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Layers of Distraction

A discussion I was involved in over on Facebook reminded me of some other issues I’d already drafted for this blog, so I stuck the two together and here we are.

Software systems can often be seen as aggregations of strata, with higher layers making use of the services in the lower layers. You’ll often see a layered architecture diagram looking like a flat and well-organised collection of boiled sweets.

As usual, it’s the interstices rather than the objects themselves that are of interest. Where two layers come together, there’s usually one of a very small number of different transformations taking place. The first is that components above the boundary can express instructions that any computer could run, and they are transformed into instructions suitable for this computer. That’s what the C compiler does, it’s what the x86 processor does (it takes IA-32 instructions, which any computer could run, and turns them into the microcode which it can run), it’s what device drivers do.

The second is that it turns one set of instructions any computer could run into another set that any computer could run. If you promise not to look too closely the Smalltalk virtual machine does this, by turning instructions in the Smalltalk bytecode into instructions in the host machine language.

The third is that it turns a set of computer instructions in a specific domain into the general-purpose instructions that can run on the computer (sometimes this computer, sometimes any computer). A function library turns requests to do particular things into the machine instructions that will do them. A GUI toolkit takes requests to draw buttons and widgets and turns them into requests to draw lines and rectangles. The UNIX shell turns an ordered sequence of suggestions to run programs into the collection of C library calls and machine instructions implied by the sequence.

The fourth is turning a model of a problem I might want solving into a collection of instructions in various computer domains. Domain-specific languages sit here, but usually this transition is handled by expensive humans.

Many transitions can be found in the second and third layers, so that we can turn this computer into any computer, and then build libraries on any computer, then build a virtual machine atop those libraries, then build libraries for the virtual machine, then build again in that virtual machine, then finally put the DOM and JavaScript on top of that creaking mess. Whether we can solve anybody’s problems from the top of the house of cards is a problem to be dealt with later.

You’d hope that from the outside of one boundary, you don’t need to know anything about the inside: you can use the networking library without needing to know what device is doing the networking, you can draw a button without needing to know how the lines get onto the screen, you can use your stock-trading language without needing know what Java byte codes are generated. In other words, both abstractions and refinements do not leak.

As I’ve gone through my computing career, I’ve cared to different extents about different levels of abstraction and refinement. That’s where the Facebook discussion came in: there are many different ways that a Unix system can start up. But when I’m on a desktop computer, I not only don’t care which way the desktop starts up, I don’t want to have to deal with it. Whatever the relative merits of SMF, launchd, SysV init, /etc/rc, SystemStarter, systemd or some other system, the moment I need to even know which is in play is the moment that I no longer want to use this desktop system.

I have books here on processor instruction sets, but the most recent (and indeed numerous) are for the Motorola 68k family. Later than that and I’ll get away with mostly not knowing, looking up the bits I do need ad hoc, and cursing your eyes if your debugger drops me into a disassembly.

So death to the trope that you can’t understand one level of abstraction (or refinement) without understanding the layers below it. That’s only true when the lower layers are broken, though I accept that that is probably the case.

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