Click here to close now.


Java IoT Authors: Gary Kaiser, Elizabeth White, Chris Fleck, Yakov Fain, Liz McMillan

Related Topics: Java IoT

Java IoT: Article

The Perils of Abstraction

The Perils of Abstraction

Abstraction, as defined on, 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 ( 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 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

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.

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
WebRTC: together these advances have created a perfect storm of technologies that are disrupting and transforming classic communications models and ecosystems. In his session at WebRTC Summit, Cary Bran, VP of Innovation and New Ventures at Plantronics and PLT Labs, will provide an overview of this technological shift, including associated business and consumer communications impacts, and opportunities it may enable, complement or entirely transform.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dyn, the worldwide leader in Internet Performance, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Dyn is a cloud-based Internet Performance company. Dyn helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Through a world-class network and unrivaled, objective intelligence into Internet conditions, Dyn ensures traffic gets delivered faster, safer, and more reliably than ever.
WebRTC services have already permeated corporate communications in the form of videoconferencing solutions. However, WebRTC has the potential of going beyond and catalyzing a new class of services providing more than calls with capabilities such as mass-scale real-time media broadcasting, enriched and augmented video, person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communications. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Luis Lopez, CEO of Kurento, will introduce the technologies required for implementing these ideas and some early experiments performed in the Kurento open source software community in areas ...
Too often with compelling new technologies market participants become overly enamored with that attractiveness of the technology and neglect underlying business drivers. This tendency, what some call the “newest shiny object syndrome,” is understandable given that virtually all of us are heavily engaged in technology. But it is also mistaken. Without concrete business cases driving its deployment, IoT, like many other technologies before it, will fade into obscurity.
Today air travel is a minefield of delays, hassles and customer disappointment. Airlines struggle to revitalize the experience. GE and M2Mi will demonstrate practical examples of how IoT solutions are helping airlines bring back personalization, reduce trip time and improve reliability. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Shyam Varan Nath, Principal Architect with GE, and Dr. Sarah Cooper, M2Mi's VP Business Development and Engineering, will explore the IoT cloud-based platform technologies driving this change including privacy controls, data transparency and integration of real time context w...
Who are you? How do you introduce yourself? Do you use a name, or do you greet a friend by the last four digits of his social security number? Assuming you don’t, why are we content to associate our identity with 10 random digits assigned by our phone company? Identity is an issue that affects everyone, but as individuals we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Ben Klang, Founder & President of Mojo Lingo, will discuss the impact of technology on identity. Should we federate, or not? How should identity be secured? Who owns the identity? How is identity ...
The IoT market is on track to hit $7.1 trillion in 2020. The reality is that only a handful of companies are ready for this massive demand. There are a lot of barriers, paint points, traps, and hidden roadblocks. How can we deal with these issues and challenges? The paradigm has changed. Old-style ad-hoc trial-and-error ways will certainly lead you to the dead end. What is mandatory is an overarching and adaptive approach to effectively handle the rapid changes and exponential growth.
The buzz continues for cloud, data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) and their collective impact across all industries. But a new conversation is emerging - how do companies use industry disruption and technology enablers to lead in markets undergoing change, uncertainty and ambiguity? Organizations of all sizes need to evolve and transform, often under massive pressure, as industry lines blur and merge and traditional business models are assaulted and turned upside down. In this new data-driven world, marketplaces reign supreme while interoperability, APIs and applications deliver un...
Electric power utilities face relentless pressure on their financial performance, and reducing distribution grid losses is one of the last untapped opportunities to meet their business goals. Combining IoT-enabled sensors and cloud-based data analytics, utilities now are able to find, quantify and reduce losses faster – and with a smaller IT footprint. Solutions exist using Internet-enabled sensors deployed temporarily at strategic locations within the distribution grid to measure actual line loads.
The Internet of Everything is re-shaping technology trends–moving away from “request/response” architecture to an “always-on” Streaming Web where data is in constant motion and secure, reliable communication is an absolute necessity. As more and more THINGS go online, the challenges that developers will need to address will only increase exponentially. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Todd Greene, Founder & CEO of PubNub, will explore the current state of IoT connectivity and review key trends and technology requirements that will drive the Internet of Things from hype to reality.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing rapidly by extending current technologies, products and networks. By 2020, Cisco estimates there will be 50 billion connected devices. Gartner has forecast revenues of over $300 billion, just to IoT suppliers. Now is the time to figure out how you’ll make money – not just create innovative products. With hundreds of new products and companies jumping into the IoT fray every month, there’s no shortage of innovation. Despite this, McKinsey/VisionMobile data shows "less than 10 percent of IoT developers are making enough to support a reasonably sized team....
You have your devices and your data, but what about the rest of your Internet of Things story? Two popular classes of technologies that nicely handle the Big Data analytics for Internet of Things are Apache Hadoop and NoSQL. Hadoop is designed for parallelizing analytical work across many servers and is ideal for the massive data volumes you create with IoT devices. NoSQL databases such as Apache HBase are ideal for storing and retrieving IoT data as “time series data.”
Today’s connected world is moving from devices towards things, what this means is that by using increasingly low cost sensors embedded in devices we can create many new use cases. These span across use cases in cities, vehicles, home, offices, factories, retail environments, worksites, health, logistics, and health. These use cases rely on ubiquitous connectivity and generate massive amounts of data at scale. These technologies enable new business opportunities, ways to optimize and automate, along with new ways to engage with users.
The IoT is upon us, but today’s databases, built on 30-year-old math, require multiple platforms to create a single solution. Data demands of the IoT require Big Data systems that can handle ingest, transactions and analytics concurrently adapting to varied situations as they occur, with speed at scale. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chad Jones, chief strategy officer at Deep Information Sciences, will look differently at IoT data so enterprises can fully leverage their IoT potential. He’ll share tips on how to speed up business initiatives, harness Big Data and remain one step ahead by apply...
There will be 20 billion IoT devices connected to the Internet soon. What if we could control these devices with our voice, mind, or gestures? What if we could teach these devices how to talk to each other? What if these devices could learn how to interact with us (and each other) to make our lives better? What if Jarvis was real? How can I gain these super powers? In his session at 17th Cloud Expo, Chris Matthieu, co-founder and CTO of Octoblu, will show you!
As a company adopts a DevOps approach to software development, what are key things that both the Dev and Ops side of the business must keep in mind to ensure effective continuous delivery? In his session at DevOps Summit, Mark Hydar, Head of DevOps, Ericsson TV Platforms, will share best practices and provide helpful tips for Ops teams to adopt an open line of communication with the development side of the house to ensure success between the two sides.
SYS-CON Events announced today that ProfitBricks, the provider of painless cloud infrastructure, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. ProfitBricks is the IaaS provider that offers a painless cloud experience for all IT users, with no learning curve. ProfitBricks boasts flexible cloud servers and networking, an integrated Data Center Designer tool for visual control over the cloud and the best price/performance value available. ProfitBricks was named one of the coolest Clo...
SYS-CON Events announced today that IBM Cloud Data Services has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 17th Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. IBM Cloud Data Services offers a portfolio of integrated, best-of-breed cloud data services for developers focused on mobile computing and analytics use cases.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Sandy Carter, IBM General Manager Cloud Ecosystem and Developers, and a Social Business Evangelist, will keynote at the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Developing software for the Internet of Things (IoT) comes with its own set of challenges. Security, privacy, and unified standards are a few key issues. In addition, each IoT product is comprised of at least three separate application components: the software embedded in the device, the backend big-data service, and the mobile application for the end user's controls. Each component is developed by a different team, using different technologies and practices, and deployed to a different stack/target - this makes the integration of these separate pipelines and the coordination of software upd...