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Towers Of Abstraction

This article is about how we model Concepts in software.

In Hierarchies we looked at a really common concept - the Hierarchy - and discovered that there was no single implementation for this concept within the world of computing. Instead, it was implemented over and over again, in different languages, data-formats and UIs.

In Crystals-And-Code we looked at how a well-factored Information System could be built and maintained, and in this system, concepts would be implemented once. But these systems were like crystals embedded in the wider, messy environment of the computing environment, and required hard work to maintain.

Here, we’re going to look at Towers Of Abstraction. When we are modelling our concepts and building our Information Systems, we stand on the shoulders of giants, using libraries, frameworks and languages to make our lives easier.

But as we discussed in Boundary Risk, using these abstractions comes at a cost: ecosystem lock-in. Once we have chosen our Towers of Abstraction, change is expensive.

Conceptual Portability

The problem is that because we define our Concepts on top of the Towers of Abstraction, we can’t simply take those concepts and use them elsewhere. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Both GitHub and BitBucket have the concept of “User”. They are not the same. Some of the properties of the User are shared (I have a name in both). Some of the properties are equivalent (I have a profile picture in Github, and an avatar in Bitbucket but they are different sizes, obviously). There are many more properties that are completely different. Luckily, the concept of “Repo” is the same in both, so I can move my code back and forth between them easily.

  • In both Java and .net there are lively open-source communities, and unit testing is a popular thing. Most people in the Java world use JUnit. Most people in the C# world use NUnit. NUnit started off by porting the Junit concepts to .net, but has now diverged in it’s own way. However the basic concept of unit testing is shared, but as with “User”, is subtly different across these two Towers of Abstraction.

  • Slack, Symphony and Microsoft Teams are three different enterprise chat platforms. They all share the concepts of Rooms, Users, Bots and Messages (as well as many other things). However, they all have completely divergent APIs and indeed UIs for interacting with them. The concepts are again almost identical, but not exactly. This is despite the fact that there is a now-dead standard called IRC - Internet Relay Chat which could have solved this problem.

  • iOS and Android both share the concepts of “Apps” in a “Marketplace”… OK you get the idea now.

So conceptual portability is hosed because there is no agreement on what the concepts mean: the concepts are defined competitively by different Towers Of Abstraction.

Where Complexity Starts

In the above four examples, I have highlighted ecosystem incompatibility. But you don’t need to go that far.

Most of the work I do in software development now is stitching together various different open-source projects. That means that really, a lot of the time all I am doing is working out how to map one concept to another.

Let’s look at some examples of that:

  • In my application, I might have the concept of a Document. I might need to map this to my webserver’s concept of URL somewhere within the application so that it can be loaded up in a browser, or to the concept of Email if I want to email the document to someone.

  • To get data out of a relational database, I am going to need to use a database driver to turn database API calls into my code. If I want the data to be represented in the native object-form of my programming language, I’ll need to go the extra mile and use some ORM software. Again, this is just mapping RDBMS concepts to OO concepts.

  • Sometimes, I end up defining the same concept twice in the same codebase, by mistake. For example, adding a Message class, and a Response class, and then realizing that responses are often messages. I may then end up creating something like a MessageToResponseConverter.

  • Even more trivially, I may just end up with a string containing a number (e.g. "£1,000,054.23") and want to convert this into an actual number (1000000.23) so that I can do some maths on it. Ignoring the currency symbol, the numeric amount in both the string and the number are the same concept.

– image of this problem here.

Translation Is Hard Work

The “Towers of Abstraction” problem is, of course, the “Tower Of Babel”. Just as nations are divided by different languages, so we are doomed as soon as we base our concepts on existing, partisan abstractions.

This is where “accidental complexity” comes from.

– image of this.

maintaining an abstraction is difficult work.

in reconciling two systems, we built two more.

data lakes

Building new abstractions on top of old is fine. The problem occurs when you want to move laterally across the tree.

  • email example.

  • cyclomatic complexity (vs. other kinds)

There’s really no way around this problem.

How do humans do it though? We manage to cope with different abstractions in our heads.

Hierarchy Of Process

The impoverished hierarchy of process: while individual programs (crystals) manage to build consistent hierarchies of process and data, on our desktops it isn’t like this.

If I perform a process across multiple applications, I am forced to cut-and-paste between them. AFAICT, the only things supported by cut-and-paste are text, rich text and files. If I cut and paste an email in Outlook, it appears as a file on the desktop. There is no notion of any other abstraction shared between programs. This is because the desktop itself has no common abstraction for email or contact or project or todo item or customer which could be shared amongst the applications living in it.

Example of dealing with a PR in GitHub.

  • hierarchy of process: conscious to the unconscious

Hierarchies Of Data

Computers are the bridge between the two!

RPA

Agile

Integration vs Agile - getting abstractions to work together is the bigger problem now. This is where bots come in?

Where complexity comes from - the same concept built on two different towers of abstraction.

Competing standards.

n^2 problem

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Rob Moffat
Rob Moffat Author of Risk-First Software Development. Developer. Working in the UK.