The Use/Reuse Paradox

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The Use/Reuse Paradox

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There are certain paradoxes that create conflict when designing software systems. The paradoxes result in opposing forces that are counterintuitive, and require further examination to more fully understand how the tension can be resolved. Here, I explore the tension between use and reuse. Certainly there are others, too. What software development paradoxes have you encountered?

Use and Reuse

I have a simple question. What’s the difference between “use” and “reuse”? Dirk Riehle broaches the subject in suggesting that using a component is when you embed that component in a collective work and reusing a component is when you create a derivative of that component. I use the term “component” above, but it could just as easily be replaced by “method”, “object”, “module”, “service”, or anything else that you want to use. Or should I say reuse? Funny!

A few responses to the same question I posted to Twitter garnered some responses from @RSessions, @bigballofmud (Brian Foote), and @IsaGoksu, though not enough to offer perfect clarity.

The topic can be quite confusing. For instance, is invoking a once deployed service from multiple consumers use or reuse? And how does this differ from including a component in multiple services? Which is use and which is reuse? The differences between these two scenarios can be seen in the diagram at right (click to enlarge).

A Trick Question

Instead of trying to distinguish between reuse and use, let’s consider an alternative perspective. If we adopt a canonical definition of reuse, we can state that it means to simply “leverage an existing asset”. Now, let’s define use as “the ability to leverage an asset”.  If we’re willing to accept these definitions, then the relationship is opposing - as one goes up, the other goes down. A module or service might be highly reusable, but very difficult to use. Likewise, a module or service might be very easy to use, but difficult to reuse. And it’s incredibly difficult to offer both.

If we make a software entity highly reusable then it’s likely a lightweight and fine-grained entity. This allows for environmental configuration driven by context and extensibility through well-defined interfaces and extension points. But with this flexibility is additional complexity that makes the entity inherently more difficult to use (flexibility and complexity are another paradox?). I explore these ideas further in Reuse: Is the Dream Dead, and draw the conclusion that

Maximizing reuse complicates use.

Dealing With It

Understanding the forces at play here is important because they are consequential to architecture, and resolving the tension is an aspect of architectural agility. It’s virtually impossible to design a reusable software entity until we have a better understanding of it’s usage scenarios (I recall a “rule of 3″, but can’t seem to place it. Anyone know?). And since the unit of reuse is the unit of release, it figures that modularity plays a prominent role here.

Understanding principles, patterns and practices (like SOLID and modularity patterns) that increase architectural agility help resolve the tension between use and reuse, and are certainly a step in the right direction. But so too is understanding that certain decisions must be deferred until we have the requisite knowledge to make the most informed decision possible. Because of this, we should strive to minimize the architectural significance (impact and cost) of change by making our designs as reversible as possible. Reversibility doesn’t always mean great flexibility, though. Sometimes it means we make something as simple as possible so that it’s easy to change later. Either way, it’s imperative to accommodate the natural shifts that occur throughout development, and modularity plays a central role in making this happen.

Moving On

For those that follow this blog, you’ll know it’s not the first time I’ve written about this topic. For others, if you’re clicking on any of the links in this post, you’re quickly discovering that, as well. Going forward, I intend to explore many of these concepts using some concrete examples that should offer a bit more insight to the discussions. I’ve put together some sample exercises for some upcoming conferences, and I intend to walk through those samples in a series of future posts. The result will be roughly seven or eight separate posts that show the evolution of a system. There’ll be code, builds, tests, and of course, modularity. Along with a lot of other stuff, too.

For now, if you’re interested in this topic, as well as ways to increase architectural agility, you might consider checking out some of my following entries (some of which are linked to above) related to this topic. You can bet there will be more coming, too!

From http://techdistrict.kirkk.com

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