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

Friday, October 03, 2008

Trends in Software Engineering

It has been a pretty long time since my last posting. Unfortunately, I was very busy this summer due to some projects I am involved in. In addition, I enjoyed some of my hobbies such as biking, running and digital photography. For my work-life balance it is essential to have some periods in the year where I am totally disconnected from IT stuff. But now it is time for some new adventures in software architecture.

Next week I am invited to give a talk on new trends in software engineering. While a few people think, there is not more to discover and invent in software engineering, the truth is that we are still representatives of a somehow immature discipline. Why else are so many software projects causing trouble? I won't compare our discipline with other ones such as building construction  because I don't like comparing apples with oranges. For example, it is very unlikely that a few days before your new house is built, you're asking the engineer to move a room from the ground floor to the first floor. Unfortunately, those things actually happen in software engineering on a regular basis.

A few years ago I wrote an article for a wide spread  german IT magazine on exactly the same issue. I built my thoughts around the story of a future IT expert traveling back with a time machine to our century. When he materializes, a large stack of magazines falls on his head - unintentionally - and he cannot remember anything but his IT knowledge. How would such a person evaluate the current state of affairs in software engineering?  Do you think, Mr. Spock from spaceship Enterprise will use pair programming or AOP? Wouldn't look very cool in a SciFi series, would it?

To understand what software engineering is heading for in the future, it is helpful to understand that all revolutions always are rooted in continuous evolution. At one point in time, existing technology  cannot scale anymore with some new requirements which forces researchers to come up with new ideas. Mind also the competition challenge. The first one to address new requirements may be the market leader. Learning from failure is an important aspect in this context. So, what is currently missing or failing in software engineering? Where do we need some productivity boosts? An example for such new requirements might be new kinds of hardware or software. Take Multi Core CPUs as an example. How can we efficiently leverage these CPUs with new paradigms for parallel programming.

As another example I consider the creation of software architecture. In contrast to many assumptions, most projects develop their software architecture still in an ad-hoc manner. We need well educated and experienced software architects  as well as systematic approaches to address this problem of ad-hoc development. Especially, the agility issue is challenging. Software engineers need embracing change in order to survive. Architecture refactoring is a promising technology in this area, among many others, of course.

Another way of boosting productivity is to prevent unnecessary work. Here, product line engineering and model-based software development are safe bets. If the complexity of problem domains grow we cannot handle the increased complexity with our old tool set, We need better abstractions such as DSLs. And I simply cannot believe for the same reason that in a world with an increasing amount of problem domains, general purpose languages are the right solution. Wouldn't this be another instance of the hammer-nail syndrome? Believe me, dynamic and functional languages will have increasing impact. 

In a world where connectivity is the rule, integration problems are inevitable. In this context, SOA comes immediately to my mind. With SOA I refer to an architecture concept, not to today's technology which I still consider immature. New, better SOA concepts are likely to appear in the future. SOA will evolve such as CORBA and all other predecessors did. Forget all the current ESB crap which already promises to cure all world problems.

There is a lot more which will influence emerging software engineering concepts. Think of grids, clouds, virtualization, decentralized computing! Look at CMU SEI's document on Ultra-Large Scale Systems Linda Northrop was in charge of. You'll find there sufficient research topics we have to solve before ULS will be available.

For us software engineers the good news is that we are living in an exciting  (although challenging) period of time.


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