Welcome!

Java IoT Authors: Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, AppDynamics Blog, Tim Hinds, Jayaram Krishnaswamy

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
trust and privacy in their ecosystem. Assurance and protection of device identity, secure data encryption and authentication are the key security challenges organizations are trying to address when integrating IoT devices. This holds true for IoT applications in a wide range of industries, for example, healthcare, consumer devices, and manufacturing. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lancen LaChance, vice president of product management, IoT solutions at GlobalSign, will teach IoT developers how t...
A critical component of any IoT project is the back-end systems that capture data from remote IoT devices and structure it in a way to answer useful questions. Traditional data warehouse and analytical systems are mature technologies that can be used to handle large data sets, but they are not well suited to many IoT-scale products and the need for real-time insights. At Fuze, we have developed a backend platform as part of our mobility-oriented cloud service that uses Big Data-based approache...
We're entering the post-smartphone era, where wearable gadgets from watches and fitness bands to glasses and health aids will power the next technological revolution. With mass adoption of wearable devices comes a new data ecosystem that must be protected. Wearables open new pathways that facilitate the tracking, sharing and storing of consumers’ personal health, location and daily activity data. Consumers have some idea of the data these devices capture, but most don’t realize how revealing and...
When it comes to IoT in the enterprise, namely the commercial building and hospitality markets, a benefit not getting the attention it deserves is energy efficiency, and IoT's direct impact on a cleaner, greener environment when installed in smart buildings. Until now clean technology was offered piecemeal and led with point solutions that require significant systems integration to orchestrate and deploy. There didn't exist a 'top down' approach that can manage and monitor the way a Smart Buildi...
There is an ever-growing explosion of new devices that are connected to the Internet using “cloud” solutions. This rapid growth is creating a massive new demand for efficient access to data. And it’s not just about connecting to that data anymore. This new demand is bringing new issues and challenges and it is important for companies to scale for the coming growth. And with that scaling comes the need for greater security, gathering and data analysis, storage, connectivity and, of course, the...
The IETF draft standard for M2M certificates is a security solution specifically designed for the demanding needs of IoT/M2M applications. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Brian Romansky, VP of Strategic Technology at TrustPoint Innovation, will explain how M2M certificates can efficiently enable confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity on highly constrained devices.
So, you bought into the current machine learning craze and went on to collect millions/billions of records from this promising new data source. Now, what do you do with them? Too often, the abundance of data quickly turns into an abundance of problems. How do you extract that "magic essence" from your data without falling into the common pitfalls? In her session at @ThingsExpo, Natalia Ponomareva, Software Engineer at Google, will provide tips on how to be successful in large scale machine lear...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Peak 10, Inc., a national IT infrastructure and cloud services provider, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Peak 10 provides reliable, tailored data center and network services, cloud and managed services. Its solutions are designed to scale and adapt to customers’ changing business needs, enabling them to lower costs, improve performance and focus inter...
Digital payments using wearable devices such as smart watches, fitness trackers, and payment wristbands are an increasing area of focus for industry participants, and consumer acceptance from early trials and deployments has encouraged some of the biggest names in technology and banking to continue their push to drive growth in this nascent market. Wearable payment systems may utilize near field communication (NFC), radio frequency identification (RFID), or quick response (QR) codes and barcodes...
You think you know what’s in your data. But do you? Most organizations are now aware of the business intelligence represented by their data. Data science stands to take this to a level you never thought of – literally. The techniques of data science, when used with the capabilities of Big Data technologies, can make connections you had not yet imagined, helping you discover new insights and ask new questions of your data. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Sarbjit Sarkaria, data science team lead ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Ericsson has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Ericsson is a world leader in the rapidly changing environment of communications technology – providing equipment, software and services to enable transformation through mobility. Some 40 percent of global mobile traffic runs through networks we have supplied. More than 1 billion subscribers around the world re...
The demand for organizations to expand their infrastructure to multiple IT environments like the cloud, on-premise, mobile, bring your own device (BYOD) and the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow. As this hybrid infrastructure increases, the challenge to monitor the security of these systems increases in volume and complexity. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Stephen Coty, Chief Security Evangelist at Alert Logic, will show how properly configured and managed security architecture can...
The IoTs will challenge the status quo of how IT and development organizations operate. Or will it? Certainly the fog layer of IoT requires special insights about data ontology, security and transactional integrity. But the developmental challenges are the same: People, Process and Platform. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Craig Sproule, CEO of Metavine, will demonstrate how to move beyond today's coding paradigm and share the must-have mindsets for removing complexity from the development proc...
Artificial Intelligence has the potential to massively disrupt IoT. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, AJ Abdallat, CEO of Beyond AI, will discuss what the five main drivers are in Artificial Intelligence that could shape the future of the Internet of Things. AJ Abdallat is CEO of Beyond AI. He has over 20 years of management experience in the fields of artificial intelligence, sensors, instruments, devices and software for telecommunications, life sciences, environmental monitoring, process...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Klein, CEO and Co-founder of Rachio, will discuss next generation communities that are using IoT to create more sustainable, intelligent communities. One example is Sterling Ranch, a 10,000 home development that – with the help of Siemens – will integrate IoT technology into the community to provide residents with energy and water savings as well as intelligent security. Everything from stop lights to sprinkler systems to building infrastructures will run ef...
We’ve worked with dozens of early adopters across numerous industries and will debunk common misperceptions, which starts with understanding that many of the connected products we’ll use over the next 5 years are already products, they’re just not yet connected. With an IoT product, time-in-market provides much more essential feedback than ever before. Innovation comes from what you do with the data that the connected product provides in order to enhance the customer experience and optimize busi...
Manufacturers are embracing the Industrial Internet the same way consumers are leveraging Fitbits – to improve overall health and wellness. Both can provide consistent measurement, visibility, and suggest performance improvements customized to help reach goals. Fitbit users can view real-time data and make adjustments to increase their activity. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mark Bernardo Professional Services Leader, Americas, at GE Digital, will discuss how leveraging the Industrial Interne...
The increasing popularity of the Internet of Things necessitates that our physical and cognitive relationship with wearable technology will change rapidly in the near future. This advent means logging has become a thing of the past. Before, it was on us to track our own data, but now that data is automatically available. What does this mean for mHealth and the "connected" body? In her session at @ThingsExpo, Lisa Calkins, CEO and co-founder of Amadeus Consulting, will discuss the impact of wea...
Increasing IoT connectivity is forcing enterprises to find elegant solutions to organize and visualize all incoming data from these connected devices with re-configurable dashboard widgets to effectively allow rapid decision-making for everything from immediate actions in tactical situations to strategic analysis and reporting. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Shikhir Singh, Senior Developer Relations Manager at Sencha, will discuss how to create HTML5 dashboards that interact with IoT devic...
Whether your IoT service is connecting cars, homes, appliances, wearable, cameras or other devices, one question hangs in the balance – how do you actually make money from this service? The ability to turn your IoT service into profit requires the ability to create a monetization strategy that is flexible, scalable and working for you in real-time. It must be a transparent, smoothly implemented strategy that all stakeholders – from customers to the board – will be able to understand and comprehe...