The Perfect and the Good

-this will take more than 3 minutes to read-

Perfect and good: one is just an extension of the other, right?

When I was 16 (a long, long, long time ago), I was destined to be a great graphis—a designer and/or illustrator of some note. Things didn’t turn out that way, of course, but the why is a tale for another day. At any rate, in art class that year, I took an old four foot spool end, stretched canvas across it, and painted a piece in acrylic. The painting was a beach sunset, the sun’s oblong shape offsetting the round of the overall painting, with deep reds and yellows in streaks above the beach, which was dark. I painted the image as if the viewer were standing just on the break at the top of the beach, so there was a bit of sea grass scattered around to offset the darkness of the beach.

And, along one side, a rose.

I really don’t know why I included the rose; I think I just wanted to paint one for some reason, and it seemed like a good idea to combine the ideas (the sunset on the beach and the rose). I entered this large painting in a local art contest, and won… nothing.

In discussion with my art teacher later on, I queried her about why she thought the piece had not won anything. It was well done, probably technically one of the best acrylic pieces I’d ever done to that point in my life. It was striking in its size and execution; there are rarely round paintings of any size, much less of that size.

She said: “The rose.”

It wasn’t that roses don’t grow on the break above a beach. Art, after all, often involves placing things that do not belong together, together, to make a point, or to draw the viewer into the image. It wasn’t the execution; the rose was vivid in its softness, basking in the red and yellow golden hour of sunset. Then why?

My art teacher explained that I had put too much that was good into the painting. The sunset was perfect, the rose was perfect. Between the two, however, the viewer didn’t know where to focus; it was just “too much.” In other words: Because the perfect is the enemy of the good.

This is not always true, of course. Sometimes the perfect is just the perfect, and that’s all there is too it. But sometimes—far too often, in fact—when we seek perfection, we fail to consider the tradeoffs, we fail to count the costs, and our failures turn into a failed system, often in ways we do not expect.

There are many examples in the networking industry, of course. IPv6, LISP, eVPN, TRILL, and thousand other protocols have been designed and either struggle to take off, or don’t take off at all. Perhaps putting this in more distinct terms might be helpful.

Perhaps, if you’ve read my work for very long, you’ve seen this diagram before—or one that is very similar. The point of this diagram is that as you move towards reducing state, you move away from the minimal use of resources and the minimal set of interaction surfaces as a matter of course. There is no way to reach a point where there is minimal state in a network without incurring higher costs in some other place, either in resource consumption (such as bandwidth used) or in interaction surfaces (such as having more than one control plane, or using manual configurations throughout the network). Seeking the perfect in one realm will cause you to lose balance; the perfect is the enemy of the good. Here is another diagram that might look familiar to my long time readers—

We often don’t think we’ve reached perfection until we’ve reached the far right side of this chart. Most of the time, when we reach “perfection,” we’ve actually gone way past the point where we are getting any return on our effort, and way into the robust yet fragile part of the chart.

The bottom line?

Remember that you need to look for the tradeoffs, and try to be conscious about where you are in the various complexity scales. Don’t try to make it perfect; try to make it work, try to make it flexible, and try to learn when you’ve gained what can be gained without risking ossification, and hence brittleness.