 quote. It’s been stated over and over again by multitudes of smart people over the years. BD00 just put his own spin on it.

Abstract Decomposition And Concrete Composition

November 6, 2014 1 comment

On the left we have the process of abstract decomposition, and on the right we have the process of concrete composition:

Decompose And Compose

Note that during the concrete composition from parts to final system on the right, we gracefully transition through two stable, intermediate forms. Some people and communities, especially those obsessed with “velocity” and “time-to-market“, would say “bollocks” to all those value-subtracting, intermediate steps. We no need no stinking intermediate  forms:

direct composition





Design Disaster

September 18, 2014 5 comments

In an attempt to gain an understanding of the software design he was carrying around in his head, I sat down with a colleague and started talking face to face with him. To facilitate the conversation, I started sketching my emergent understanding of his design in my notebook. As you can see, by the time we finished talking, 20 minutes later, I ran out of ink and I wasn’t much better off than before we started the conversation:

Design Scribble

If I had a five year old son, I would proudly magnetize my sketch on the fridge right next to his drawings.

Categories: technical Tags:

The Angle Bracket Tax

September 8, 2014 7 comments

The following C++14 code fragment represents a general message layout along with a specific instantiation of that message:

Message Code Frag


Side note: Why won’t a C++98/03 compiler accept the above code?

Assume that we are “required” to send thousands of these X-Y position messages per second between two computers over a finite bandwidth communication link:

Sensor To Display

There are many ways we can convert the representation of the message in memory into a serial stream of bytes for transmittal over the communication link, but let’s compare a simple binary representation against an XML equivalent:

XML Vs Binary

The tradeoff is simple: human readability for performance. Even though the XML version is self-describing and readable to a human being, it is 6.5 times larger than the tight, fixed-size, binary format. In addition, the source code required to serialize/deserialize (i.e. marshal/unmarshal) the XML version is computationally denser than the code to implement the same functionality for the fixed-size, binary representation. In the software industry, this tradeoff is affectionately known as “the angle bracket tax” that must be payed for using XML in the critical paths of your system.

If your system requires high rates of throughput and low end-to-end latency for streaming data over a network, you may have no choice but to use a binary format to send/receive messages. After all, what good is it to have human readable messages if the system doesn’t work due to overflowing queues and lost messages?

The Meta-Documentation Dilemma

September 4, 2014 Leave a comment

In his terrific “Effective architecture sketches” slide deck, Simon Brown rightly states that you don’t need UML to sketch up your software architecture. However, if you don’t, you need to consider documenting the documentation:

arch sketch tips

The utility of using a standard like UML is that you don’t have to spend any time on all the arcane subtleties of meta-documentation. And if you’re choosing to bypass the UML, you’re probably not going to spend much time, if any, doing meta-documentation to clarify your architecture decisions. After all, doing less documentation, let alone writing documentation about the documentation, is why you eschewed UML in the first place.

So, good luck in unambiguously communicating the software architecture to your stakeholders; especially those poor souls who will be trying to build the beast with you.

Myopia And Hyperopia

Assume that we’ve just finished designing, testing, and integrating the system below:


Now let’s zoom in on the “as-built“, four class, design of SS2 (SubSystem 2). Assume its physical source tree is laid out as follows:

source tree

Given this design data after the fact, some questions may come to mind: How did the four class design cluster come into being? Did the design emerge first, the production code second, and the unit tests come third in a neat and orderly fashion?  Did the tests come first and the design emerge second? Who gives a sh-t what the order and linearity of creation was, and perhaps more importantly, why would someone give a sh-t?

It seems that the TDD community thinks the way a design manifests is of supreme concern. You see, some hard core TDD zealots think that designing and writing the test code first ala a strict “red-green-refactor” personal process guarantees a “better” final design than any other way. And damn it, if you don’t do TDD, you’re a second class citizen.

BD00 thinks that as long as refactoring feedback loops exist between the designing-coding-testing efforts, it really doesn’t freakin’ matter which is the cart and which is the horse, nor even which comes first. TDD starts with a local, myopic view and iteratively moves upward towards global abstraction. DDT (Design Driven Test) starts with a global, hyperopic view and iteratively moves downward towards local implementation. A chaotic, hybrid, myopia-hyperopia approach starts anywhere and jumps back and forth as the developer sees fit. It’s all about the freedom to choose what’s best in the moment for you.


Notice that TDD says nothing about how the purely abstract, higher level, three-subsystem cluster (especially the inter-subsystem interfaces) that comprise the “finished” system should come into being. Perhaps the TDD community can (should?) concoct and mandate a new and hip personal process to cover software system level design?

Challenging the Priesthood

May 7, 2014 10 comments

It seems to have taken awhile, but people are finally speaking out strongly against the papal infallibility of the TDD high priesthood. Michał Bartyzel, Andrew Binstock, and Jim Coplien (who actually has been speaking out against it for years) are a few of these blasphemous heretics.

Any of the “driven” techniques can work, but to insinuate that they are the “only way(s)” to build superior products is arrogant, hubristic, and plain stupid. In mentally challenging, knowledge-intensive work, people have, and always will have, different ways of creating beautiful products.

When I speak with adherents of test-driven development (TDD) in particular, there is a seeming non-comprehension that truly excellent, reliable code was ever developed prior to the advent of this one practice. I sense their view that the long history of code that put man on the moon, ran phone switches, airline reservation systems, and electric grids was all the result of luck or unique talents, rather than a function of careful discipline and development rigor. – Andrew Binstock

“…these promises were not supported by unambiguous and verifiable data in early years of TDD. The enthusiastic reaction to TDD came first and then some (selective?) measurements were made to verify its promises. – Michał Bartyzel

“If you find your testers (or yourself) splitting up functions to support the testing process, you’re destroying your system architecture and code comprehension along with it. Test at a coarser level of granularity.” – Jim Coplien

Personally, I start sketching out quite a bit of a design upfront (OMG!!!!!) in bent” UML (OMG, OMG!!!!!) prior to writing a single line of code. I then start writing the code and I subsequently write/run some selective unit tests on that code. In summary, I dynamically build/test the code base toward the coarse, “upfront” design as I go. Of course, according to the high priests of TDD, I’m unprofessional and I obviously produce inferior designs and bug-ridden, unmaintainable code. Gosh, it sux to be me.


For more details on how I develop software, check out this four year old post: PAYGO II. And no, I’m not promoting it as  better than your personal process or, gasp, the unassailable holy grail of software development… TDD! No books, magazine articles, conference talks, or two-day certification courses are planned. It’s simply better for me, and perhaps only me.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 474 other followers

%d bloggers like this: