Friday, February 26, 2016

Software complexity accelerators

It seems to me that complexity in software development, although terribly hard to measure, has steadily risen from the days of Algol 68 and continues to rise.

In response to the rise, we have developed mechanisms for managing - not removing - managing the complexity.

These management - or perhaps I should say 'containment' mechanisms have an interesting negative externality. If a complexity level of X was hard to contain before, but thanks to paradigm Y is not contained, the immediate side-effect is an increase in the value of X:-)

It reminds me of an analysis I found somewhere about driving speed and seat belts. Apparently, steat belts can have the effect of increasing driving speed. Reason being, we all have a risk level we sub-consciously apply when driving. Putting on a seat belt can make us feel that a higher speed is now possible without increasing our risk level.

So what sort of "seat belts" have we added into software development recently? I think Google Search is a huge one. Rather than reduce the complexity of an application as evidenced by the amount of debugging/head-scratching you need to do, we have accelerated the process of finding fixes online.

Another one is open source. We can now leverage a world-wide hive-mind that collectively "wraps its head around" a code-base so that code-base can become more complex than it could if a finite team work the code-base.

Another one is cloud. Client/Server-style computing models push most of the complexity of management into the server side. Applications that would be incredibly complex to manage in todays diverse OS world if they were thick-clients are easier to manage server-side, thus creating headroom for new complexity which, sure enough gets added to the mix.

Is this phenomenon of complexity acceleration thanks to better and better complexity containment a bad thing?

I honestly don't know.

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