Saturday, December 8, 2018

Software cities

In the previous post I stumbled on the idea that software projects are like cities.  The more I thought about it, I said, the more I liked the idea.  Now that I've had some more time to think about it, I like the idea even more, so I'd like to try to draw the analogy out a little bit, ideally not past the breaking point.

What first drew me to the concept was realizing that software projects, like cities, are neither completely planned nor completely unplanned.  Leaving aside the question of what level of planning is best -- which surely varies -- neither of the extremes is likely to actually happen in real life.

If you try to plan every last detail, inevitably you run across something you didn't anticipate and you'll have to adjust.  Maybe it turns out that the place you wanted to put the city park is prone to flooding, or maybe you discover that the new release of some platform your depending doesn't actually support what you thought it did, or at least not as well as you need it to.

Even if you could plan out every last detail of a city, once people start living in it, they're going to make changes and deviate from your assumptions.  No one actually uses that beautiful new footbridge, or if they do, they cut across a field to get to it and create a "social trail" thereby bypassing the carefully designed walkways.  People start using an obscure feature of one of the protocols to support a use case the designers never thought of.  Cities develop and evolve over time, with or without oversight, and in software there's always a version 2.0 ... and 2.1, and 2.2, and 2.2b (see this post for the whole story).

On the other hand, even if you try to avoid planning and let everything "just grow", planning happens anyway.  If nothing else, we codify patterns that seem to work -- even if they arose organically with no explicit planning -- as customs and traditions.

In a distant time in the Valley, I used to hear the phrase "paving the cow paths" quite a bit.  It puzzled me at first -- Why pave a perfectly good cow path?  Cattle are probably going to have a better time on dirt, and that pavement probably isn't going to hold up too well if you're marching cattle on it all the time ...  Eventually I came to understand that it wasn't about the cows.  It was about taking something that people had been doing already and upgrading the infrastructure for it.  Plenty of modern-day highways (or at least significant sections of them) started out as smaller roads which in turn used to be dirt road for animals, foot traffic and various animal-drawn vehicles.

Upgrading a road is a conscious act requiring coordination across communities all along the roadway.  Once it's done, it has a significant impact on communities on the road, which expect to benefit from increased trade and decreased effort of travel, but also communities off the road, which may lose out, or may alter their habits now that the best way to get to some important place is by way of the main road and not the old route.  This sort of thing happens both inside and outside cities, but for the sake of the analogy think of ordinary streets turning into arterials or bypasses and ring roads diverting traffic around areas people used to have to cross through.

One analogue of this is in software is standards.  Successful standards tend to arise when people get together to codify existing practice, with the aim of improving support for things people were doing before the standard, just in a variety of similar but still needlessly different ways.  Basically pick a route and make it as smooth and accessible as possible.  This is a conscious act requiring coordination across communities, and once it's done it has a significant impact on the communities involved, and on communities not directly involved.

This kind of thing isn't always easy.  A business district thrives and grows, and more and more people want to get to it.  Traffic becomes intolerable and the city decides to develop a new thoroughfare to carry traffic more efficiently (thereby, if it all works, accelerating growth in the business district and increasing traffic congestion ...).  Unfortunately, there's no clear space for building this new thoroughfare.  An ugly political fight ensues over whose houses should get condemned to make way and eventually the new road is built, cutting through existing communities and forever changing the lives of those nearby.

One analog of this in software is the rewrite.  A rewrite almost never supports exactly the same features as the system being rewritten.  The reasons for this are probably material for a separate post.  The result, though, is that some people's favorite features are probably going to break with the rewrite, and/or be replaced by something different that the developers believe will solve the same problem in a way compatible with the new system.  Even if the developers are right about this, which they often are, there's still going to be significant disruption.


Behind all this, and tying the two worlds of city development and software develop together, is culture.  Cities have culture, and so do major software projects.  Each has its own unique culture, but, whether because the same challenges recur over and over again, leading to similar solutions, or because some people are drawn to large communities while others prefer smaller, the cultures of different cities tend to have a fair bit in common, perhaps more in common with each other than with life outside them.  Likewise with major software projects.

Cities require a certain level of infrastructure -- power plants, traffic lights, parking garages, public transport, etc. -- that smaller communities can mostly do without.  Likewise, a major software project requires some sort of code repository with version control, some form of code review to control what gets into that repository, a bug tracking system and so forth.  This infrastructure comes at a price, but also with significant benefits.  You don't have to do everything yourself, and at a certain point you can't do everything yourself.  That means people can specialize, and to some extent have to specialize.  This both requires a certain kind of culture and tends to foster that same sort of culture.


It's worth noting that even large software projects are pretty small by the standards of actual cities.  Somewhere around 15,000 people have contributed to the git repository for the Linux kernel.  There appear to be a comparable (but probably smaller) number of Apache committers.  As with anything else, some of these are more active in the community than others.  On the corporate side, large software companies have tens of thousands of engineers, all sharing more or less the same culture.

Nonetheless, major software projects somehow seem to have more of the character of large cities than one might think based on population.  I'm not sure why that might be, or even if it's really true once you start to look more closely, but it's interesting that the question makes sense at all.

1 comment:

earl said...

Nice post. Seems to have something to say about my recent grumbles re: gmail.

Note: I spent a fair amount of time walking the hills around Oglala, SD, and found that cows are much better than I am at finding the most efficient way to get around that territory.

Note: City parks are often built on flood ground just because it is flood ground, and very risky for anything else. If a park is flooded relatively little damage is done.