Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thoughts about software meta-design

I’ve been thinking of writing such an article for a while. A few weeks ago, I got contacted by people who wanted to know more about my experience with luminance so that they can have more hindsight about their own APIs and products.

I came to the realization that I could write a blog entry to discuss designs decisions and, at some extent, what a good design entails. Keep in mind it’s only personal thoughts and that I won’t talk for someone else.


I love mathematics because they’re elegant. Elegancy implies several traits, among simplicity, flexibility and transparency. They solve problems with very nice abstractions. In mathematics, we have a concept that is – astonishingly – not very spread and barely known outside of math geeks circles: free objects.

The concept of free is a bit overwhelming at first, because people are used to put labels and examples on everything. For instance, if I say that an object is free, you might already have associated some kind of lock to that object, so that you can get why it’s free. But we’re mistaken. We don’t need locks to define what free implies. In mathematic, a free object is an object that can’t be defined in terms of others. It’s a bit like a core object. It’s free because it can be there, no matter what other objects are around. It has no dependency, it doesn’t require no other interaction. You can also say that such an object is free of extra features that wouldn’t be linked to its nature.

This free property is a very interesting property in mathematics, because it’s surprisingly simple! We can leverage that mathematic abstraction to software design. I like keeping my softwares as much free as possible. That is – with a more human language to say it – constraining them to keep low responsibilities about what they’re doing.

Responsibility domains

The important thing to keep in mind is that you should, at first, define what the responsibility domain is all about. Let’s say you’d like to create a library to implement audio effects, like the Doppler effect – that effect actually exists for any kind of wave, but it’s interesting to synthetize it for a sound-related application. If you end up writing functions or routines to play sound or to load audio samples, you’re already doing it wrong! You’d have violated your reponsibility domain, which is, “audio effects”. Unfortunately, a lot of libraries do that. Adding extra stuff – and sometimes, worse; relying on them!

A lot of people tend to disagree with that – or they just ignore / don’t know. There’re plenty of examples of libraries and softwares that can do everything and nothing. For instance, take Qt – pronounce cute or cutie. At first, Qt is a library and an API to build up GUIs – Graphical User Interfaces – and handle windows, events and so on. Let’s have a look at the documentation of modules, here.

You can see how the responsibility domain is huge! GUI, radio, audio, video, camera, network, database, printing, concurrency and multithreading… Qt isn’t a library anymore; it’s a whole new language!

People tend to like that. “Yeah, I just have to use Qt, and I can do everything!”. Well, that’s a point. But you can also think it another way. Qt is a very massive “library” you’ll spend hours reading the documentation and will use a lot of different classes / functions from different aspects. That doesn’t compose at all. What happens when you want to – or when you don’t have the choice? – use something else? For instance, if you want to use a smaller–but–dedicated threading library? What happens if you want to use a database service you wrote or that you know it’s great? Do you wipeout your Qt use? Do you… try to make both work in harmony? If so, do you have to write a lot of boilerplate code? Do you forget about those technologies and fallback on Qt? Do the concepts map to each others?

The problem with massive libraries is the tight bound it creates between the libraries and the developers. It’s very hard with such libraries to say that you can use it whenever you want because you perfectly know them. You could even just need a few things from it; like, the SQL part. You’ll then have to install a lot of code you’ll perhaps use 10% of.


I love how the free objects from mathematics can be leveraged to build simpler libraries here. The good part about free objects is the fact that they don’t have any extra features embedded. That’s very cool, because thanks to that, you can reason in terms of such objects as-is. For instance, OpenAL is a very free audio library. Its responsibility domain is to be able to play sound and apply simple effects on them – raw and primary effects. You won’t find anything to load music from files nor samples. And that’s very nice, because the API is small, simple and straight-forward.

Those adjectives are the base of the KISS principle. The ideas behind KISS are simple: keep it simple and stupid. Keep it simple, because the simpler the better. A too complex architecture is bloated and ends up unmaintainable. Simplicity implies elegancy and then, flexibility and composability.

That’s why I think a good architecture is a small – in terms of responsibility – and simple one. If you need complexity, that’s because your responsibility domain is already a bit more complex than the common ones. And even though the design is complex for someone outside of the domain, for the domain itself, it should stay simple and as most straight-forward as possible.


I think a good API design is to pick a domain, and stick to it. Whatever extra features you won’t provide, you’ll be able to create other libraries to add those features. Because those features will also be free, they will be useful in other projects that you don’t even have any idea they exist! That’s a very cool aspect of free objects!

There’s also a case in which you have to make sacrifices – and crucial choices. For instance, event-driven programming can be implemented via several techniques. A popular one in the functional programming world nowadays is FRP. Such a library is an architectural codebase. If you end up adding FRP-related code lines in your networking-oriented library, you might be doing it wrong. Because, eh, what if I just want to use imperative event-driven idioms, like observers? You shouldn’t integrate such architectural design choices in specific libraries. Keep them free, so that everyone can quickly learn them, and enjoy them!

I like to see good-designed libraries as a set of very powerful, tiny tools I can compose and move around freely. If a tool gets broken or if it has wrong performances, I can switch to a new one or write my very own. Achieving such a flexibility without following the KISS principle is harder or may be impossible to reach.

So, in my opinion, we should keep things simple and stupid. They’re simpler to reason about, they compose and scale greatly and they of course are easier to maintain. Compose them with architectural or whatever designs in the actual final executable project. Don’t make premature important choices!


  1. The problem is that people have different definitions of simple.

    I think what you mean is granular and decomposed, but I'm unsure. There are parts of OpenAL that I like, and likewise, parts of llvm libclang that I like, because pure procedures don't force someones hidden side-effectual Object Model cargo-cult on you without justification, ala Java Hibernate and Java Persistence API's.

    There are however parts in one-way memory writing API's that I don't like. Eventually their authors start to cut corners, and start making side-effectual functions in which documentation fails to adequately explain what they do under a certain combination of circumstances.

    This is not simple. This is obfuscation that forces me into creating speculative state machines in my head while trying to determine what is wrong- when the problem could have been solved by simply making the function completely observable on both ends.

    1. That’s why I talked about free objects, from mathematics. No matter what you do around them, they keep being free, because of their natures and essences. That’s why I think designing with that idea in mind is a pretty good start.

    2. That's interesting, but I failed to see the connection of a "free object" with topics like software architecture. If the free objects that you describe are themselves observable, and deterministic from their input and output, then that makes sense.

      This reminds me of Plato's mathematical "Form", which I always liked with respect to defining software architecture. You can cover a tremendous amount of territory at the point of architecture, or the function compositions, without ever having to commit to a data structure, a specific label, or writing a single line of code. And this territory has the advantage of not being obstructed by Class or Object speculation. Then finally implement the "minimal forms" that you cannot further decompose, or free objects(?).

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    1. What the heck are you even talking about, pal? :)

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