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The broken promise of re-use

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Re-use is the holy grail of IT: whenever a new architectural paradigm comes to IT town, “re-use” is one of the core arguments why to go for that paradigm. The business sales pitch typically goes like this: “Switching to <insert new paradigm here> will cost some money upfront but due to the re-use it enables it will soon pay back”.

I do not know about your experiences but I have never really seen it working the promised way. No matter if you look at Object-orientation, CORBA, Component-based architectures, EJB, SOA, you name it: re-use was accomplished to a lot smaller degree than promised, which meant that the promised business case never got realized. Additionally, very often brittle and tightly coupled systems emerged after a while that were very hard to change and operate, i.e., the business case started to turn into its opposite. But fortunately, at this point in time usually the next holy-grail paradigm showed up and the cycle started over again.

In short words: re-use based on any architectural paradigm never worked as promised, the promise was always broken.

And today? Currently, microservices are the paradigm de jour, and – of course again – re-use is the business case promise that accompanies it regularly. Will it work this time? Have we finally found the long promised silver bullet?

I do not know your opinion about it, but I am convinced that if we push for re-use in our microservice approaches, we will – once again – end up with a completely messed up architecture, including a very poor business case.

This leads to the question: Why is the promise of re-use broken?

There are several reasons why the re-use promise is broken. Here are my – probably incomplete – observations:

First of all, good reusability is expensive. Fred Brooks many years ago coined the “Rule of 9” for a re-usable component (where “component” here solely means the basic building block of re-use, no additional semantics attached to it). Based on his observations it took about three times the effort to design a component that can be re-used properly compared to a component that was just designed for simple use. This has a lot to do with the fact that it is very hard to isolate the right responsibility in a component and then to design a good API to offer the functionality to others. It takes a lot of brain-power and trial and error to come up with such a component.

Brooks also made the observation that it takes another factor of three to make the component ready for re-use, i.e., the required testing, hardening and documentation. Finally he stated that these two factors are independent, i.e., they do not sum up, they multiply. This 3 times 3 lead to the “Rule of 9”.

You might say that Fred Brooks was way too pessimistic with his statements and that we cannot compare software development in the early 70ies (when he made his statements) to software development today. And you may be right. Things have changed and might have become better (even though I have not seen any evidence for that). So, maybe a factor of 9 is too high today, maybe it is just 5 times the effort to turn a simple project result into a re-usable component, i.e., the additional struggling for the right responsibility encapsulation, good APIs, additional testing, documentation and hardening.

This means that you need a re-use of at least 5 times for a component that was made re-usable in order to amortize the investment, and you would need a lot higher re-use factor to justify the typical re-use business case, which claims that you do not only amortize your investment but save a lot of money over time.

But if you look into the rarely published re-use numbers of SOA initiatives (Fun fact: If you search the web, you will find tons of pages that talk about, how important re-use is for SOA and how important it is to measure your re-use, but you will hardly find any page that shows real re-use numbers realized by SOA initiatives), you will realize that typical average usage factor for a service is one point something (1.x). In other words: Most services were used only one time, a few services (usually less than 20%) were used more than once. Let us recap: services, that are five times as expensive to create in order to be re-usable, in average used a bit more than one time. There goes the business case …

Understanding that the business case is broken is one thing. But it is more important to realize that there is a lot less re-use than expected and thus re-use is a lot less important argument for any architectural paradigm than always claimed.

After that statement you regularly find the black-and-white folks who cry out immediately “So, you are telling us that we should not do *any* re-use *at all* and *everybody* should start to write their own string library again!” – which would be nonsense of course. But polemically perverting a statement into its absolute extreme, which – as all extremes – does not make sense, is no proof that the statement itself does not make sense.

The point about re-use is that mostly everything that would be re-used often enough that it makes sense to invest the effort to make it re-usable has been implemented already. These are the libraries which are usually part of a programming language ecosystem, be it that they are part of the language itself or are available as 3rd party libraries. Higher level re-usable components, especially company-specific business components are rarely worth the effort in terms of investment costs vs. re-use ratio.

And even if you might have IT assets that are worth encapsulating in re-usable components, you do not need a new architectural paradigm for it: Every programming language, every communication protocol provides the means to define an interface. That’s all you need to implement encapsulation which is the basic building block for re-use. It’s all there, it’s been there all the time – nothing new needed.

But we face a dilemma: we wanted to get our hands on that new, shiny silver-bullet architectural paradigm that is all the rage and thus made the re-use promise – and now we have to deliver. How is that typically implemented? First of all, we promised re-use as part of our business case. Therefore we design our whole application landscape with re-use in mind. Re-use becomes the driver of design and components must re-use each other, no matter if it makes sense or not. We promised re-use. Thus, there has to be re-use, no matter what it costs.

Implementing this, we usually end up in a mess of tightly coupled components which (re-)use each other in strange ways. We especially did not take the time to understand how to design the components best, which boundaries and APIs emerge over time, which ideas work and which do not work. As we promised re-use will make things less expensive, components need to be cheap and re-usable right away without taking the efforts, Fred Brooks described, to make them really re-usable.

Besides other bad effects, this leads to a very nasty kind of premature optimization: We try to guess in which way a component might be re-used and as we usually have no real idea about it at the time of the initial design, we just take our first guess and throw it at the world. And because we don’t know anything about our potential users, we just create a “generic” component which offers its internal concepts at its API. This way we end up with basically the exact opposite of a re-usable component.

Why do we end up with the opposite of a re-usable component? There are at least two reasons for that: First, as we do not have the knowledge which variability points the component needs to offer in order to satisfy the actual needs of its clients, we usually implement way too many variability points and thus increase the accidental complexity of the component and its interface protocol a lot. In other words: The component becomes harder to use than required, it will be harder to understand and the overall system complexity will be higher than needed.

Secondly, “generic”, provider-driven APIs tend to create tight couplings between the provider and its clients because – as you do not have any experience about usage patterns and client needs at design time – you just externalize everything that your component offers via the API. This way, the API is implementation-driven and not client-driven which adds two bad effects:

First, the clients are tightly coupled to the implementation of the component (which is externalized via the API due to missing alternatives at design time), usually requiring a much more fine-grained protocol for component access than the client would have needed. Secondly, it becomes very hard to change the implementation of the component after a client started to use it because the implementation was externalized via the API.

This, way we end up with a overly complex, tightly coupled, brittle and hard to change system landscape – the opposite of what we wanted to achieve. Even if we would eventually figure out better responsibility encapsulations and access protocols based on actual client needs, we would have a hard time to change the overly complex and highly dependent system we created in the first place. And all this just because we started with a re-use based business case to get a hand on the new shiny paradigm.

This is not just theory. Basically, every single system I have seen over the years that was built with re-use in mind exactly looked the way I just described. Sometimes (especially in SOA initiatives), it was even worse because the designers went for a “layered architecture”.

The layered architecture pattern is broken often enough within a component, but across components, which are meant to be loosely coupled by definition (and thus btw. need to be as self-dependent as possible), it is quite close to the worst design imaginable: extremely tight coupled components, overly long call-chains (often across process boundaries), very high structural complexity, fragile at runtime due to many components involved for every single request, extremely hard to change – in short words: From an architectural perspective and the goals we wanted to achieve close to a nightmare.

After all this: What can we learn from this?

  • First of all: Never base an architectural decision on re-use. It will never work and you usually end up at quite the opposite place of where you wanted to go.
  • You don’t need any special architectural paradigm for re-use. Everything that is needed for re-use is already in place – batteries included.
  • Re-use emerges. Don’t plan for it. It takes a lot of work, trial and error and actual experience with real clients to design a good re-usable component which encapsulates the right responsibility and provides it via a good client-driven and easy-to-understand API.
  • Re-use is expensive. It takes a lot of effort to make a component re-usable. As a rule of thumb, it costs about 5 times as much as it costs to make a component usable. Thus, make sure, it is worth the effort, i.e., the component is used often enough before you make it re-usable.
  • And last of all: Don’t go for cheap re-use by building trivial components or layered components. You will end up in a hell where you never, ever wanted to be.

How can we make it better?

As so often, I do not have a perfect plan to offer (and probably there is no perfect plan at all). My recommendation is to go for replaceability instead of re-use. Replaceability leads in the right direction: you think about how to separate responsibilities in order to make them replaceable, which gives you loose coupling. You think about separating clients from the implementation in order to keep it replaceable, which gives you client-driven APIs.

And, if you might realize after a while, that a component tends to be used several times, you go the extra mile to make it really re-usable in terms of additional testing, documentation and hardening. Therefore I would like to add one more line to the learnings:

  • Strive for replaceability, not re-use. It will lead you the right way.

Any final words? Um, yes: do not get me wrong. Re-use is not bad per se. Re-use can be extremely useful. For example, I am absolutely grateful that I do not have to build my own String libraries from scratch in every new project as I had to do in the early 90ies with C and C++. It is also great that today it is virtually a no-brainer in most programming languages to create a HTTP client or server. This are just two of probably a million examples where re-use does a great job.

Just do not justify your new architectural toy with re-use. It will not work. Never. Why? Re-use this post to figure out … 😉

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