Welcome!

Java IoT Authors: Roger Strukhoff, Elizabeth White, Christopher Harrold, Ruxit Blog, Craig Lowell

Related Topics: Java IoT

Java IoT: Article

The Perils of Abstraction

The Perils of Abstraction

Abstraction, as defined on dictionary.com, is "considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances." It's a powerful concept that underpins software reuse. When you implement a problem, if, instead of starting from scratch, the scenario can be thought of as being an example of an already-understood question, its solution can benefit from existing implementations.

Abstraction is a powerful concept, but it carries dangers as well. The first is those who become so enamoured with the idea of generality that they design with the goal of re-use and framework construction alone, rather than remaining focused on the concrete problem at hand. The second problem occurs when said folk have their abstract solution complete, they feel compelled to force it on every implementation that comes within range.

In a project I once worked on, a group of eager young business analysts were given the task of designing a new insurance system. The business model behind insurance is pretty simple: the insured party is quoted a policy that involves them paying you a premium in exchange for which you, the insurer, underwrite various circumstances that, should they occur, cause some kind of loss to the insured. The insurer's role is to recompense the insured for their misfortune.

The boffins designing our system decided that this was merely an instance of the more general process of "money exchanging hands for goods and services." After they parked themselves in conference rooms with walls plastered with meaningless diagrams and charts, they emerged having decided that they would design a grand and general-purpose solution for all financial transactions. This "panacea" of theirs would not only handle every possible type of insurance policy known to mankind, but it would be customizable to all other scenarios that involved money changing hands, such as banking, accounting, and electronic point of sale. The end result was a system that, while an award-winning work of art for abstraction and vagueness, failed to do the basics of insurance without having to bump and fight its way through the lower layers, delivering poor performance and a badly fitting user experience.

As the cause of such overzealous design I wonder whether programmers have an atavistic desire to find some kind of ultimate software truth. Much of twentieth-century physics was dedicated to such theorem, consolidating first magnetism and electricity before moving onto gravity. Grand unification attempts occur in other disciplines - mathematicians attempting to reduce all number theory to fundamental and irreducible truths or the biologists' desire to classify living things into taxonomical trees and genus. Do software architects feel compelled to follow this scientific path, looking for shapes in the dark or patterns in the clouds where none exist?

The second danger posed by the uber abstraction crowd is that having designed their perfect solution, they now need to nurture and promote their baby, wielding their shiny hammer at every screw, bolt, or rivet that comes within range.

"Aha, you're building a JMS server. That's just a message protocol; I already have one of those that can handle everything, so all you have to do is adapt to me and write a wrapper to my API."

The problem with this solution is that, as an implementer of the abstract framework, you have to wrestle and bridge the impedance mismatch. Your code is now concerned with how to provide a JMS interface on something that was built and optimized for another kind of message protocol. Through loss of fidelity, the end result looks and behaves like a race horse wearing rollerblades and fed with gasoline. It does the job of moving on four wheels, but clumsily and without the reliability and grace of an internal combustion engine-powered car that the original spec called for. Examples of such applications occur all the time, from those who believe that e-mail is merely a type of document for which all their singing, dancing, jumbo jet document management software can be tweaked to have an inbox and outbox, through the "I love XML" bumper sticker brigade who believe that any kind of data sent over a wire should be a W3C-compliant XML document object model when simple serialization or a basic text message would have sufficed.

For the user of the application, just as the rollerblading horse is likely to neigh from time to time, behavior and functionality from the underlying abstract layers bubble to the surface. Your messaging application throws SAX parser errors at you when things go wrong, or your e-mail product tells you that document variables aren't set correctly. The terminology of the thing the user is concerned about, the message or the e-mail, is lost as one of the layers of abstract framework code that underpins their application rears its ugly head. Joel Spolsky coins this kind of behavior Leaky Abstraction (www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/LeakyAbstractions.html). No matter how much wallpaper or perfume the developer used to massage and beat the abstract framework into shape for your application's implementation, at some point the abstract layers are going to rear their head as the horse needs to poop.

Alongside the opening dictionary.com definition of abstraction, which proclaims the benefits of generality, is an ironically appropriate alternative usage: "an impractical idea; something visionary and unrealistic."

Software should be built with the goal of solving a specific user scenario. In building the solution, you should make the overriding goal high-performance combined with fitness for purpose. By using as few underlying layers as possible, the number of project and physical dependencies should be kept to a minimum. When you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, yet when you're a software developer everything should look like a fresh challenge, not a problem to be short-changed by hacking some other problem's solution to fit.

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

Comments (3) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Steve T 11/06/06 10:44:48 PM EST

Software abstraction, or software frameworks for that matter, does not make an architecture complex. The system or the application that we are building is that which is complex and therefore we need to abstract certain aspects of it in order to minimize, or even at least manage, its complexity. Abstraction keeps the developers zero-in to the business codes rather than concern itself with say audit trail, logging, rendering of pages, handling different protocols, transaction, etc.

A multi-layered architecture is not necessarily cumbersome and slow. On the contrary, if implemented well, it improves the quality, readability and reusability of codes because they isolate system or application processes.

Joe Winchester 10/20/06 09:06:03 AM EDT

Snoobab,
Yup, you're right that fitness for business purpose is the primary concern. The point I was trying to make was that huge and cumbersome abstract frameworks often slow down the application with unnecessary layers. However, the larger category goal that speed and others fall under is one of "fitness for business purpose - does it benefit the user do their job". Things just have to be fast enough to do the job and no more, and there is the other peril developers can fall under which is they optimize it to death at the expense of having a clearly architected system. Thanks for picking me up on the point.
JoeW

snoobab 10/20/06 05:57:27 AM EDT

Umm speed should not be the primary concern, an effective and clear business fulfilling model fit for human developers is though. Code is written to be read by developers and a great simple consistent model that obviosuly fulfills business needs should be the primary goal.

@ThingsExpo Stories
The 19th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Digital Transformation, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportuni...
19th Cloud Expo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy. Meanwhile, 94% of enterpri...
Personalization has long been the holy grail of marketing. Simply stated, communicate the most relevant offer to the right person and you will increase sales. To achieve this, you must understand the individual. Consequently, digital marketers developed many ways to gather and leverage customer information to deliver targeted experiences. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lou Casal, Founder and Principal Consultant at Practicala, discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) has accelerated our abil...
With so much going on in this space you could be forgiven for thinking you were always working with yesterday’s technologies. So much change, so quickly. What do you do if you have to build a solution from the ground up that is expected to live in the field for at least 5-10 years? This is the challenge we faced when we looked to refresh our existing 10-year-old custom hardware stack to measure the fullness of trash cans and compactors.
The emerging Internet of Everything creates tremendous new opportunities for customer engagement and business model innovation. However, enterprises must overcome a number of critical challenges to bring these new solutions to market. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Martin, CTO/CIO at nfrastructure, outlined these key challenges and recommended approaches for overcoming them to achieve speed and agility in the design, development and implementation of Internet of Everything solutions wi...
DevOps at Cloud Expo, taking place Nov 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 19th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to wait for long dev...
Cloud computing is being adopted in one form or another by 94% of enterprises today. Tens of billions of new devices are being connected to The Internet of Things. And Big Data is driving this bus. An exponential increase is expected in the amount of information being processed, managed, analyzed, and acted upon by enterprise IT. This amazing is not part of some distant future - it is happening today. One report shows a 650% increase in enterprise data by 2020. Other estimates are even higher....
I wanted to gather all of my Internet of Things (IOT) blogs into a single blog (that I could later use with my University of San Francisco (USF) Big Data “MBA” course). However as I started to pull these blogs together, I realized that my IOT discussion lacked a vision; it lacked an end point towards which an organization could drive their IOT envisioning, proof of value, app dev, data engineering and data science efforts. And I think that the IOT end point is really quite simple…
Today we can collect lots and lots of performance data. We build beautiful dashboards and even have fancy query languages to access and transform the data. Still performance data is a secret language only a couple of people understand. The more business becomes digital the more stakeholders are interested in this data including how it relates to business. Some of these people have never used a monitoring tool before. They have a question on their mind like “How is my application doing” but no id...
Identity is in everything and customers are looking to their providers to ensure the security of their identities, transactions and data. With the increased reliance on cloud-based services, service providers must build security and trust into their offerings, adding value to customers and improving the user experience. Making identity, security and privacy easy for customers provides a unique advantage over the competition.
Is the ongoing quest for agility in the data center forcing you to evaluate how to be a part of infrastructure automation efforts? As organizations evolve toward bimodal IT operations, they are embracing new service delivery models and leveraging virtualization to increase infrastructure agility. Therefore, the network must evolve in parallel to become equally agile. Read this essential piece of Gartner research for recommendations on achieving greater agility.
Smart Cities are here to stay, but for their promise to be delivered, the data they produce must not be put in new siloes. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mathias Herberts, Co-founder and CTO of Cityzen Data, will deep dive into best practices that will ensure a successful smart city journey.
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 19th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devices - comp...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Venafi, the Immune System for the Internet™ and the leading provider of Next Generation Trust Protection, will exhibit at @DevOpsSummit at 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Venafi is the Immune System for the Internet™ that protects the foundation of all cybersecurity – cryptographic keys and digital certificates – so they can’t be misused by bad guys in attacks...
SYS-CON Events announced today Telecom Reseller has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Telecom Reseller reports on Unified Communications, UCaaS, BPaaS for enterprise and SMBs. They report extensively on both customer premises based solutions such as IP-PBX as well as cloud based and hosted platforms.
For basic one-to-one voice or video calling solutions, WebRTC has proven to be a very powerful technology. Although WebRTC’s core functionality is to provide secure, real-time p2p media streaming, leveraging native platform features and server-side components brings up new communication capabilities for web and native mobile applications, allowing for advanced multi-user use cases such as video broadcasting, conferencing, and media recording.
Data is the fuel that drives the machine learning algorithmic engines and ultimately provides the business value. In his session at Cloud Expo, Ed Featherston, a director and senior enterprise architect at Collaborative Consulting, will discuss the key considerations around quality, volume, timeliness, and pedigree that must be dealt with in order to properly fuel that engine.
Pulzze Systems was happy to participate in such a premier event and thankful to be receiving the winning investment and global network support from G-Startup Worldwide. It is an exciting time for Pulzze to showcase the effectiveness of innovative technologies and enable them to make the world smarter and better. The reputable contest is held to identify promising startups around the globe that are assured to change the world through their innovative products and disruptive technologies. There w...
Akana has announced the availability of version 8 of its API Management solution. The Akana Platform provides an end-to-end API Management solution for designing, implementing, securing, managing, monitoring, and publishing APIs. It is available as a SaaS platform, on-premises, and as a hybrid deployment. Version 8 introduces a lot of new functionality, all aimed at offering customers the richest API Management capabilities in a way that is easier than ever for API and app developers to use.
SYS-CON Events announced today that 910Telecom will exhibit at the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Housed in the classic Denver Gas & Electric Building, 910 15th St., 910Telecom is a carrier-neutral telecom hotel located in the heart of Denver. Adjacent to CenturyLink, AT&T, and Denver Main, 910Telecom offers connectivity to all major carriers, Internet service providers, Internet backbones and ...