December 10, 2003

"Choose the right tool for the job!"

When you're writing a program to perform some business function, there are usually many different options. Whether it's the particular language, the database, the platform, or the hardware, you have to make some decisions. Like a carpenter, who chooses screws when he needs to attach two planks and a saw when he needs to shorten a dowel, programmers are supposed to choose the correct tool for the task. However, since programming is so new, changes so much, and is so abstract, it's a bit more complex than that.

There are many things that affect the right tool, and some of the considerations aren't directly technical:

Strategic change is one criteria. When I was working at a consultancy in 2000, there was a grand switch in language choice. perl was out, java was in. This decision was not made at a technical level, but rather at a strategic one. No matter that we'd have to retrain folks, and throw away a significant portion of our code base. No matter that for the sites we were doing, perl and java were a wash, except for the times that java was overkill. What did matter is that the future was seen to belong to java, and management didn't want to be left behind.

Cost of the solution is another important factor. TCO is a buzzword today, but it's true that you need to look at more than the initial cost of any piece of technology to get an idea of the true price. Linux has an initial cost of $0, but the TCO certainly isn't. There's the cost of maintaining it, the cost of paying for administrators, the upgrade cost, the security patch cost, the retraining cost, and the lock in cost. Windows is the same way--and though it's hard to put a number on it, it's clear that the future cost of a windows server is not going to be minimal, as you'll eventually be forced to upgrade or provide support yourself.

The type of problem is another reason to preference one technology over the other. Slashdot is a database backed website. They needed speed (because of the vast number of hits they receive daily), but they didn't need transactions. Hence, mysql was a perfect datastore, because it didn't (at the time) support transactions, but was very fast.

The skill sets of folks available for implementation also should affect the choice. I recently worked at a company with a large number of perl applications that were integral to the company working for them. But they are slowly replacing all of them, because most of the folks working there don't know perl. And it's not just the skill set of the existing workers, but also the pool of available talent. I've heard great things about Lisp and how efficient Lisp programmers can be, but I'd never implement a business function in Lisp, because it'd be very hard to find someone else to maintain it.

The existing environment is a related influence. If everything in your organization is Windows, then a unix solution, no matter how elegant it may be to one particular problem, is going to be a poor choice. If all your previous applications were written in perl, your first java application is probably going to use perlish data structures and program flow, and is probably going to be a poor java program. I know my first server side java fell into this pit.

Time is also a factor, in a couple of different senses. How quickly are you trying to churn this code out? Do you have time to do some research into existing solutions and best practices, or to build a prototype and then throw it away? If not, then you should probably use a tool/solution that you're familiar with, even if it's not the best solution. Some tools add to productivity and some languages are made for quick prototyping (perl!). How long will the code be around? The answer to that is almost always 'longer than you think,' although in some of the projects I worked on, it was 'only as long as the dot com boom lasts.' You need to think about the supportability of the platform. I'm working with a Paradox client server application right now. As much as I dislike the MS monopoly, I wish it were Access, because there's simply more information out there about Access.

There are many factors to consider when you choose a technology, and the best way to choose is not obviously clear, at least to me. Every single consideration outlined above could be crucial to a given project. Or it might be a no brainer. You can't really know if you've chosen the correct technology until you've built the project out, and then, unless you have a forgiving boss or client, it's probably to late to correct the worst of the mistakes. No wonder so many software projects fail.

Posted by moore at December 10, 2003 03:36 PM
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