The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise. — Edsger Dijkstra
With Edsger’s delicious quote in mind, let’s explore seven levels of abstraction that can be used to reason about big, distributed, systems:
At level zero, we have the finest grained, most concrete unit of design, a single puny line of “source code“. At level seven, we have the coarsest grained, most abstract unit of design, the mysterious and scary “system” level. A line of code is simple to reason about, but a “system” is not. Just when you think you understand what a system does, BAM! It exhibits some weird, perhaps dangerous, behavior that is counter-intuitive and totally unexpected – especially when humans are the key processing “nodes” in the beast.
Here are some questions to ponder regarding the seven level stack: Given that you’re hired to build a big, distributed system, at what level would you start your development effort? Would you start immediately coding up classes using the much revered TDD “best practice” and let all the upper levels of abstraction serendipitously “emerge”? Relatively speaking, how much time “up front” should you spend specifying, designing, recording, communicating the structures and behaviors of the top 3 levels of the stack? Again, relatively speaking, how much time should be allocated to the unit, integration, functional, and system levels of testing?
I’m not a fan of “emergent global architecture“, but I AM a fan of “emergent local design“. To mitigate downstream technical and financial risk, I believe that one has to generate and formally document an architecture at a high level of abstraction before starting to write code. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.
The figure below shows a portion of an initial “local” design that I plucked out of a more “global” architectural design. When I started coding and unit testing the cluster of classes in the snippet, I “discovered” that the structure wasn’t going work out. The API of the architectural framework within which the class cluster runs wouldn’t allow it to work without some major, internal, restructuring and retesting of the framework itself.
After wrestling with the dilemma for a bit, the following workable local design emerged out of the learning acquired via several wretched attempts to make the original design work. Of course, I had to throw away a bunch of previously written skeletal product and test code, but that’s life. Now I’m back on track and moving forward again. W00t!
Assume we have a valuable, revenue-critical software system in operation. The figure below shows one nice and tidy, powerpoint-worthy way to model the system; as a static, enumerated set of executables and libraries.
Given the model above, we can express the size of the system as:
Now, say we run a tool on the code base and it spits out a system size of 200K “somethings” (lines of code, function points, loops, branches, etc).
What does this 200K number of “somethings” absolutely tell us about the non-functional qualities of the system? It tells us absolutely nothing. All we know at the moment is that the system is operating and supporting the critical, revenue generating processes of our borg. Even relatively speaking, when we compare our 200K “somethings” system against a 100K “somethings” system, it still doesn’t tell us squat about the qualities of our system.
So, what’s missing here? One missing link is that our nice and tidy enumerations view and equation don’t tell us nuttin’ about what Russ Ackoff calls “the product of the interactions of the parts” (e.g Lib-to-Lib, Exe-Exe). To remedy the situation, let’s update our nice and tidy model with the part-to-part associations that enable our heap of individual parts to behave as a system:
Our updated model is still nice and tidy, but just not as nice and tidy as before. But wait! We are still missing something important. We’re missing a visual cue of our system’s interactions with “other” systems external to us; you know, “them”. The “them” we blame when something goes wrong during operation with the supra-system containing us and them.
Our updated model is once again still nice and tidy, but just not as nice and tidy as before. Next, let’s take a single snapshot of the flow of (red) “blood” in our system at a given point of time:
Finally, if we super-impose the astronomic number of all possible blood flow snapshots onto one diagram, we get:
D’oh! We’re not so nice and tidy anymore. Time for some heroic debugging on the bleeding mess. Is there a doctor in da house?
Having recently watched a newer incarnation of Barbara Liskov‘s terrific Turing award acceptance speech on InfoQ.com, “The Power Of Abstraction“, I started doodling on my visio canvas to see where it would take me. Somehow, I wanted to explore how the use of abstraction imbues power to its wielders.
The figure below attempts to represent 3 different software designs that can result from the analysis of a given set of requirements (how the requirements came to be “given” in the first place is a whole ‘nother issue).
On the left, we have a seven class solution candidate (C1….. C7 ) organized as three layers of abstraction. On the right, we have a three class flat solution (FC1, FC2, FC3) that implements the same functionality (e.g. FC1 encapsulates the functionality of C1 + C4 + C7). For dramatic contrast, we have a fugly, single-class, monolith in the middle with all the solution functionality entombed within the MC1 class sarcophagus.
So, what advantage, if any, does the three tier, abstract design give stakeholders over the two, flat, down-to-earth designs? Depending on the requirements specifics, it may offer up no advantage and might actually be the worst candidate in terms of code-ability, understandability, and maintainability. There are more “parts” and more inter-part interfaces. It may be overkill to transform the requirements into 3 layers of abstraction before (or during?) coding.
However, as a system to be coded gets larger and more complex, the intelligent use of abstract vertical layering and horizontally balancing can speed up system development and decrease maintenance costs via increased readability and understandability from multiple viewing angles. For large systems, conceptual “chunking“, both vertically in the form of layering and horizontally in the form of balancing is a winning strategy; especially when coupled with Miller’s magic number 7 (no more than 7 +/- 2 abstract elements within a given layer and no more than 7 +/- 2 abstract layers in the stack). Relatively speaking, the smaller, bounded parts can be doled out to team members more easily and integration will be less painful.
Note that doing some just-enough “pre-planning” in terms of layering/balancing the system’s structure/behavior seems to fly in the face of TDD – where you sprinkle a bunch of user stories from the backlog onto a group of programmers and have them start writing tests so that the design can miraculously emerge. But, as the saying goes: “whatever floats your boat“.
When not ranting and raving on this blawg about “great injustices” (LOL) that I perceive are keeping the world from becoming a better place, I design, write, and test real-time radar system software for a living. I use the UML before, during, and after coding to capture, expose, and reason about my software designs. The UML artifacts I concoct serve as a high level coding road map for me; and a communication tool for subject matter experts (in my case, radar system engineers) who don’t know how to (or care to) read C++ code but are keenly interested in how I map their domain-specific requirements/designs into an implementable software design.
I’m not a UML language lawyer and I never intend to be one. Luckily, I’m not forced to use a formal UML-centric tool to generate/evolve my “bent” UML designs (see what I mean by “bent” UML here: Bend It Like Fowler). I simply use MSFT Visio to freely splat symbols and connections on an e-canvas in any way I see fit. Thus, I’m unencumbered by a nanny tool telling me I’m syntactically/semantically “wrong!” and rudely interrupting my thought flow every five minutes.
The 2nd graphic below illustrates an example of one of my typical class diagrams. It models a small, logically cohesive cluster of cooperating classes that represent the “transmit timeline” functionality embedded within a larger “scheduler” component. The scheduler component itself is embedded within yet another, larger scale component composed of a complex amalgam of cooperating hardware and software components; the radar itself.
When fully developed and tested, the radar will be fielded within a hostile environment where it will (hopefully) perform its noble mission of detecting and tracking aircraft in the midst of random noise, unwanted clutter reflections, cleverly uncooperative “enemy” pilots, and atmospheric attenuation/distortion. But I digress, so let me get back to the original intent of this post, which I think has something to do with how and why I use the UML.
The radar transmit timeline is where other necessarily closely coupled scheduler sub-components add/insert commands that tell the radar hardware what to do and when to do it; sometime in the future relative to “now“. As the radar rotates and fires its sophisticated, radio frequency pulse trains out into the ether looking for targets, the scheduler is always “thinking” a few steps ahead of where the antenna beam is currently pointing. The scheduler relentlessly fills the TxTimeline in real time with beam-specific commands. It issues those commands to the hardware early enough for the hardware to be able to queue, setup, and execute the minute transmit details when the antenna arrives at the desired command point. Geeze! I’m digressing yet again off the UML path, so lemme try once more to get back to what I originally wanted to ramble about.
Being an unapologetic UML bender, and not a fan of analysis-paralysis, I never attempt to meticulously show every class attribute, operation, or association on a design diagram. I weave in non-UML symbology as I see fit and I show only those elements I deem important for creating a shared understanding between myself and other interested parties. After all, some low level attributes/operations/classes/associations will “go away” as my learning unfolds and others will “emerge” during coding anyway, so why waste the time?
Notice the “revision number” in the lower right hand corner of the above class diagram. It hints that I continuously keep the diagram in sync with the code as I write it. In fact, I keep the applicable diagram(s) open right next to my code editor as I hack away. As a PAYGO practitioner, I bounce back and forth between code & UML artifacts whenever I want to.
The UML sequence diagram below depicts a visualization of the participatory role of the TxTimeline object in a larger system context comprised of other peer objects within the scheduler. For fear of unethically disclosing intellectual property, I’m not gonna walk through a textual explanation of the operational behavior of the scheduler component as “a whole“. The purpose of presenting the sequence diagram is simply to show you a real case example that “one diagram is not enough” for me to capture the design of any software component containing a substantial amount of “essential complexity“. As a matter of fact, at this current moment in time, I have generated a set of 7+ leveled and balanced class/sequence/activity diagrams to steer my coding effort. I always start coding/testing with class skeletons and I iteratively add muscles/tendons/ligaments/organs to the Frankensteinian beast over time.
In this post, I opened up my trench coat and
showed you my… attempted to share with you an intimate glimpse into the way I personally design & develop software. In my process, the design is not done “all upfront“, but a purely subjective mix of mostly high and low level details is indeed created upfront. I think of it as “Big Design, But Not All Upfront“.
Despite what some code-centric, design-agnostic, software development processes advocate, in my mind, it’s not just about the code. The code is simply the lowest level, most concrete, model of the solution. The practices of design generation/capture and code slinging/testing in my world are intimately and inextricably coupled. I’m not smart enough to go directly to code from a user story, a one-liner work backlog entry, a whiteboard doodle, or a set of casual, undocumented, face-to-face conversations. In my domain, real-time surveillance radar systems, expressing and capturing a fair amount of formal detail is (rightly) required up front. So, screw you to any and all NoUML, no-documentation, jihadists who happen to stumble upon this post. :)
Suppose you’re developing a software-intensive product and you have to choose to write your app code on top of two competing infrastructure platforms:
Well, duh. I think I’ll take the candidate on the left. That way, if the code I write ends up being costly to maintain, it’s all my fault. I wasn’t “forced” to write crappy, jaggy code by having to comply with the platform:
But wait! Suppose either the clean infrastructure doesn’t exist or (more likely) you’re “mandated” to write your apps on top of the jaggy infrastructure. In this situation, here’s the best and worst we can do:
In both cases, our code has some unwanted “jagginess” to it – some forced upon us by the platform and some we introduced ourselves.
In summary, our code can take on one of the forms below. The two on the left, written on top of the clean infrastructure, are less costly to maintain than the two written on the right.
So, what’s the purpose of this post? Uh, I dunno. I started sketching out the graphics first and then I thought some interesting insight would pop up as I wrote the accompanying words. But other than the utterly obvious advice to “choose a clean infrastructure over a jaggy infrastructure when you can“, nothing arose.
Writing is sometimes like that. You have nothing to say, but you write and babble away anyway. In case you haven’t noticed, I do that a lot. Bummer.