Home > technical > Layering, Balancing, And The Number Seven

Layering, Balancing, And The Number Seven

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.

Flat Vs Tiered

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“.

Sprinkle

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