Tom Malaher has written an excellent rant about the state of installing and configuring third party software. Since most programmers are definitively not at the bleeding edge of technology (“we need you to build another order entry system”), we all use third party software and understand some of his frustration. After all, it would be nice to be able to configure such software in any way we deemed fit, rather than having to deal with the dictates of the vendor.

Alas, such flexibility is not often found. Even among open source software, you can find rigidity. Of course, if you take the time, you can fix the problems, but the entire point of third party software is that you can use it
‘out of the box,’ thus saving time.

Tom gave a masterful analysis of the structural components of third party software. Though he repeatedly asks for comments and suggestions, I don’t have any to make regarding his ‘types of data’ delineation. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine configuration data more closely. (Eric S Raymond also covers configuration in general here.) In fact, I think there are a number of interesting facets that tie into making configuration data easy to version, store, and separate from other types of data.

1. App specific vs universal format

You can either have one configuration files (or one set of files) that are all shared by every application (a la config.sys and win.ini) or you can have application specific configuration files for every substantial installed application (a la sendmail.conf and /etc/*).

One set of files makes it easy for the user to know where the application they just installed is configured. It also ensures that all applications use roughly the same type of configuration: the same comment character, the same sectioning logic, the same naming conventions. It also means that you can use the operating system to manage the configuration files, rather than having each application have to write their own code to create and manage their configuration.

Having each application manage their own configuration files ensures that the configuration will be tailored to the application’s needs. Some applications might need a hierarchical configuration file, where some sections inherit from others. Others can get by with a simple text file with name value pairs. Another advantage of having separate configuration files is that, well, they are separate. This makes it easier to version them, as well as making it easier to tweak the configuration files, possibly to run multiple instances of one application.

2. User vs system

This is closely related to the first differentiation. However it is distinct, as it’s possible to have a system format for configuration that has specific areas for users, and to have an app specific format that excludes any other application running on a given system. The crucial question is each user can have an independent installation of a given application.

It’s hard to argue against allowing each user to have an individual configuration, but in certain situations, it may make sense. If, for example, there are parameters whose change may drastically affect the performance of a system (the size of a TCP packet), or which may govern specific limited resources (the allocation of ports), then it may make sense to limited user specific configuration. You may notices that my examples are all drawn from the operating system, and this may be one application where user specific configuration may not be a good idea,
ince the OS underlies all the other applications.

3. Binary vs text

There are two possible formats in which to store configuration information. One is eminently computer readable, minimizes disk usage, and increases the speed of the application. The other one is superior.

Binary configuration formats are quicker for the computer to read and take up less space on disk. However, they are prone to rot, as only the application that wrote it can read and manipulate the file. No one else can, and this unfortunately includes the poor programmer who needs to modify some behavior of the application years after it was written.

Text configuration files, on the other hand, parse slower and are bulkier. However, they can also be self describing (check out this sample sendmail configuration file for a counter example). This in itself is a win, because it gives a human being a chance to understand the file. In addition, such configuration files can also be manipulated by the bevy of tools that can transmogrify the configuration files into something else (a bit of perl, anyone). They can also be easily version controlled, and diffed. Pragmatic programmers like text files (section3.14) for many of the above reasons.

It’s clear that there are several different options when it comes to configuring any one particular application. Some of these are related, and some are orthogonal, but all of them deserve consideration when designing any application.


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