Friday, 31 August 2012

Hoping to bring order and structure to the Bazaar

The Design of Design is one of my favorite books. In "A Generation Lost in the Bazaar" Poul-Henning Kamp is stating "It is a sad irony, indeed, that those who most need to read it may find The Design of Design entirely incomprehensible", where "those" refers to programmers who have "never seen a cathedral" (as in a beautiful architecture). His example of a cathedral is (the original idea of) Unix, whereas BSD is the bazaar.

Needless to say I don't fully agree with the idea of the perfect upfront design for systems of a certain size. But that's not important. Funnily I might be considered one of "those" - yet I like The Design of Design specificly because it talks about building a house and thinking about it iteratively. Furthermore, I am not a big fan of the building architecture metaphor. I don't think a black and white thinking is helpful, most cathedrals might turn out as a tower of Babel and others, like Unix, might be a pretty small shrine with 4200 LoC.

Poul-Henning claims "quality happens only if somebody has the responsibility for it" which is apparently based on a quote from the book "the boldest design decisions, whoever made them, have accounted for much of the goodness of the outcome". The question whether democracy/crowd/agile is better suited for certain problems than aristocracy/delphi-method/waterfall will never be solved, there is no true or false in this question. I guess I can agree with Poul-Henning on the responsibility as much as I can agree with Brooks on iterative design and still consider cathedrals harmful. The discussion always reminds me of the "first follower" meme - the key is not to have a central instance sanctioning "old festering hacks" (one comment to the post stated Linux as an example for that - very well done), the key is to avoid these hacks before they happen by allowing communication and embracing change.

My point is: Who said someone needs to be responsible for the whole system? With modern programming techniques programmers can be responsible for smaller parts and bring beauty to them. With modern collaboration techniques we can share thoughts about others' architectures and avoid a mix of, say, Perl and Python. In fact, almost all cathedrals of the middle ages were built iteratively (and even some modern ones). Sometimes visionary architects come up with something like Sydney Opera House and someone else finishes it. Ideas make leaders, not prohibition.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

On civil engineering

Jonathan pointed me to Nick's excellent post why the analogy between civil enginneering and enterprise architecture is flawed.

It's just that I don't agree with his conclusion that "civil engineering, in practice, has not made the leap to layered cities", which implies that layered cities are desirable. The metabolists had them, Archigram experimented with them (The Plugin City), most imporantly Yona Friedman. They were not implemented because of cost (see Dubai) or because they were to complicated (see Beijing), they were not implemented because they would require either a common agreement on planning and design, or alternatively a single building pattern. Both are almost impossible to reach in a free world, where the market decides and risk control is a central element of planning. Betch Andres-Beck (another Theater student, quoted by Kent Beck) points out "It's extremely difficual to reverse progress in the construction world [...] asymetry of costs shapes the activities". In a cost-driven world, risk is key. In civil engineering this means decisions are literally fixed as the risk is on CAPEX - in software enginneering this means adaptability as the risk is on OPEX.

Geoff says it better than I could in his take on Archigram:
Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don't like the world you've been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Structures can become shackles

Das Magazin featured some interviews about time. In one, a director said "The Joker is like Spinoza".

For me, Batman always was about Existentialism vs. Nihilism, basically a fight between brothers. (Mabye my visual preference tends to see everything as origami cosmos) Seeing it as an example of Relativism vs. Universalism or even Rationalism vs. Absolutism provokes interesting thoughts about evolution of systems and how (business, moral, status) values influence their development.

"Structures can become shackles" is a key quote of the movie as Philosofreaky points out. Gotham is a allegory for a system which can never be right. The paradox which the Joker poses on Batman is, that it's not actually peace what people want, it's being left alone. Batman can fight the Joker, but he can never fight the anarchy, with every hit against the Joker he is proving him right. Batman's solution is to keep Gotham oscillating between tradeoffs. As usual, 3quarsdaily features an excellent essay by Ajay Chaudhary about these tradeoffs, posing the central question:

Can a legal order exist without sovereign authority?

Here we are at emergence.

I don't agree with the articles conclusion that The Dark Knight Rises poses fascism as solution to interpassivity and we "dream in fascism". We might sometimes dream in the aesthetics of fascism, in Beijing-Olympics style human patterns, and we might sometimes wish for a strong sovereign, but we certainly never wish to have no choice. As stated before, choice architecture can only work in a system that you control. In a global world, I believe there is no such absolutely controllable system. The Joker is just proving that all a mass needs to be uncontrollable is a little spin. The danger is not the Joker, it's the mass. In the context of this blog this means I do not agree that a software architect will always lead a system in a better direction, nor that patterns, nudge and control will cause a system to comply. Dogma is never good, may it be in the name of Science, Macciavellism or Beauty. All of them are usual tools but only if the dynamics of the systems lead to emergent compliance.

So - is the only solution pure anarchy? Can we argue it's only purely rational if we develop systems like the Joker (or V as Anonymous symbol) would do?

There is a major difference between "just human" systems and engineered/architected systems like the ones we work with: If we want or not, they will always be engineered, designed, architected. But, as these systems evolve much quicker than real-world ones, we learn faster: "we know we can break things, but how can we make things better?". Modern systems learn so quick, they don't have to be anarchist or fascist, they can be libertarian. These systems don't need a Cesar where developers hide under a "ruthless and possibly insane warlord", they can embrace democracy, they can adapt to new truths especially because they are engineered by the means of adaption. Like a fire brigade the can form a team under a leader if the risk is high and visible, and form a swarm if it's more important to identify risk by covering the greatest possible horizon. We don't need a Batman because there is no Joker.

Monday, 13 August 2012

A New System of the World for IT

As usual, Todd Hoff nails it, although I don't share his views on PaaS and "open" source completely:

An interesting architecture evolution we are seeing in the cloud is how systems continually reorganize themselves to give components better access to information flows. This allows services to be isolated yet still have access to all the information they need to carry out their specialized function. Before firehose style architectures the easiest path was to create monolithic applications because information was accessible only in one place. Now that information can flow freely and reliably between services, much more sophisticated architectures are possible.
He also talks about Cell Architectures, shame he doesn't link the two, like Meta-Agents.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Rhizomic Timeline

Tumble Tree is the most needed browser plugin ever. Since ages I am looking of a way a browser should me a cross-tab/cross-window long-term history. Imagine this would work for your systems architecture, with all the interfaces and processes. How they emerge, how they fade, how they converge, the whole rhizome - ideally with a time shift feature so you can also plan ahead.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

An architecture can emerge.

Recently I had the joy of stumbling over an interesting discussion regarding architectural emergence. It started with a blog post by Igor. A nice and intriguing read that's basically saying that, although every system has an architecture and therefore emerging architectures are possible, they will be of limited complexity due to lack of evolutionary fitness. I like the idea of evolution and that Igor admits emergent architectures are possible. The original post lists a main key constraint to the quality of emergent architectures, though: „Developers do not anticipate upcoming requirements“. Furthermore, it is stated that “natural selection doesn’t think at all”.
Coming from this “reset to zero” (with local changes) idea the author argues that emergent architectures tend to be in higher technical debt than designed ones. Technical debt is not inherently a problem but can influence the system adaptability negatively in a way that it limits possible complexity.

I tend to disagree.

Firstly, I believe there is no lack of vision within development teams. Usually developers know what kind of product (from a high level perspective) is expected as a “goal”.
Secondly, I do not think that evolution is purely random, this argument would leave out evolutionary processes such as co-operative behavior and parent–offspring communication.  In fact, the fittest species are the ones who communicate most efficiently (Hi internet!). Hence I think that, though technical debt might be temporarily higher, communication will usually lead to quick changes. Nowadays we have the possibility to change technology layers or tiers by the means of refactoring and abstraction. In the EJB example of the original post, I don’t see why an upfront design decision to use EJB 2.1 with a change request to EJB 3 would be different from the team realizing that EJB 3 is the way to go and incrementally changing implementation (e.g. by assigning a team to refactoring). The more changes, the more YAGNI.

To some extent, these issues have been addressed by Alex. He is adding Dual Inheritance (Alex knows the terminology much better so forgive me any formal mistakes, please) theory to the formula, adding a bit of pessimism towards the outcome of the mentioned communication. In real life, debt would most likely not be detected and eliminated; it would be covered and not even sanctioned. This is a pretty good point, yet for some reason Alex limits it to myopic agile processes, which weakens it a bit.

Nevertheless, I still disagree.

Agile itself does not mean iterations are industrial or in any way myopic. The mentioned bias towards success is actually a bias towards “not failing”. Innovation can only take place if graceful failure is embraced and considered success, whereas procrastination is considered true failure. In Agile development, not failing can mean multiple things. In most of the cases, a developer (being an engineer) will realize that a technology might lead to not reaching the Sprint or Product goal and suggest adjustments accordingly. In my experience it’s not the developers being risk-averse but the management who would not accept not meeting milestones even if this would mean a better end product would be shipped.

Agile requires feedback: Between the users, product management, operations (read DevOps), project leads and the development team. This is also discussed by Alex in his following post. I very much agree with Alex that lack of feedback is one of the key reasons projects fail. I do, however, disagree that direct feedback stays myopic and does not change the ecosystem or culture around it (which somehow implies that no feedback is no problem). To stay with the metaphor of Evolution, this would ignore changes during the development of an organism, during childhood or via environmental changes.

My arguably optimistic assumption is that every developer wants to have success and deliver a good product. Given that he or she receives sufficient feedback, the developer will strive towards a “good architecture”. Because they want good feedback, interesting projects, reference letters, svn praise and all that in a flat world. In the democratic process which is happening between the developers, and between the teams (it’s good practice to have multiple teams, rather than having “one development team/stream for each system”), questions will arise and possible problems addressed. If you have, however, one architect or project manager designing and making decisions, he or she might indeed act as Alex pointed out: not acceptingchange eventually leading the project to grief, frustration and death. In the worst case, by turning this into a hindsight bias “problem of the developers” and trying an even tougher policy next time. 

In building architecture, an architect is someone who has an overall idea, mainly communicating, motivating and facilitating process change with the end goal in mind. No architect in the real world will not consider experts and listen to them every single day unless the keys are handed over. The beauty of evolution is that it has found to many ways to overcome its own randomness. As adaptability is actual fitness, evolution has found ways to incorporate feedback probably better than we humans do in everday life. A good architect is a feedback-broker who fosters evolutionary processes. Because he or she knows one day the actual world (as in society change, earthquakes or subprime crisis) will hit him hard.

I believe that software architects are still necessary. Instead of having "master architect" attitude, they should have a very similar role to building architects. Sticking to a major plan in one person’s head with the argument that emergence will lead to worse results is the dark side of choice management; it’s giving up adaptability in favor of predictability of failure. Accepting emergence, though, is the flipside. Channeling ideas coming from emergence into architectural decisions, embracing change coming from democracy within the development team and keeping all options open will eventually lead to even higher adaptability, more complex systems and – just by the way – a better life as evolved human beings.