recommended: Leaky Abstractions

Joel on Software now features a great new article on what he calls “Leaky Abstractions”. Some snippets:

  • Even though network libraries like NFS and SMB let you treat files on remote machines “as if” they were local, sometimes the connection becomes very slow or goes down, and the file stops acting like it was local, and as a programmer you have to write code to deal with this. The abstraction of “remote file is the same as local file” leaks. …

(jm: the ‘transparent does not always mean good’ problem)

  • Something as simple as iterating over a large two-dimensional array can have radically different performance if you do it horizontally rather than vertically, depending on the “grain of the wood” — one direction may result in vastly more page faults than the other direction, and page faults are slow. Even assembly programmers are supposed to be allowed to pretend that they have a big flat address space, but virtual memory means it’s really just an abstraction, which leaks when there’s a page fault and certain memory fetches take way more many nanoseconds than other memory fetches.

(jm: the ‘why objects are not always the way to do it’ problem)

And finally, he ends with a killer:

Ten years ago, we might have imagined that new programming paradigms would have made programming easier by now. Indeed, the abstractions we’ve created over the years do allow us to deal with new orders of complexity in software development that we didn’t have to deal with ten or fifteen years ago, like GUI programming and network programming. And while these great tools, like modern OO forms-based languages, let us get a lot of work done incredibly quickly, suddenly one day we need to figure out a problem where the abstraction leaked, and it takes 2 weeks. And when you need to hire a programmer to do mostly VB programming, it’s not good enough to hire a VB programmer, because they will get completely stuck in tar every time the VB abstraction leaks.

Well said! Read the article!

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