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

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hammer and Nail

It is probably human that people always try the same solutions and tools they have previously used, even in situations when this is not suitable. This often leads to the Hammer and Nail syndrom: Do you want to put a painting on the wall? Take a hammer and a nail. Do you want to connect two pieces with each other? Take the hammer and the nail. While this approach makes you look incredibly stupid in real life, it is often applied in software engineering. That's the reason why some projects are doomed to fail. Still not convinced? Make the following experiment: Go to a team of architects and developers who have used CORBA and C++ in all their previous projects. Tell them about a new project where a distributed system needs to be built. Guess, what technologies they will recommend? I was often involved in projects where I have heard that technology X will be a must. The responsible members didn't even know what the problem was they were going to solve but were sure that a specific technology should be part of the solution. That's exactly what I mean by Hammer and Nail syndrome in software engineering. Another example are those distributed systems where people were using synchronous RPC style communication even for event-based asynchronous applications such as network management or control systems. Here, synchronous RPCs are the last thing you should use. Note that these issues are not always obvious. For instance, James Gosling never stopped telling me that 90% of all enterprise Java projects used EJB even if there was no need for a component container. While having said all this, I must mention that the other extreme is the best-of-breed syndrome. People are dividing their problem space in a large number of sub-problems and chose for each sub-problem the best technology or tool available. This approach may lead to a nightmare as no one ever will be able to handle dozens of different tools and technologies, especially when it is difficult to combine them. Sometimes, it is better to resort to sub-optimal solutions instead, thus minimizing the number of technologies and tools.What I often do as a consultant when asked what technology to use: I will ask the stakeholders about a list of detailed and prioritized requirements. Then I will ask independent technology experts how they believe their favourite technolgy or tools is able to meet these requirements and also ask them to do the same for other technology options (as a crosscheck). Of course, detailed study of reports and articles is another possibility. Mostly, this decision matrix shows very clearly a technology that fits best to the problem context. If multiple options fit, I will ask management to make a decision (never let them you decide as a consultant because this will be like shooting in your own foot, anyway). If there are related problems and decisions to be made, build groups of solutions.Of course, the Hammer and Nail syndrome is not only about tools and technologies but also about software architecture. People tend to apply the same architectural principles again and again even if they are not suitable. Look at all these architectures where you'll find an observer or strategy almost everywhere. If architects or engineers detect a new toy, they want to play with it all the time. This problem can only be addressed by code and design reviews (or by pair-programming). If you face such a problem, tell the engineers exactly why using that kind of pattern or architectural solution isn't smart in that particulart context. For instance, the observer pattern makes no sense if there is a bi-directional 1:1 dependency between two components.The problem is that everyone of us (me too) may fall addicted to the Hammer and Nail syndrome from time to time. I often found that in some cases I had to come up with a quick solution so I used what I already knew. That is human, but limits creativity. Creativity also means to find new, innovative solutions instead of trying to apply the same old solutions again and again.


  • Interesting posting. I agree with you. I think it is hard to convince people that there is more than "Hammer and Nail" - especially if "famous" people do it "that way".

    In my blog I am also dealing with software architecture and thoughts not belonging to the "main stream" -- I will place a link to this blog entry -- I hope you are not displeased about that :) [http:\\smartarchitecture.wordpress.com].


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:16 PM  

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