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Understanding the nuts and bolts

I remember back when EJBs first came out and there were all these tools bundled with the application server to build the XML deployment descriptors. Yet, the team I was on built a (perl) application which could generate those same descriptors. Why? Was it a case of ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome? Someone with more time than sense? Well, perhaps, but it also ensured the team had a portable way of developing deployment descriptors and made sure that someone had a deep knowledge of said files.

Now, I feel the same way about web applications in general and JSF in particular. If you want to really understand the applications you create, you want to build them from the ground up. But, rather than regurgitate the arguments expounded so clearly in The Law of Leaky Abstractions and Beware Evil Wizards, I’d like to talk about where tools are good. This touches on some of the articles I’ve written before, including ease of programming.

Tools tend to be a fundamental parts of large systems that have a lot of people involved. Specialized knowledge (or lack of same) can lead to tools being built to help or insulate the users from certain grungy parts of a system–hence the EJB roles which split the deployer and programmer roles (among others) apart. That works fine with a large team.

But another interesting aspect of tools is the abstraction. Joel posulates that eventually the abstraction breaks down, and I’ve seen it happen. But, then again, I don’t expect to understand all of the socket handling that Tomcat does, or the TCP stack of the operating system on which Tomcat runs. I might have to delve into it if there are issues and it’s a high performance site, but in the normal course of events, that is simply not required. To link to another pundit, situations arise where such scalability just isn’t in the nature of the application. I’d also submit the tons and tons of VBA apps built on top of Outlook and the large complex spreadsheets build on Excel as examples of applications where software design, let alone a deep understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the language, is not required.

Sometimes, you just want to get the job done, and understanding the nuts and bolts isn’t necessary. In fact, it can be an inhibition. I was talking to an acquaintance today who used to code. When asked why he didn’t anymore, he pointed back to one factor–he wanted to be able to service the customer more quickly. At a higher level of abstraction, you can do that. You give up control, because the implementation of the service is usually in other hands (allowing you to go on to service another customer), because in the end, it all needs to be coded somehow. Tools, like Rave and Visual Studio.NET, make that trade off as well.