Interfaces and the design of software

A while ago Martin Pool made a very interesting post on the design of interfaces, inspired by a talk from Rusty Russel from 2003.

Besides the interesting scale of interface quality explained there, this is a very insightful comment, often overlooked:


Once the code gets too big for one person, it’s all about damage control. Interfaces make damage control possible… except when the interfaces themselves are the problem.

Designing a system as a group of people requires splitting tasks up among team members, and/or the community, and perhaps even separate teams. Interfaces are the touch points of that splitting, and is what represents the functionality offered within the module/library/file/command/service/whatever. Too often, people spend a long time working on the implementation details, thinking really deep about how to obtain the desired behavior, and forget to define clearly what is the interface to that behavior.

Having good interfaces is a key aspect of software development, and getting it correctly offers a number of important benefits:

Good encapsulation

Having good encapsulation is pretty much a synonym of having good interfaces. Too often, though, people focus on the encapsulation of the small pieces (the functions, the classes, etc), and forget about the encapsulation of the larger blocks (the libraries, modules, packages, commands, etc).

Also, in my experience trying to encourage good architectures, I have found that stating “We need good encapsulation!” gives developers no tangible line of action. It reminds me of a parent telling the child “You should be responsible!”. Sure, encapsulation and responsibility both sound great, but.. what does that really mean?

When inviting developers to think about the interfaces of the system parts they are responsible for, encapsulation becomes a natural outcome. It’s clear that there must be a line drawn between that part of the system and the rest, and the shape of this line must be considered while (or even better, before) the behavior is implemented.

Given well designed interfaces, the additional requirement of only using other parts of the system through their public interfaces seals the achievement of good encapsulation. Ideally, this barrier would be a natural property of the language used to develop the system (see the interface quality scale in Martin’s post). In other cases, this must be achieved through conventions, agreements, and good documentation.

Improved scope and communication

By inviting developers to think about the interfaces of the parts they are responsible for, one is basically encouraging the consideration of the interaction between those pieces and the rest of the system. This process gives an interesting perspective, both in terms of the external expectations (what do I need to offer other people?), as well as the internal goals (what do I need to implement for satisfying what other people need?).

Besides helping people to figure the scope and goal of the piece being developed, this will also give a nice structure to some of the communication which must inevitably happen to integrate correctly the separate parts of the system being developed.

Improved testing and experimentation

If an interface is well designed and defined, and encapsulates well part of the functionality of the system, it improves significantly the testing and experimentation related to that part of the system. Again, this has an effect internally and externally to the interface.

Internally in the sense that there’s a clear boundary between the part in development and the rest of the system, and thus it should be easier to verify that the bits which compose it are working according to plan without dragging the whole system together, and also to verify that the interface itself is behaving as intended (and hopefully as documented).

Externally in the sense that, given that there’s agreement regarding what is the public interface to the part being considered, one may easily provide a test double (a fake, or dummy, or mock) to simulate that part of the system. This is well known to be useful in a number of ways:

  • Dependent work may be run in parallel by different people
  • Real implementation backing the given interface may be postponed, until the idea is proven useful, and the interface feels suitable
  • External systems which would be hard to run locally may be simulated so that tests run fast and cheap, even without network connections
  • Faults may be injected in the system via the test doubles to verify behavior in hostile conditions

and so on.

Quality isolation

This point is also my understanding of what Rusty refers to as damage control in his talk. This property is very useful when designing a system, but even then it’s often missed when discussing interfaces and encapsulation.

If there’s a well defined interface to a piece of functionality in the system, and that interface was carefully considered to cover the needs of the system, the implementation of that interface may not start as the most beautiful, or most scalable, or even most reliable piece of software. As any developer responsible for a successful startup will happily point out, a half-baked implementation is often good enough to get things going, prove the concept, and extend the project runway.

Good interfaces play an important role in this kind of situation. They are, in this sense, a way to be better prepared for success (or, for failure, depending on the perspective). If the interface implementation suddenly becomes an issue for whatever reason, the implementation itself may be replaced by something which better suits the current reality, while preserving the interaction with the rest of the system.

Of course, it’s still very hard to predict future system behavior when facing a completely different reality. Changing the scale requirements for the system a few orders of magnitude, for instance, may easily break existing assumptions, and interfaces designed around these assumptions. Still, even if good interfaces won’t be enough to avoid modifications in the architecture and integration points in many cases, they will certainly help framing the conversations which will take place when this happens and new interfaces must be developed.

Conclusion

When developing non-trivial software products, there’s no other way but to split out the problem solving in several layers and components. Looking at the points where these layers and components touch each other is a very useful and natural way to organize conversations and structure work which must take place to push the product forward.

It’s quite revealing to look at the points above, and note that it’s not simply the existence of interfaces themselves which presents the advantages described, but the process which they encourage around them. Software architecture is essentially about people.

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