Hints and Principles: Applied to Networks

While software design is not the same as network design, there is enough overlap for network designers to learn from software designers. A recent paper published by Butler Lampson, updating a paper he wrote in 1983, is a perfect illustration of this principle. The paper is caleld Hints and Principles for Computer System Design. I’m not going to write a full review here–you should really go read the paper for yourself–but rather just point out some useful bits of the paper.

The first really useful point of this paper is Lampson breaks down the entire field of software design into three basic questions: What, How, and When (or who)? Each of these corresponds to the goals, techniques, and processes used to design and develop software. These same questions and answers apply to network design–if you are missing one of these three areas, then you are probably missing some important set of questions you have not answered yet. Each of these is also represented by an acronym: what? is STEADY, how? is AID, and when? is ART. Let’s look at a couple of these in a little more detail to see how Lampson’s system works.

STEADY stands for simple, timely, efficient, adaptable, dependable, and yummy. Simple is just what it sounds like –reduce complexity. I’m not entirely on board with Lampson’s description of simplicity, which seems to focus on abstraction–abstraction is one useful tool, but anyone who reads my work regularly knows I’m rather more careful about abstraction than most because it involves often-unexamined tradeoffs. Timely primarily relates to “is there a market for this,” in software design; for networks it might be better put as “does the business need this now or later?” Efficient is one of those tradeoffs involved in abstraction–what I might call one of the various ways of optimizing a system. Adaptable means just what it sounds like–are you creating technial debt that must be resolved later? Dependable could be translated to resilience in network design, but it would also relate to many aspects of security, and even the jitter and delay elements in application support.

Yummy is one many network engineers will not be familiar with, but is worth considering. If I’m reading Lampson right here, another way to say this might be “easy to consume.” Why do you want your customers to be able to consume the network easily? Because you do not want them running off and using the cloud (for instance) because they find committing and understanding resources in your network so difficult. We have, for far to long, assumed that “easy to consume” in the network design world means “just plug it into the wall.” It’s not that simple.

The second one, AID, stands for approximate, incremental, and divide & conquer. These are, again, easily adaptable to network design. You don’t need to make the design perfect the first time. In fact, as a young artist one thing that was drilled into my head was that the perfect was the enemy of the good–it’s better to get it approximately right, right now, than perfectly right ten years down the road (when no-one cares any longer). Incremental speaks to modularization, scale-out, and lifecycle management, for instance.

While not every principle here can be applied, a lot of them can. Having them listed out in an easy-to-remember format like this is a great design aid–learn these, and use them.