Saturday, January 28, 2006

Software Infrastructure and You

In a recent rant, Rockford Lhotka tears into developers as spending too much time on the software infrastructure and not enough on delivering business value. He uses a Visual Basic application written some time ago as an example of something that worked just fine then, and is even better now that PCs have increased speed by at least one order of magnitude.

As a developer, I quite naturally take offense to this. We are not, by and large, avoiding improving the product by playing with the background stuff. Here are a few counterpoints:

  1. Business app are rather pedestrian to write, but the bigger question is why are we still writing them? Because someone wants something a little bit different from anything else out there, and instead of living with the existing applications, they want someone to build an application that fits their precise needs. IBM had a small business suite back in 1985 that covered everything, and I mean everything, so all businesses should be using that app now, right? But instead, a business-type wants to be creative, and requests new software.
  2. He says that the customer doesn't care about infrastructure. That doesn't mean infrastructure is not important. The customer may not care about the condition of the roads when he asks for his supplies to be delivered to him and his products to be delivered to the buyers, but bad roads will damage trucks, old narrow roads will delay trucks, and low overpasses will stop trucks, and the customer will lose money. The infrastructure of the dialup days will not handle today's DSL/cable modem traffic levels; today's high-perfomance network no longer needs the heavy error-correction protocols required by the slow and noisy networks of old. A prime example of this is email - remember when an email address was a series of machine names separated by "!"s, with other odd characters in the last part? It was no worse an email system then that it is now (as far as getting a message from one computer to another), but the infrastructure changes (DNS, STMP/IMAP/POP everywhere, and generally universal TCP/IP connectivity) have made email much better for the end-user. [And due to some original decisions about this infrastructure, worse, from SPAM, because the infrastructure was not developed with expectations of anti-social use. To fix this, there is ongoing infrastructure work in a number of projects]
  3. He bemoans the trends to web services and similar things away from the older methods. In my experience, one of the biggest forces in driving changes in infrastructure is the business press. I recall one boss asking I investigate moving our application to a CORBA interface, because he had read about CORBA in the business press and thought to jump on the bandwagon. There was no reason to move to CORBA at that point - our application was only talking to other applications we wrote, and the socket-based protocol was adequate for our expected needs. Other times, the move to new technology is mandated by the government, like the demise of analog TV signals.
  4. Another case is that sometimes the customer drives these changes. The big draw of web-based services is that the customer does not need to install something on every PC in the organization in order to use the application - each user has a PC with a web browser already on it. Or the customer favors something else. I know of one vendor whose application was chosen over another vendor's because it had drop shadows on the buttons, while the application not chosen used Motif widgets that "only" had bevels on its buttons.
Sure, given the choice, I'd rather develop something cool, instead of Yet Another Accounts Payable system. But plenty of customer-value things are cool - Firefox/Thunderbird, flickr,, blogging, P2P software, VOIP, and so on - we developers hardly need to play with infrastructure to be doing cool stuff.

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