Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Revisiting Parnas: Use of the concept of transparency in the design of hierarchically structured systems

In year 1975, Parnas publishes with D.P. Siewiorek “Use of the Concept of Transparency in the Design of Hierarchically Structured Systems”.  The publication talks about the difficulties in using an Outside In (aka Top down) approach to design and develop software. The main point discussed in the piece is the cost of using abstraction in software constructions.

For the authors, the use of abstractions is an excellent way to make big systems understandable as a whole, as higher level abstractions hide the inner workings of a piece of software. The approach that starts from the outside in can have some difficulties, however. (1) The difficulty to obtain a good specification of the “outside” and (2) even harder to express it without implying internal design decisions, (3) the derivation from such a specification is frequently not feasible, (4) inner details of the implementation can already be fixed, such as hardware or an operating system.

The term Transparency is then discussed. Considering a two level system, say a lower, hardware level and a higher, control software level. Transparency is the measure of how much of a lower level capability is available at a higher level. Complete transparency means that if it is feasible in a lower level tier, it should be feasible in an upper level tier. When a design decision restricts the possibilities of a lower level tier when used through an upper level tier, there is a loss of transparency. For instance, if our Data Access Object layer only permits data selection from the database, there is clearly a loss of transparency as the ability to insert and delete data was suppressed.

Complete transparency is not always a good thing. There is a trade-off between transparency and flexibility of a design. The increase of transparency between two levels can lead to great implementation difficulties and inefficiencies. The designer should be aware and ponder. As stated: “Loss of transparency is often one of the goals of a design”.

Concluding on the difficulties with the outside in approach, the authors affirm that usually the design comprises many inter-related objects. Moreover, there is limited experience with man-man symbiosis, so it is often impossible to specify the outside before construction and not want to change it afterwards.

I would say that we still have limited experience with human-human symbiosis, what one could name as managerial issues in software development. Also, there usually is a lack of engineering expertise, where software designers and developers forget about key principles stated decades ago.

1 comment:

Daniel Siewiorek said...

You have such a nice post about my previous work. Being straightly, are you interested in a ph.d/work in this field at Microsoft hq? Send me your CV.