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Scalability Rules: 50 Principles for Scaling Web Sites--Reduce the Equation

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This chapter is all about making big architectural problems smaller and doing less work while still achieving the necessary business results.
This chapter is from the book

We've all been there at some point in our academic or professional careers: We stare at a complex problem and begin to lose hope. Where do we begin? How can we possibly solve the problem within the allotted time? Or in the extreme case—how do we solve it within a single lifetime? There's just too much to do, the problem is too complex, and it simply can't be solved. That's it. Pack it in. Game over...

Hold on—don't lose hope! Take a few deep breaths and channel your high school or college math teacher/professor. If you have a big hairy architectural problem, do the same thing you would do with a big hairy math equation and reduce it into easily solvable parts. Break off a small piece of the problem and break it into several smaller problems until each of the problems is easily solvable!

Our view is that any big problem, if approached properly, is really just a collection of smaller problems waiting to be solved. This chapter is all about making big architectural problems smaller and doing less work while still achieving the necessary business results. In many cases this approach actually reduces (rather than increases) the amount of work necessary to solve the problem, simplify the architecture and the solution, and end up with a much more scalable solution or platform.

As is the case with many of the chapters in Scalability Rules, the rules vary in size and complexity. Some are overarching rules easily applied to several aspects of our design. Some rules are very granular and prescriptive in their implementation to specific systems.

Rule 1—Don't Overengineer the Solution

As Wikipedia explains, overengineering falls into two broad categories.1 The first category covers products designed and implemented to exceed the useful requirements of the product. We discuss this problem briefly for completeness, but in our estimation its impact to scale is small compared to the second problem. The second category of overengineering covers products that are made to be overly complex. As we earlier implied, we are most concerned about the impact of this second category to scalability. But first, let's address the notion of exceeding requirements.

To explain the first category of overengineering, the exceeding of useful requirements, we must first make sense of the term useful, which here means simply capable of being used. For example, designing an HVAC unit for a family house that is capable of heating that house to 300 degrees Fahrenheit in outside temperatures of 0 Kelvin simply has no use for us anywhere. The effort necessary to design and manufacture such a solution is wasted as compared to a solution that might heat the house to a comfortable living temperature in environments where outside temperatures might get close to –20 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of overengineering might have cost overrun elements, including a higher cost to develop (engineer) the solution and a higher cost to implement the solution in hardware and software. It may further impact the company by delaying the product launch if the overengineered system took longer to develop than the useful system. Each of these costs has stakeholder impact as higher costs result in lower margins, and longer development times result in delayed revenue or benefits. Scope creep, or the addition of scope between initial product definition and initial product launch, is one manifestation of overengineering.

An example closer to our domain of experience might be developing an employee timecard system capable of handling a number of employees for a single company that equals or exceeds 100 times the population of Planet Earth. The probability that the Earth's population increases 100-fold within the useful life of the software is tiny. The possibility that all of those people work for a single company is even smaller. We certainly want to build our systems to scale to customer demands, but we don't want to waste time implementing and deploying those capabilities too far ahead of our need (see Rule 2).

The second category of overengineering deals with making something overly complex and making something in a complex way. Put more simply, the second category consists of either making something work harder to get a job done than is necessary, making a user work harder to get a job done than is necessary, or making an engineer work harder to understand something than is necessary. Let's dive into each of these three areas of overly complex systems.

What does it mean to make something work harder than is necessary? Some of the easiest examples come from the real world. Imagine that you ask your significant other to go to the grocery store. When he agrees, you tell him to pick up one of everything at the store, and then to pause and call you when he gets to the checkout line. Once he calls, you will tell him the handful of items that you would like from the many baskets of items he has collected and he can throw everything else on the floor. "Don't be ridiculous!" you might say. But have you ever performed a select (*) from schema_name. table_name SQL statement within your code only to cherry-pick your results from the returned set (see Rule 35)? Our grocery store example is essentially the same activity as the select (*) case above. How many lines of conditionals have you added to your code to handle edge cases and in what order are they evaluated? Do you handle the most likely case first? How often do you ask your database to return a result set you just returned, and how often do you re-create an HTML page you just displayed? This particular problem (doing work repetitively when you can just go back and get your last correct answer) is so rampant and easily overlooked that we've dedicated an entire chapter (Chapter 6, "Use Caching Aggressively") to this topic! You get the point.

What do we mean by making a user work harder than is necessary? The answer to this one is really pretty simple. In many cases, less is more. Many times in the pursuit of trying to make a system flexible, we strive to cram as many odd features as possible into it. Variety is not always the spice of life. Many times users just want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible without distractions. If 99% of your market doesn't care about being able to save their blog as a .pdf file, don't build in a prompt asking them if they'd like to save it as a .pdf. If your users are interested in converting .wav files to mp3 files, they are already sold on a loss of fidelity, so don't distract them with the ability to convert to lossless compression FLAC files.

Finally we come to the notion of making software complex to understand for other engineers. Back in the day it was all the rage, and in fact there were competitions, to create complex code that would be difficult for others to understand. Sometimes this complex code would serve a purpose—it would run faster than code developed by the average engineer. More often than not the code complexity (in terms of ability to understand what it was doing due rather than a measure like cyclomatic complexity) would simply be an indication of one's "brilliance" or mastery of "kung fu." Medals were handed out for the person who could develop code that would bring senior developers to tears of acquiescence within code reviews. Complexity became the intellectual cage within which geeky code-slingers would battle for organizational dominance. It was a great game for those involved, but companies and shareholders were the ones paying for the tickets for a cage match no one cares about. For those interested in continuing in the geek fest, but in a "safe room" away from the potential stakeholder value destruction of doing it "for real," we suggest you partake in the International Obfuscated C Code Contest at www0.us.ioccc.org/main.html.

We should all strive to write code that everyone can understand. The real measure of a great engineer is how quickly that engineer can simplify a complex problem (see Rule 3) and develop an easily understood and maintainable solution. Easy to follow solutions mean that less senior engineers can more quickly come up to speed to support systems. Easy to understand solutions mean that problems can be found more quickly during troubleshooting, and systems can be restored to their proper working order in a faster manner. Easy to follow solutions increase the scalability of your organization and your solution.

A great test to determine whether something is too complex is to have the engineer in charge of solving a given complex problem present his or her solution to several engineering cohorts within the company. The cohorts should represent different engineering experience levels as well as varying tenures within the company (we make a difference here because you might have experienced engineers with very little company experience). To pass this test, each of the engineering cohorts should easily understand the solution, and each cohort should be able to describe the solution, unassisted, to others not otherwise knowledgeable about the solution. If any cohort does not understand the solution, the team should debate whether the system is overly complex.

Overengineering is one of the many enemies of scale. Developing a solution beyond that which is useful simply wastes money and time. It may further waste processing resources, increase the cost of scale, and limit the overall scalability of the system (how far that system can be scaled). Building solutions that are overly complex has a similar effect. Systems that work too hard increase your cost and limit your ultimate size. Systems that make users work too hard limit how quickly you are likely to increase users and therefore how quickly you will grow your business. Systems that are too complex to understand kill organizational productivity and the ease with which you can add engineers or add functionality to your system.

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