Friday, August 31, 2018

An alternative model of computer programming : Part 1

Today, I googled "How many programming languages are there?" and the first hit I got said, "256".

I giggled - as any programmer would when a power of two pops up in the wild like that. Of course, it is not possible to say exactly how many because new ones are invented almost every day and it really depends on how you define "language"...It is definitely in the hundreds at least.

It is probably in the thousands, if you rope in all the DSLs and all the macro-pre-processors-and-front-ends-that-spit-out-Java-or-C.

In this series of blog posts I am going to ask myself and then attempt to answer an odd question. Namely, "what if language is not the best starting point for thinking about computer programming?"

Before I get into the meat of that question, I will start with how I believe we got to the current state of affairs - the current programming linguistic tower of Bable - with its high learning curve to enter its hallowed walls. With all its power and the complexities that seem to be inevitable in accessing that power.

I believe we got here the day we decided that computing was best modelling with mathematics.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The day I found Python....

It was 21 years ago. 1997. I was at an SGML conference in Boston ( It was the conference where the XML spec. was launched.

Back in those days I mostly coded in Perl and C++ but was dabbling in the dangerous territory known as "write your own programming language"...

On the way from my hotel to a restaurant one evening I took a shortcut and stumbled upon a bookshop. I don't walk past bookshops unless they are closed. This one was open.

I found the IT section and was scanning a shelf of Perl books. Perl, Perl, Perl, Perl, Python, Perl....

Wait! What?

A misfiled book....Name seems familiar. Why? Ah, Henry Thomson. SGML Europe. Munich 1996. I attended Henry's talk where he shows some of his computational linguistics work. At first glance his screen looked like the OS had crashed, but after a little while I began to see that it was Emacs with command shell windows and the command line invocation of scripts, doing clever things with markup, in Python. Very productive setup fusing editor and command line...

I bought the mis-filed Python book in Boston that day and read it on the way home. By the time I landed in Dublin it was clear to me that Python was my programming future.  It gradually replaced all my Perl and C++ and today, well, Python is everywhere.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Thinking about Software Architecture & Design : Part 14

Of all the acronyms associated with software architecture and design, I suspect that CRUD (Create Read/Report Update Delete) is the most problematic. It is commonly used as a very useful sanity check to ensure that every entity/object created in an architecture is understood in terms of the four fundamental operations : creating, reading, updating and deleting. However, it subtly suggests that the effort/TCO of these four operations are on a par with each other.

In my experience the "U" operation – update  – is the one where there are the most “gotchas” lurking. A create operation – by definition – is one per object/entity. Reads are typically harmless (ignoring some scaling issues for simplicity here). Deletes are one per object/entity, again by definition. More complex than reads generally but not too bad. Updates however, often account for the vast majority of operations performed on objects/entities. The vast majority of the life cycle is spent in updates. Not only that, but each update – by definition again – changes the object/entity and in many architectures updates cascade. i.e. updates cause other updates. This is sometimes exponential as updates trigger other updates. It is also sometimes truly complex in the sense that updates end up,through event cascades, causing further updates to the originally updated objects....

I am a big fan of the CRUD checklist to cover off gaps in architectures early on but I have learned through experience that dwelling on the Update use-cases and thinking through the update cascades can significantly reduce the total cost of ownership of many information architectures.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Thinking about Software Architecture & Design : Part 13

Harold Abelson, co-author of the seminal tome Structure and Interpretation Of Computer Programs (SICP) said that “programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.”

The importance of human-to-human communication over human-to-machine is even more true in Software Architectures, where there is typically another layer or two of resolution before machines can interpret the required architecture.

Human-to-human communications is always fraught with potential for miscommunications and the reasons for this run very deep indeed. Dig into this subject and it is easy to be amazed that anything can be communicated perfectly at all. It is a heady mix of linguistics, semiotics, epistemology and psychology. I have written before (for example, in the “What is Law Series - about the first three of these, but here I want to talk about the fourth – psychology.

I had the good fortune many years ago to stumble upon the book Inevitable Illusions by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and it opened my mind to the idea that there are mental concepts we are all prone to develop, that are objectively incorrect – yet unavoidable. Think of your favorite optical illusion. At first you were amazed and incredulous. Then you read/discovered how it works. You proved to your own satisfaction that your eyes were deceiving you. And yet, every time you look at the optical illusion, your brain has another go at selling you on the illusion. You cannot switch it off. No amount of knowing how you are being deceived by your eyes will get your eyes to change their minds, so to speak.

I have learned over the years that some illusions about computing are so strong that it is often best to incorporate them into architectures rather than try to remove them. For example, there is the “send illusion”. Most of the time when there is an arrow between A and B in a software architecture, there is a send illusion lurking. The reason being, it is not possible to send digital bits. They don't move through space. Instead they are replicated. Thus every implied “send” in an architecture can never be a truly simple send operation and it involves at the very least, a copy followed by a delete. 

Another example is the idea of a finite limit to the complexity of business rules. This is the very (very!) appealing idea that with enough refinement, it is possible to arrive at a full expression of the business rules that express some desirable computation. This is sometimes true (especially in text books) which adds to the power of the inevitable illusion. However, in many cases this is only true if you can freeze requirements – a tough proposition – and often is impossible even then. For example in systems where there is a feedback loop between the business rules and the data creating a sort of “fractal boundary” that the corpus of business rules can never fully cover.

I do not let these concerns stop me from using concepts like “send” and “business rule repository” in my architectures because I know how powerfully these concepts are locked into all our minds. However, I do try to conceptualize them as analogies and remain conscious of the tricks my mind plays with them. I then seek to ensure that the implementation addresses the unavoidable delta between the inevitable illusion in my head and the reality in the machine.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thinking about Software Architecture & Design : Part 12

The word “flexible” gets used a lot in software architecture & design. It tends to get used in a positive sense. That is, "flexibility" is mostly seen as a good thing to have in your architecture.

And yet, flexibility is very much a two edged sword. Not enough of it, and your architecture can have difficulty dealing with the complexities that typify real world situations. Too much of it and your architecture can be too difficult to understand and maintain. The holy grail of flexibility, in my opinion, is captured in the adage that “simple things should be simple, and hard things should be possible.”.

Simple to say, hard to do. Take SQL for example, or XSLT or RPG...they all excel at making simple things simple in their domains and yet, can also be straitjackets when more complicated things come along. By “complicated” here I mean things that do not neatly fit into their conceptual models of algorithmics and data.

A classic approach to handling this is to allow such systems to be embedded in Turing Complete Programming language. i.e. SQL inside C Sharp. XSLT inside Java etc. The Turing Completeness of the programming language host ensures that the “hard things are possible” while the core – and now “embedded system” - ensures that the simple things are simple.

Unfortunately what tends to happen is that the complexity of the real world chips away at the split between simple and complex and, often times, such hybrid systems evolve into Turing Complete hosts. i.e. over time, the embedded system for handling the simple cases, is gradually eroded and then one day, you wake up to find that it is all written in C# or Java or whatever and the originally embedded system is withering on the vine.

A similar phenomenon happens on the data side where an architecture might initially by 98% “structured” fields but over time, the “unstructured” parts of its data model grow and grow to the point where the structured fields atrophy and all the mission critical data migrates over to the unstructured side. This is why so many database-centric systems organically grow memo fields, blob fields or even complete distinct document storage sub-systems over time, to handle all the data that does not fit neatly into the “boxes” of the structured fields.

Attempting to add flexibility to the structured data architecture tends to result in layers of abstraction that people have difficult following. Layers of pointer indirection. Layers of subject/verb/object decomposition. Layers of relationship reification and so on....

This entropy growth does not happen overnight. The complexity of modelling the real world chips away at designs until at some point there is an inflection. Typically this point of inflection manifests in a desire to “simplify” or “clean up” a working system. This often results in a new architecture that incorporates the learnings from the existing system and then the whole process repeats again. I have seen this iteration work at the level of decades but in more recent years the trend appears to be towards shorter and short cycle times.

This cyclic revisiting of architectures begs the obvious teleological question about the end point of this cycle. Does it have an end? I suspect not because, in a Platonic sense, the ideal architecture can be contemplated but cannot be achieved in the real world.

Besides, even if it could be achieved, the ever-changing and monotonically increasing complexity of the real world ensures that a perfect model for time T can only be achieved at some future time-point T+N, by which time, it is outdated and has been overtaken by the every shifting sands of reality.

So what is an architect to do if this is the case? I have come to the conclusion that it is very very important to be careful to label anything as an immutable truth in an architecture. All nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. that sound to you like that are “facts” of the real world, will, at some point bend under the weight of constant change and necessarily incomplete empirical knowledge.

The smaller the set of things you consider immutable facts, the more flexible your architecture will be. By all means, layer abstractions on top of this core layer. By all means add Turing Completeness into the behavioral side of the model. But treat all of these higher layers as fluid. It is not that they might need to change it is that they will need to change. It is just a question of time.

Finally, there are occasions where the set of core facts in your model is the empty set! Better to work with this reality than fight against it because entropy is the one immutable fact you can absolutely rely on. Possibly the only thing you can have an the core of your architecture and not worry about it being invalidated by the arrival of new knowledge or the passage of time.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Thinking about Software Architecture & Design : Part 11

It is said that there are really only seven basic storylines and that all stories can either fit inside them or be decomposed into some combination of the basic seven. There is the rags-to-riches story. The voyage and return story. The overcoming the monster story...and so on.

I suspect that something similar applies to Software Architecture & Design. When I was a much younger practitioner in this field, I remember a very active field with new methodologies/paradigms coming along on a regular basis. Thinkers such as Yourdon, de Marco, Jackson, Booch, Hoare, Dijkstra, Hohpe distilled the essence of most of the core architecture patterns we know of today.

In more recent years, attention appears to have moved away from the discovery/creation of new architecture patterns and architecture methodologies towards concerns closer to the construction aspects of software. There is an increasing emphasis on two way flows in the creation of architectures– or perhaps circular flows would be a better description. i.e. iterating backwards from, for example user stories, to the abstractions required to support the user stories. Then perhaps a forward iteration refactoring the abstractions to get coverage of the required user stories with less “moving parts” as discussed before.

There has also been a marked trend towards embracing the volatility of the IT landscape in the form of proceeding to software build phases with “good enough” architectures and the conscious decision to factor-in the possibility of needing complete architecture re-writes in ever short time spans.

I suspect this is an area where real world physical architecture and software architecture fundamentally differ and the analogy breaks down. In the physical world, once the location of the highway is laid down and construction begins, a cascade of difficult-to-reverse events starts to occur in parallel with the construction of the highway. Housing estates and commercial areas pop up close to the highway. Urban infrastructure plans – perhaps looking decades into the future – are created predicated on the route of the highway and so on.

In software, there are often similar amount of knock-on effects to architecture changes but when these items are themselves primarily software, rearranging everything based on a architecture is more manageable. Still likely a significant challenge, but more doable because software is, well “softer” than real world concrete, bricks and mortar.

My overall sense of where software architecture is today is that it revolves around the question : “how can we make it easier to fundamentally change the architecture in the future?” The fierce competitive landscape for software has combined with cloud computing to fuel this burning question.

Creating software solutions with very short (i.e. weeks) time horizons before they change again is now possible and increasingly commonplace. The concept of version number is becoming obsolete. Today's software solution may or may not be the same as the one you interacted with yesterday and it may, in fact, be based on an utterly different architecture under the hood than it was yesterday. Modern communications infrastructure, OS/device app stores, auto-updating applications, thin clients...all combine to create a very fluid environment for modern day software architectures to work in.

Are there new software patterns still emerging since the days of data flow and ER diagrams and OOAD? Are we just re-combining the seven basic architectures in a new meta-architecture which is concerned with architecture change rather than architecture itself? Sometimes I think so.

I also find myself wondering where we go next if that is the case. I can see one possible end point for this. An end-point which I find tantalizing and surprising in equal measure. My training in software architecture – the formal parts and the decades of informal training since then – have been based on the idea that the fundamental job of the software architect is to create a digital model – a white box – of some part of the real world, such that the model meets a set of expectations in terms of its interaction with its users (which may, be other digital models).

In modern day computing, this idea of the white box has an emerging alternative which I think of as the black box. If a machine could somehow be instructed to create the model that goes inside the box – based purely on an expression of its required interactions with the rest of the world – then you basically have the only architecture you will ever need for creating what goes into these boxes. The architecture that makes all the other architectures unnecessary if you like.

How could such a thing be constructed? A machine learning approach, based on lots and lots of input/output data? A quantum computing approach which tries an infinity of possible Turing machine configurations, all in parallel? Even if this is not possible today, could it be possible in the near future? Would the fact that boxes constructed this way would be necessarily black – beyond human comprehension at the control flow level – be a problem? Would the fact that we can never formally prove the behavior of the box be a problem? Perhaps not as much as might be initially thought, given the known limitations of formal proof methods for traditionally constructed systems. After all, we cannot even tell if a process will halt, regardless of how much access we have to its internal logic. Also, society seems to be in the process of inuring itself to the unexplainability of machine learning – that genie is already out of the bottle. I have written elsewhere (in the "what is law?" series - that we have the same “black box” problem with human decision making anyway).

To get to such a world, we would need much better mechanism for formal specification. Perhaps the next generation of software architects will be focused on patterns for expressing the desired behavior of the box, not models for how the behavior itself can be achieved. A very knotty problem indeed but, if it can be achieved, radical re-arrangements of systems in the future could start and effective stop with updating the black box specification with no traditional analysis/design/ construct/test/deploy cycle at all.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Thinking about Software Architecture & Design : Part 10

Once the nouns and verbs I need in my architecture start to solidify, I look at organizing them across multiple dimensions. I tend to think of the noun/verb organization exercise in the physical terms of surface area and moving parts. By "surface area" I mean minimizing the sheer size of the model. I freely admin that page count is a crude-sounding measure for a software architecture, but I have found over the years that the total size of the document required to adequately explain the architecture is an excellent proxy for its total cost of ownership.

It is vital, for a good representation of a software architecture, that both the data side and the computation side are covered. I have seen many architectures where the data side is covered well but the computation side has many gaps. This is the infamous “and then magic happens” part of the software architecture world. It is most commonly seen when there is too much use of convenient real world analogies. i.e. thematic modules that just snap together like jigsaw/lego pieces, data layers that sit perfectly on top of each other like layers of a cake, objects that nest perfectly inside other objects like Russian Dolls etc.

When I have a document that I feel adequately reflects both the noun and the verb side of the architecture, I employ a variety of techniques to minimize its overall size. On the noun side, I can create type hierarchies to explore how nouns can be considered special cases of other nouns. I can create relational de-compositions to explore how partial nouns can be shared by other nouns. I will typically “jump levels” when I am doing this. i.e. I will switch between thinking of the nouns in purely abstract terms (“what is a widget really” to thinking about them in physical terms: “how best to create/read/update/delete widgets?”). I think of it as working downwards towards implementation an upwards towards abstraction at the same time. It is head hurting at times, but in my experience produces better practical results that the simpler step-wise refinement approach of moving incrementally downwards from abstraction to concrete implementation.

On the verb side, I tend to focus on the classic engineering concept of "moving parts". Just as in the physical world, it has been my experience that the smaller the number of independent moving parts in an architecture, the better. Giving a lot of thought to opportunities to reduce the total number of verbs required pays handsome dividends. I think of it in terms of combinatorics. What are the fundamental operators I need from which, all the other operators can be created by combinations of the fundamental operators? Getting to this set of fundamental operators is almost like finding the architecture inside the architecture.

I also think of verbs in terms of complexity generators. Here I am using the word “complexity” in the mathematical sense. Complexity is not a fundamentally bad thing! I would argue that all system behavior has a certain amount of complexity. The trick with complexity is to find ways to create the amount required but in a way that allows you to be in control of it. The compounding of verbs is the workhorse for complexity generation. I think of data as a resource that undergoes transformation over time. Most computation – even the simplest assignment of the value Y to be the value Y + 1 has an implicit time dimension. Assuming Y is a value that lives over a long period of time – i.e. is persisted in some storage system – then Y today is just the compounded result of the verbs applied to it from its date of creation.

There are two main things I watch for as I am looking into my verbs and how to compound them and apply them to my nouns. The first is to always include the ability to create an ad-hoc verb “by hand”. By which I mean, always having the ability to edit the data in nouns using purely interactive means. This is especially important in systems where down-time for the creation of new algorithmic verbs is not an option.

The second is watching out for feedback/recursion in verbs. Nothing generates complexity faster than feedback/recursion and when it is it used, it must be used with great care. I have a poster on my wall of a fractal with its simple mathematical formula written underneath it. It is incredible that such bottomless complexity can be derived from such a harmless looking feedback loop. Using it wisely can produce architectures capable of highly complex behaviors but with small surface areas and few moving parts. Used unwisely.....