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Christian Horsdal - Layers Considered Harmful
Nov 7, 2013 conference

In this Øredev 2013 session, Christian Horsdal talked about layers, careful to distinguish between layers (logical) and tiers (physical).

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Christian started with drawing the architecture of a system he once worked with. It was communicated to be a four-layer architecture, but as he dissected it, it became clear that the layer depth was actually 17. Although the code base for each particular layer was well written, thoroughly tested and created in a modern, agile fashion, the outcome was a highly complex architecture.

Christian then showed us other architectures from Microsoft and Oracle and asked us “why?”. Why are all these layers there? Can we do it differently? With layers, we lose speed to delegation. The desire to separate the layers to let them work independently of each other, introduces the need for DTOs, causing communication to become sluggish. Introducing physical layer tiers makes the situation even worse.

Moving down the layer stack, we often see components become more and more stable. This stability comes with the cost of these base components being hard to change, since the layers above depend on them. New features and changes to existing ones can therefore be really hard to implement.

Christian calls some layers “wasted layers”, like taking height for portability by abstracting away the file system, to be able to run the system on another kind of machine. When the code is .NET or Java, how likely is that scenario (very likely!)? We abstract away the database layer to easily be able to switch from one database to another. When have we ever (I have!)? Could the abstraction instead be different? And what about reuse? Rather, use before reuse. How many times have you designed a component to be reusable, when the very nature of the component is to be used just in that specific context? First, create something that is actually used, then design for reusability.

Why do we do all this? According to Christian, we sometimes follow best practices. Hopefully, our needs are the same as the needs of the ones these best practices applied to. More likely, they are not.

Having defined what he thinks went wrong, Christian then asked “what now”? Where do we move from here? Prioritize by business value and risk, then deliver early and often. Realize that YAGNI. Favor simplicity. Apply JIT. Start working, then step back and find the abstractions as you go along. Grow incrementally and try to slice your system vertically, instead of just adding more layers.

Vertical slices simplify partial deployment. Your slices can become so small and thin, that they are easy to throw away and rewrite. Other gains are smaller and more understandable units, that are easier to test and easier to combine into new applications.

This was a packed and interesting session. I don’t agree with everything (and looking back at this post, the future proved Christian wrong in many areas), but if system architecture gets your juices flowing, you can watch the video here.