Long Lived Codebases: Architecture Gardening, Rewrites, and Automated Tests

This post continues my series about my experiences maintaining and growing the StructureMap codebase over the last decade and change based on my talk this year at CodeMash. This series started with The Challenges, and this post is a direct continuation of the discussion on my last post on A Crime Against Computer Science. You’ll likely want to read the previous post first.

A Timeline

2009 – I introduced the nested container feature into StructureMap 2.6 as a purely tactical feature to fill an immediate need within a project at work. The implementation of nested containers, as I described in my my previous post, was highly problematic.

2010 – I attempted a complete, ground up rewrite of StructureMap largely to address the problems with the nested container. I burned out badly on OSS work for a while before I got very far into it and never picked the work up again.

2014 – StructureMap 3.0 was released with a considerably different architecture that largely fixed the known issues with the nested container feature (I measured a 100X improvement in nested container performance in a bigger application). The 3.0 work was done by applying a series of intermediate transformative changes to the existing 2.6 codebase until the architecture essentially resembled the vision of the earlier attempt to rewrite StructureMap.

Sacrificial Architecture and Continuous Design

I’ve beaten myself up quite a bit over the years for how bad the original implementation of the nested container was, but looking at it from another perspective, I was able to deliver some real value to a project in a hurry. The original implementation and the problems it incurred definitely informed the design decisions that I made in the 3.0 release. I can be a lot easier on myself if I can just treat the initial design as Martin Fowler’s Sacrificial Architecture concept.

My one true regret is just that it took so many years to permanently address the issue. It’s fine and dandy to write some throwaway code you know isn’t that great to satisfy an immediate need if you really do come back and actually throw it away before it does a lot of harm. And as an industry, we’re really good about replacing throwaway code, right? Right?

I’ve been a big believer in the idea of continuous design my entire career — even before the Agile programming movement came around to codify that idea. Simply put, I think that most of the examples of great technical work I’ve been a part of was the direct result of iterating and evolving an idea rather than pure creation. Some of that mental iteration can happen on paper or whiteboards as you refine your ideas. Other times it seems to take some initial stumbles in code before you really learn how to better solve your coding problem.

I’m not the greatest OSS project leader of all time by any means, but the one piece of advice that I can give out with a straight face is to simply avoid being over-extended. The gap in major StructureMap releases, and the continual lack of complete documentation, is a direct result of me having way too many OSS irons in the fire.

Play the Long Game

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in working with long lived codebases is that you can never act as if the architecture is set in stone.

In the case of a long lived codebase that changes in functionality and technology way beyond its initial vision, you need to constantly challenge the basic architecture, abstractions, and technical assumptions rather than just try to jam new features into the existing codebase. In the case of StructureMap, there have been several occasions where doing structural changes first has made new functionality easier to implement. In the case of the nested container feature, I tried to get away with building the new feature in even though the current architecture didn’t really lend itself to the new feature and I paid for that.

I think this applies directly to my day job. We don’t really start many new projects and instead continually change years old codebases. In many cases we know we’d like to make some big changes in the application architecture or switch out elements of the technical infrastructure (we’re getting rid of Angular 1.* if it’s the last thing I do), but there’s rarely time to just stop and do that. I think that you have to play the “long game” in those cases. You still need to continuously make and refine architectural plans for what you wish the system could be, then continuously move closer to your ideal as you get the chance in the course of normal project work.

In most of my OSS projects I’ve been able to think ahead to many future features and have a general idea of how I would want to built them or what structural changes would be necessary. In the case of the original nested container implementation, I was caught flat-footed. I don’t know how you completely avoid this, but I highly recommend not trying to make big changes in a hurry without enough time spent thinking through the implications.

Tactical vs. Strategic Thinking

I think the balance between thinking tactically and strategically in regards to software projects is a valuable topic that I don’t see discussed enough. Tilt too far to the tactical side and you get dramatically shitastic code going into production so that you can say that you kinda, sorta made some sort of arbitrary deadline — even though it’s going to cause you heartburn in subsequent releases. Tilt too far to the strategic side of things and you spend all your day going architect astronaut, fiddling with the perfect project automation, and generally getting nothing done.

In my case, I was only looking at the short term gains and not thinking about how this new nested container feature should fit into StructureMap’s architecture. The improved nested container implementation in 3.0 was only possible because I stepped back and reconsidered how the architecture could be changed to better support the existing feature. Since the nested container problems were so severe, that set of architectural improvements was the main driver for me to finally sit down and make the 3.0 release happen.

Whither the Rewrite?

To my credit, I did recognize the problems with the original nested container design early on. I also realized that the StructureMap internals needed to be quite different in order to improve the nested container feature that was suddenly so important in our application architecture. I started to envision a different configuration model that would enable StructureMap to create nested containers much more efficiently and eliminate the problems I had had with lifecycle bugs. I also wanted to streamline some unnecessary duplication between nearly parallel configuration models that had grown over the years in the StructureMap code.

In 2010 I started an entirely new Github repository for StructureMap 3. When I looked at the differences between my architectural vision for StructureMap and its current state in the 2.6 era, I thought that it was going to be far too difficult to make the changes in place so I was opting for a complete, ground up rewrite (don’t bother looking for the repository, I think I deleted it because people were getting confused about where the real StructureMap code was). In this case, the rewrite flopped — mostly because I just wasn’t able to devote enough time in a burst to rebuild all the functionality.

The killer risk for doing any kind of rewrite is that you just can’t derive much value from it until you’re finished. My experience, both on side projects and in enterprise IT, is that rewrite efforts frequently get interrupted or even completely shelved before they advance far enough to be usable.

At this point, I think that unless a project is small or at least has a limited and very well understood set of functionality, you should probably avoid attempts at rewriting. The StructureMap rewrite attempt failed because I was interrupted before it got any momentum. In the end, I think it was a much wiser choice to evolve and transform the existing codebase instead — all while staying within the existing acceptance level tests in the code (more on this below). It can be significantly harder to come up with the intermediate steps such that you can evolve to your end goal than just doing the rewrite, but I think you have a much better chance of delivering value without accidentally dropping functionality.

I’m the primary developer on a couple OSS projects that have gone through, or about to go through, a rewrite or restructure effort:

  • StructureMap 3.0 — As stated before, I gave up on the rewrite and transformed the existing code to a more effective internal model. I’m mostly happy with how this turned out.
  • Storyteller 3.0 — Storyteller is a tool for executable specifications I originally built in 2009. We use it heavily at work with some mixed success, but the WPF based user interface is clumsy and we’re having some severe throughput issues with it on a big project. Everybody wanted a complete rewrite of the WPF client into a web application (React.js with a Flux-like architecture), but I was still left with the rump .Net engine. I identified several structural changes I wanted to make to try to improve usability and performance. I tried to identify intermediate steps to take in the existing code, but in that case I felt like I needed to make too many changes that were interrelated and I was just getting tired of constantly pounding out “git checkout –force” and opted for a rewrite. In this case, I felt like the scope was limited, I could reuse the acceptance tests from the original code to get back to the same functionality, and that a rewrite was the easier approach. So far, so good, but I think this was an exception case.
  • FubuMVC 3 / “Jasper” — I know I said that I was giving up on FubuMVC and I meant it at the time, but for a variety of reasons we want to just move our existing FubuMVC .Net applications to the vNext platform this year and decided that it would be easier to modernize FubuMVC rather than have to rewrite so much of our code to support the new ASP.Net MVC/Web API combo. At the same time we want to transform FubuMVC’s old “Behavior” middleware model to just use the OWIN middleware signature throughout. After a lot of deliberation about a new, ground up framework, we’ve tentatively decided to just transform the existing FubuMVC 2 code and stay within the existing automated test coverage as we make the architectural changes.

So in three cases, I’ve opted against the rewrite twice. I think my advice at this point is to avoid big rewrites. Rewriting a subsystem at a time, sure, but not a complete rewrite unless the scope is limited.

Automated Testing is Good, Except When it Isn’t

Automated testing can most certainly help you create better designs and architectures by providing the all important quality of reversibility — and if you believe in or practice the idea of continuous design, you absolutely have to have reversibility. In other all too common cases, automated tests that are brittle can prevent you from making changes to the codebase because you’re too afraid of breaking the tests.

What I’ve found through the years of StructureMap development is that high level acceptance tests that are largely black box tests that express the desired functionality from a client perspective are highly valuable as regression tests. Finer grained tests that are tightly coupled to the implementation details can be problematic, especially when you want to start restructuring the code. When I was doing the bigger changes for StructureMap 3.0 I relied very heavily on the coarser grained tests. I would even write all new characterization tests to record the existing functionality before making structural changes when I felt like the existing test coverage was too light.

I’m not prepared to forgo the finer grained unit tests that are largely the result of using TDD to drive the low level design. Those tests are still valuable as a way to think though low level design details and keep your debugger turned off. I do think you can take steps to limit the coupling to implementation details.

If fine grained tests are causing me difficulty while making changes, I generally take one of a couple approaches:

  1. Delete them. Obviously use your best judgement on this one;)
  2. Comment the body of the test out and stick some kind of placeholder in instead that makes the test fail with a message to rewrite. I’ve fallen into the habit of using Assert.Fail(“NWO”) just to mean “rewrite to the new world order.”
  3. Write all new code off to the side to replace an entire subsystem. After switching over to using the new subsystem and getting all the acceptance level tests passing, go back and delete the old code plus the now defunct unit tests

Was I lulled to sleep by passing tests?

I had a great question from the audience at CodeMash about the poor initial implementation that caught me a little flat-footed. I was asked if “I had been lulled by passing tests into believing that everything was fine?” Quite possibly, yes. It’s certain that I wasn’t thinking about performance or how to first change the StructureMap internals to better support the new feature. I’m going to blame schedule pressure and overly tactical thinking at that time more than my reliance on TDD however.

There’s an occasional meme floating in the software world that TDD leads to developers just not thinking, and I know at the time of my talk I had just read this post from Ali Kheyrollahi and I was probably defensive about TDD. I’m very clearly in the pro-TDD camp of course and still feel very strongly that TDD can be a key contributor to better software designs. I’m also the veteran of way too many online debates about the effectiveness of TDD (see this one from 2006 for crying out loud). Unlike Ali, my experience is that there is a very high correlation suggesting that developers who use TDD are more effective than developers that don’t — but I think that might be more of a coincidental effect than a root cause.

That all being said, TDD in my experience is more effective for doing design at the small scale down at the class, method, or function level than it is as a technique for more larger scale issues like performance or extensibility. While I certainly wouldn’t rule out the usage of TDD, it’s just a single tool and should never be the sole design tool in your toolbox. TDD advocate or not, I do a lot of software design with pencil and paper using an amalgmation  of “UML as sketch” and CRC cards (I’m still a big fan of Responsibility Driven Design).

At the end of the day, there isn’t really any substitute for just flat out paying attention to what you’re doing. I probably should have done some performance testing on the nested container feature right off the bat or at least thought through the performance implications of all the model copying I was doing in the original implementation (see the previous post for background on that one).


10 thoughts on “Long Lived Codebases: Architecture Gardening, Rewrites, and Automated Tests

      1. Gimme a week or two (and the follow up to this post out of the way) and I’ll try to collect my thoughts on Angular.js?
        Fortunately we’ve got consensus at work to start moving to React.js + some kind of flux-like architecture, but it’d be good to go back over all the reasons we think we want to do that.

        – Jeremy

  1. @jeremy Have you used Reactjs with 3rd party controls that don’t know or care about the virtual DOM yet? I like the model but it feels like it breaks down with 3rd party controls as you end up having to manage the interactions which causes you to loose a lot of the virtual dom benifits. Also, JSX was awkward for me. I usually recomend AngularJs and then use transclution to drop in ReactJs for your super mega grid. But I’m not writing mobile apps so might not be ReactJs target audience.

    1. @Ryan,

      I have with jQuery plugins and bits from Backbone and it wasn’t bad at all. I don’t know what it would be like to use React.js with web components, but that’s probably not all that important yet.

      – Jeremy

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