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Your Software Flow is More Like a Whirlpool than a Pipeline

Walter Bright made an interesting point in his talk at GOTO Aarhus this afternoon. He says that software developers like to think of their code as pipelines. Data comes in, goes through an assembly line-like series of processing steps, and comes out the end.

input  -> step1 -> step 2 -> step3 -> output

And yet code hardly ever looks like that. Most software looks more like a whirlpool than a pipeline. Data swirls around in loops before going down the drain.

Arthur Rackham’s illustration to Poe’s Descent Into the Maelstrom.

These loops make it hard to identify parts that can be extracted into encapsulated components that can be snapped together or swapped out. You can draw a box around a piece of an assembly line and identify it as a component. But you can’t draw a box around a portion of a whirlpool and identify it as something than can be swapped out like a black box.

It is possible to write pipe-and-filter style apps, but the vast majority of programmers find loops more natural to write. And according to Walter Bright, it takes the combination of a fair number of programming language features to pull it off well, features which his D language has. I recommend watching his talk when the conference videos are posted.

I’ve been thinking about pipeline-style programming lately, and wondering why it’s so much harder than it looks. It’s easy to find examples of Unix shell scripts that solve some problem by snapping a handful of utilities together with pipes. And yet when I try to write my own software like that, especially outside the context of a shell, it’s not as easy as it looks. Brian Marick has an extended example in his book that takes a problem that appears to require loops and branching logic, but that can be turned into a pipeline. I haven’t grokked his example yet; I want to go back and look at it in light of today’s talk.

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