Posts Tagged Dependency Management

Code Sharing Wrap-up

As I suspected, when I planned to write a series of posts about code sharing, I’ve realised that I won’t write them all. The main reason is that I started out with the juiciest bits, where I felt I had something interesting to say, and the rest of the subjects feel too dry and I don’t think I can write interesting posts about them individually. So I’ll lump them together and describe briefly what I mean by them in this wrap-up post instead.

The bullet points that I don’t think are ‘big’ enough to warrant individual posts are:

  1. Use JUnit.
  2. Use Hudson.
  3. Manage Dependencies.
  4. Communicate.

Let’s tackle them one by one. The first one, ‘Use JUnit’, is not so much intended to say that JUnit is the only unit testing framework out there (TestNG is as good, in my opinion). It is rather a statement about the importance of good automated tests when sharing code. The obvious motivation is that almost every conflicting change between two teams is a regression error and therefore possible to catch with automated tests. If each team ensures that the use cases they want from a shared library are tested automatically (note that I don’t call the tests unit tests; they are more functional than unit tests) with each build, they can guard their desired functionality from breaking due to changes made by another team. A functional test that is broken intentionally due to a change desired by one team should trigger communication between teams to ensure that it is changed in a way that works for all clients of the library.

I’ve never tried formalising the use of different sets of functional tests owned by different clients of a library as opposed to just having a single comprehensive set of unit tests. But it feels like a potentially quite attractive proposition, so it might be interesting to try. It might require some work in terms of getting it into the build infrastructure in a good way. I’d love to be able to see how that works at some point, but simply having a single comprehensive set of unit tests works really well in terms of guarding functionality, too.

‘Use Hudson’ says that continuous integration (CI) is vital when sharing code. It feels like everybody knows that these days, so I don’t think I need to make the case for CI in general. In the context of sharing libraries, the obvious benefit of CI is that you will detect failures sooner than you would have if you just rely on individual developers’ builds. This is especially true of linkage-type errors. You’ll catch most errors that would break a unit test in the library you’re working on by just running the build locally, but CI servers tend to be better at checking that the library works with the latest snapshots of related libraries and vice versa. Of the CI servers I’ve used (includes Continuum and Cruise Control), Hudson has been by a wide margin the best. Hudson’s strength relative to the others is primarily in the ease of managing build lines – the way we use it, anybody can and does create and modify builds for some project almost weekly. I haven’t used the others in a couple of years, so it may have changed, but earlier what you can do in 30 seconds with Hudson used to take at least an hour or more depending on how well you remember the tricks to use with them.

I think that I touched on most of the arguments I wanted to make about ‘Manage Dependencies’ in the post I wrote titled Divide and Conquer. Essentially, the graph of dependencies between shared libraries that you introduce is something that is going to be very hard and expensive to change, so it is well worth spending some time thinking hard about what it should be like before you finalise it. The Divide and Conquer post contains some more detail on what makes it hard to evolve that graph as well as some tips about how to get it right.

The final point is ‘Communicate’. I sometimes think that communication is the hardest thing that two people can try to do, and of course it gets quadratically harder as you add more people. It is interesting to note how much of business hierarchies and processes are aimed at preventing or fixing communication problems. In the particular case of code sharing, the most important communication problems to solve are:

  • Proactive notifications – if one team is going to make a change to a shared library, many problems can easily be avoided if other teams are notified before those changes are made so that they get the opportunity to give feedback about how that change might affect them. At Shopzilla, we’re using a mailing list where each team is obliged to send three kinds of messages:
    • After each sprint planning session, a message saying either “We’re not planning to make any changes to shared code”, or “We’re anticipating making the following changes to shared code: a), b) and c)”. The point of always sending an email is that it is very easy to forget about this type of communication, so always having to do it should mean forgetting it less often.
    • If a need to make changes is detected later than sprint planning (which happens often), a specific notification of that.
    • If changes have been made by another team that led to problems, a description of the changes and problems. This is so that we can continuously improve, not in order to point fingers at people that misbehave.
  • Understanding requirements and determining correct solutions – it is often not obvious from just looking at some code why it has been implemented the way it is. In that scenario, it is important to have an easy way of getting hold of the person/people that have written the code to understand what requirements they were trying to meet when writing it so that one can avoid breaking things when making modifications. This is often made harder by client evolution: shared code may not be modified to remove some feature as clients stop using it, so dead code is relatively common. Again, I think that a mailing list (or one per some sub-category of shared code) is a useful tool.
  • Last but probably most important: a collaborative mindset – this is arguably not ‘just’ a communication problem, but it can definitely be a problem for communication. It is possible to get into a tragedy of the commons-type situation, where the shared code is mismanaged because everybody focuses primarily on their own products’ needs rather than the shared value. This can manifest itself in many ways, from poor implementations of changes in the shared code, to lack of responsiveness when there is a need for discussions and decisions about how to evolve it. To get the benefits of sharing, it is crucial that the teams sharing code want to and are allowed to spend enough time on shared concerns.

So, that concludes the code sharing series. In summary, it’s a great thing to do if done right, but there’s a lot of things that can go wrong in ways that you might not expect beforehand – the benefits of sharing code are typically more obvious than the costs.

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Code Sharing: Divide and Conquer

When I was at Jadestone, one of the objectives that the CEO explicitly gave me was to come up with a great way to share code between our products. I spent a fair amount of time thinking about and working on how to do that, but I left the company before most of the ideas came to be fully used throughout the company. Just over a year later, I joined Shopzilla, and found that to a very large extent the same ideas that I had introduced as concepts at Jadestone were being used or recommended in practice there. So a lot of the articles I’ve written about code sharing describe ideas and practices from Jadestone and Shopzilla, although focusing specifically on things I personally find important. This one will cover some areas were I think we still have a bit of work to do to really nail things at Shopzilla, although we probably have the beginnings of many of the practices down.

You can’t include all your code into every top-level product you build. This means you’ll need to break your ecosystem down into some sort of sub-structures and pick and choose the parts you want to use in each product. I think it makes sense to have three kinds of overlapping structures: libraries, layers and services. Libraries are the atoms of sharing and since you use Maven, one library corresponds to a single artifact. A library will build on functionality provided by other libraries, and to manage this, they should be organised into layers, where libraries in one layer are more general than libraries in layers above. A lot of the time, you’ll want to have a coarser structure than libraries, for both code management, architectural and operational reasons, and that’s when you create a service that provides some sort of function that will be used in the top-level products.

I’ve found that a lot of the time, code sharing isn’t planned, but emerges. You start with one product, and then there is an opportunity to create a new product that is similar to the first, so you build it on parts of the first. This means that you normally haven’t got a carefully planned set of libraries with well-defined and thought out dependencies between each other and can give rise to some problems:

  • Over-large and incoherent libraries. Typical indications of this are a high rate of change and associated high frequency of conflicting changes, forced inclusion of code that you don’t really need into certain builds because stuff you need is packaged with unrelated and irrelevant other code, and difficulties figuring out what dependencies you should have and where to add code for some new feature.
  • Shared libraries that contain code that isn’t really a good candidate for sharing. Trying to include that code in different products typically leads to a snarled code in the library with lots of specific conditions or APIs that haven’t made a decision on what their clients actually should use them for. Sometimes, the library will contain some code that is perfect for sharing, and some that definitely isn’t.
  • A poor dependency structure: a library that is perfect for sharing might have a dependency on one that you would prefer to leave as product-specific, or there might be circular dependencies between libraries.

Once a library structure is in place and used by multiple teams, it is hard to change because a) it involves making many backwards-incompatible changes, b) it is work that is boring and difficult for developers, c) it gives no short-term value for business owners, and d) it requires cross-team schedule coordination. However, it’s one of those things where the longer you leave it, the higher the accumulated costs in terms of confusion and lack of synergies, so if you’re reasonably sure that the code in question will live for a long time, it’s is likely to eventually be a worthwhile investment to make. It is possible to do at least some parts of a library restructuring incrementally, although there are in my experiences some cases where you’ll bring a few people to a total standstill for a month or so while cleaning up some particular mess. That sort of situation is of course particularly hard to get resolved. It requires discipline, coordination, and above all, a clear understanding of the reasons for making the change – those reasons cannot be as simple as ‘the code needs to be clean’, there should be a cost-benefit analysis of some kind if you want to be really professional about it. If you invest a man-month in cleaning up your library structure, how long will it take before you’ve recouped that man-month?

Given that it is possible to go wrong with your shared library structure, what are the characteristics of a library structure that has gone right? Here’s a couple more bullet points and a diagram:

  • Libraries are coherent and of the right size. There are some opposing forces that affect what is “the right library size”: smaller libraries are awkward to work with from a source management, information management and documentation perspective since the smaller the libraries are, the more of them you need. This means you’ll have more or more complicated IDE projects and build files, and you’ll have a larger set of things to search in order to find out where a particular feature is implemented. On the other hand, larger libraries suffer from a lack of purpose and coherence, which makes conflicts between teams sharing them more likely, increases their rate of change, and makes it harder to describe what they exist to do. All these things make them less suitable for sharing. I think you want to have libraries that are as fine-grained as you can make them, without making it too hard to get an overview over which libraries are available, what they are used for and where to find the code you want to make a change to.
  • There’s a clear definition of what type of information and logic goes where in the layered structure. At the bottom, you’ll find super-generic things like logging and monitoring code. Slightly higher up, you’ll typically have things that are very central to the business: normally anything that relates to money or customers, where you’ll want to ensure that all products work the same way. Further upwards, you can find things that are shared within a given product category, and if you have higher level libraries, they are quite likely to be product-specific, so maybe not candidates for sharing at all.
  • In addition to the horizontal structure defined by the layers, there is a coarse-grained vertical structure provided by services. Services group together related functions and are usually primarily introduced for operational reasons – for instance, the need to scale a certain set of features independently of some other set. But they also add to architectural clarity in that they provide a simpler view on their function set, allowing products to share implementations of certain features without being linked using the same code. Services also simplify code sharing in the way that they provide isolation: you can have separate teams develop services and clients in parallel as long as you have a sufficiently well-defined service API.

Structuring your code in a way that is conducive to sharing is a good thing, but it is also hard. I particularly struggle with the fact that it is very hard to be agile about it: you can’t easily “inspect and adapt”, because of the difficulty of changing a library structure once it is in place. The best opportunity to put a good structure in place is when you start sharing some code between two products, but at that time it is very hard to foresee future developments (how is product number three going to be similar to or different from products 1 and 2?). Defining a coarse layered structure based on expected ‘genericness’ and making libraries small enough to be coherent is probably the best way to get the structure approximately right.

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