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

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Silver Bullet

As I just read in a comment about silver bullets, I couldn't resist to address this topic :-)
Frederick F. Brooks brought up the concept of silver bullets. Of course, Frederick was not refering to some weird persons who are turning into computer geeks during full moon and can only be stopped using these nice little silver bullets. Instead, he claimed that there never ever will be any software technology that can boost software development productivity by a factor of 10 or more. So far, he has been right. Object-Orientation? Really productivity-boosting, but not to an order of magnitude. Models? Nice try, but someone has to build the model and the generator.
But won't there be any technology in the future that can refute this thesis? Suppose, an alien lifeform with incredible technology is visiting planet earth. How would they design software systems? Do we really believe, they would leave their giant space ship with a notebook, start modeling their systems with a kind of UML tool, and program in Java?
Thus, could the Silver Bullet be a universal law, or just a kind of constraint only humans are facing due to their limited capabilities?
Frederick F. Brooks also brought up the concept of accidental versus inherent complexity. Basically, each problem has an inherent complexity. You can't specify a a linear algorithm for the general sorting problem. Forget it, there is really no way! But we ourselves are causing a lot of problems by accidental complexity. Using an array for storing a sparsely populated 1000x1000 matrix isn't a very smart approach, right?
No technology can get rid of inherent complexity, but it could hide this kind of complexity from the user. Hiding complexity is one way to increase productivity - just make it a SEP (Somebody Else's Problem). Helping to address accidental complexity is another. Consequently, the best productivity boost results from combining both.
According to philosopher Thomas Kuhn, evolution of technologies is more a linear process. A technology can only scale upon specific limits. If it reaches the limits, workarounds will help postponing the necessity for a new approach. But at some point in time, a completely new and revolutionary approach will appear (such as switching from structured programming to OOP) and the same kind of technology cycle will restart. It is a kind of spiral model if you will.
The only point where we could observe productivity boosts are the technology revolution events. However, new technology revolutions are mostly rooted in existing technologies. Thus, an immediate productivity gain is simply not possible.
But as a thought experiment: if you just compared the way of approaching software development challenges now and 40 years ago, you could recognize a tremendous increase of effectiveness. There is a long way from software engineering in the sixties to that of today. No person could have skipped all the intermediate results and challenges.
Thus, if an alien race would land on earth, it appears very likely they could introduce us to new ways of building software systems that offers magnitude of productivity increase.
Conclusion: Silver bullets are theoretical beasts only existing in the Star Trek Universe. As pragmatic architects we must leverage the tools and technologies existing today. And we shouldn't believe all those technology panaceas vendors and market analysts are constantly promoting such as SOA, SaaS, you name it.


  • :-) You are a quick writer... I agree with you here as well. To paraphrase your most important point (imho): Business problems inherit a certain degree of business complexity. We can invent technologies to deal with this complexity. However technology tools are best in solving technology problems. Transforming business problems to machine-solvable (technology) problems is the hard part.

    For me as a graduating student this is nice to believe as it suggests that my skills will be needed for a long time. Great tools (like OOP) will emerge for better understanding the transformation of business problems to program code but in the end there will be humans involved in some part of the process.

    By Blogger valentin, at 12:09 PM  

  • Hey,

    I just stumbled accross a bold microsoft statement I wanted to share with you:

    The goal of "Oslo" is to provide a 10x productivity gain by making model-driven applications mainstream with domain-specific models, a new language, and tools.


    I'm not buying it :-)

    By Blogger valentin, at 11:16 AM  

  • SOA is still evolving as I see it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:16 PM  

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