Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Death by Flexibility

I remember a project where engineers were using CORBA as their favourite middleware solution. Those of you familiar with CORBA know that as in most other middleware solutions, CORBA provides generic data types such as (Dyn)Any (may dynamically represent any other data type) and unions (a set of alternative data types). Engineers in that particular project found these generic data types very useful. When they faced the problem of implementing a tree structure which should then be transmitted over the network, they came up with a solution that relied on any and unions. Once finished, performance behavior was incredibly bad. It turned out that the middleware must at run-time interpret and (de)marshal tree structures that consist of unions and anys. While being very flexible, the solution was useless due to performance penalties. In another project we saw engineers implementing a mediator component as the central part of their architecture. Every other subsystem depended on that mediator in the middle. Thus, the mediator became the centre of this application's universe. After a (short) while, design erosion started to badly impact the architecture. What the designers intended to create was a flexible solution, but what they got was a maintenance nightmare. Other projects often get addicted to the strategy symptom. Every functionality is hidden behind a strategy implementation. In a large system this flexible solution leads to a configuration problem as, after all, someone needs to configure all strategies during start-up time. Using strategies everywhere, basically means "I don't know now what kind of implementation should be used here. Thus, I leave that decision open for later generations of developers". But how should they know? Using a centralized or decentralized approach for finding peers is also a flexibility issue. A dynamic lookup-approach such as available in Jini or Peer-to-Peer solutions offers high flexibility, but also more network load at the same time.
So, what can we learn from such experiences? Over-flexibility is doomed to fail. For instance, in the first example with all the any and union types, it is much smarter to either use CORBA value types or a concrete constructed type that the middleware does not need to parse at run-time. In the "overuse of strategies" example, solutions would be to open only those places of the architecture for extension or change where it is really required (Open/Close principle). Overuse of strategies is often a sign for missing requirements, experience or knowledge. In the god-like mediator example, it seems as if the developers have forgotten to perform a use case / scenario analysis. By considering the relevant main workflows, the architecture dependencies often show up very soon. For places where workflows need to be flexible use solutions such as rules engines, observers, and/or dependency injection.
What we also see is that performance and flexibility are difficult to achieve at the same time. Very flexible solutions, often lead to performance penalties. Very performant solutions often get their performance boosts from directly accessing critical hardware and software layers which doesn't leave much space for flexibility.
However, don't take this as a general rule. For example, the BEA JRocket Java VM increases performance by flexibility. At start-up time, the VM detects what kind of environment it is running on and then automatically adapts its configuration accordingly such as choice of multithreading strategy or cache sizes. In other words, flexible patterns for resource management are very valuable, especially when adapted to their runtime environment as start-up or maintenance time.
To sum up, my main recommendation shortened to one single sentence is: Be as concrete as possible and as flexible as really necessary.


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