Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Reusability Futility

The software industry regularly gets carried away with the some new fad or other. Sometimes these are good ideas but because they are over-hyped and taken to extremes can actually be counter-productive. I have seen many such fads in my career. A big one that took off in the late 1980's, was the emphasis on making code reusable. It's even said that this lead to the development, or at least popularization, of object-oriented languages.

Now, I think reusability of code is great. It has had enormous benefits on productivity almost from the birth of the industry. However, many people tried to take it too far. There are more important attributes of software, and when reusability is applied it can be to the detriment of other attributes, such as understandability and efficiency.

It is also often attempted on modules of too large a size. My rule of thumb is that the larger a module the less likely it is to be usefully reusable. Of course, I expound on this further below, but first will explain about software quality attributes.

Quality Attributes

You may recall that in February I mentioned the difference between two types of quality attributes of software which I gave the names user and developer to emphasize who directly deals with their effects (see Importance of Developer Quality Attributes). User quality attributes are things like correctness, reliability, usability, efficiency, security, compatibility, etc.

Developer quality attributes are things like understandability, maintainability, portability, verifiability, etc. Typically the users of the software (and other stakeholders) are not troubled by, or even aware of, these developer quality attributes but that does not mean they are not important to them. In fact, my contention has always been that, for most large-scale projects, maintainability (and the closely related understandability) are by far the most important attributes. (Yes, even more than correctness since if software is incorrect you can fix it, but if it is unmaintainable then, unless you never have to change it, it is worthless.)

Another attribute of concern to developers is reusability. It is important to understand that maintainability and reusability are very different, though, there is generally some correlation between the two. I mention this because I worked with a colleague (AK - an OO "expert") in the late 1990's who could not even understand the distinction so I will explain:
  • Maintainability (or sometimes modifiability) is how hard it is to fix or enhance the software. It depends somewhat on other attributes, most importantly, understandability.
  • Reusability is how hard it is to make use of the same code in more than one place. It is important for the DRY principle (see Software Design)

The Rise of Reusability

In the 1970's a great debate began in the software industry about the software crisis. Rapid advances in computer hardware meant that more and more ambitious software projects were being attempted. Lack of experience with large software projects meant that most software was late, over-budget and of poor quality. It was thought that this situation would become much worse in the future due to the anticipated hardware advances (which, of course, did eventuate). In brief, the crisis was that there would be a huge shortfall in the number of experienced programmers required to develop the software that would make good use of the hardware.

At the same time, it was seen that there was a large amount of redundancy, as the same or similar software was being written over and over. To stop developers continually reinventing the wheel ways were sought to increase the reusability of code. There was already a lot of reuse, using low-level libraries (such as the C run-time library) but some people thought that high-level (ie generally large) components could be created which could then simply be slotted together to create useful software with little or no programming involved.

This emphasis on reuse reached such ridiculous levels by 1995 that I remember seeing this full page ad from Microsoft in many magazines I read at the time. This featured a (probably fictitious) recycling fanatic named Edwin Hoogerbeets, who lived in a house made from beer bottles.

An idea that a lot of people had was to try to emulate the advances in hardware, by using similar techniques to do the same in software. For example, a major hardware advance was the IC (integrated circuit, popularly known as the silicon chip), which lead to a push for similar software components. Many people even used the term "Software IC" to describe these components.

Also around this time (late 1980's) object-oriented languages started to gain popularity. To a large extent this was fuelled by the obsession with reusability as it was believed that OO designs enhanced reusability. Indeed many OO evangelists heavily emphasized this.

Many of these ideas were adopted by, or even originated in, educational institutions. The effect was a whole generation of software designers who were indoctrinated into the importance of making code reusable. This is the root cause of many problems with software created in the last 20 years (and probably still being created today).


When I first read about Extreme Programming (late last century :) I liked most of what I read, but I was not certain about the idea of YAGNI (You Ain't Gonna Need It). This principle says to only do enough to get things working according to current requirements. The idea is that developers should refrain from adding extra features for increased flexibility, perceived future needs, or just because they are cool.

My first thought was that it is stupid to design software without regard to any future requirements. On the other hand I could see where the idea was coming from since I had worked with many software components (such as the Windows API) that were tedious and time-consuming to use since they made you consider all sorts of irrelevant details. This problem was caused by a design that allowed you to accomplish almost any conceivable task (including many pointless ones) without regard to how easy it was to accomplish simple ones.

I don't want to go into a detailed discussion of YAGNI (maybe later). My main point here is that I believe YAGNI was a reaction to the behaviour of many software developers and architects. Instead of designing software components for the particular task at hand there was a push to make them as flexible and general purpose as possible in the name of reusability. In all companies I have worked for the software "architects" would often design the equivalent of a "Swiss Army Knife" when a simpler, more specific, tool was required.

This extra complexity in the design greatly detracts from understandability and hence maintainability (which I have already said is the most important "ility").

An Analogy

I am loathe to analogize software design with the design of physical machines as I believe the two are very different. However, I think there is some value in the analogy below.

But first I would like to point out that the history of invention is littered with failed designs that emphasized reusability. I read recently about 19th century American invention of a system of firearms made from interchangeable parts, which could be assembled to create various weapons like guns, rifles, etc. It was an ingenious system but was never successful because machines designed for a specific purpose are easier to use and maintain than ones designed for flexibility and reusability.

The analogy I have chosen is in aircraft design. If the reusability obsession of the software industry was applied to the aeronautical industry a manufacturer of a plane would design a single wing "module" that they would attempt to fit to all their aircraft from a tiny twin-engine to a super-jumbo. Of course, the wing would have to be flexible enough to work with all size of aircraft. Perhaps for large aircraft you would use multiple wings (4, 8 or even 16). For small aircraft perhaps you could get away with one wing.

We all know that planes are not designed like that. As far as I know (which is very little) every plane has its own custom wing design. Perhaps the same wing design could be used on two different models as long as they had similar size and performance characteristics, but what aircraft manufacturer is going to create two nearly identical models that will just compete with each other?

Of course, even in aircraft manufacture there is a lot of reuse. It's not inconceivable that all models from one manufacturer use the same rivets for the airframe, electrical wiring, seats, cables, pneumatic pumps, etc. This has also always been done in the software industry where the same low-level routines are used for a myriad of things.

The electronics industry is lucky in that fairly high-level components can be created that can be used in different products. Other industries, like the aircraft and software industries, are not so lucky. In software design, as in many other areas of design, creating high-level reusable components results in cumbersome products that just do not work.


Emphasizing reusability was one of the big mistakes of the software industry in the last few decades. I remember almost 20 years ago telling my colleagues "forget reusability, concentrate on maintainability". The trouble is software designers have been taught to make even high-level components flexible and reusable. This flexibility comes at the cost of increased complexity. Reusable components are usually harder to understand (and often also less efficient) which leads to software that is hard to build and maintain.

Fortunately, many in the industry are now saying the same thing. I believe that overly complex software lead to the idea of YAGNI. More recently criticism of reusability has become more open -- for example, Kevlin Henney's recent book, 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know gives the rule Simplicity Before Generality, Use Before Reuse. I couldn't agree more!

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