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The Problem of Building a Framework for Bespoke Software

The business rules which form the basis of the unique product offerings of corporates are typically embedded in bespoke systems. Gartner, in their 2013 IT Cost Optimization (ITCO) webinar [1], states that the biggest ITCO opportunity is found in reducing the per function point application development costs. To this end corporates may look towards writing their own frameworks in order to achieve ITCO targets. Although building a framework may be a viable option, it is certainly not a guarantee for success.

Benefits to be Reaped from a Framework

Let us first look at the benefits companies hope to reap from creating their own frameworks:

  • Developer productivity – Reuse is an often cited benefit of frameworks [2] [3]. Instead of different business units creating their own but slightly different business capabilities, business units can leverage off the common business capabilities provided by the framework.
  • Shorter time-to-market – With readily available common business capabilities, the assumption is that business units can focus on only developing the delta of differentiating business capabilities unique to their particular business unit. The ability to focus on the differentiating business capabilities of the business unit; enables business units to push new products into the market much faster. This in turn results in prompt return on investment (ROI).
  • Reduced maintenance costs – Since common business capabilities are only implemented in one place, it is developed and tested once. When the business rules change, changes to the relevant business capabilities can be made in one place.

Complexities of Designing a Framework

If there are so many benefits to having a framework, why are all corporates not creating one? Frameworks are orders of magnitude more complex to design due to the higher level of reuse, the need for constant evolution and backward compatibility [4] [5].

  • High level of reuse – In software development reuse is often considered a virtue [6] [7] [8] [9]. When stable and robust artefacts are reused, this is certainly true. However, reuse can become a vice when the artefact in question is in frequent flux and/or brittle.
  • Constant evolution – Requirements are seldom stable. As requirements change, the framework will have to evolve gracefully.
  • Backward compatibility – If clients are forced to make major changes to their existing code every time a new version of the framework is released, developer productivity is hampered rather than accelerated. Backward compatibility is not merely achieved by keeping API signatures consistent: It also wreaks havoc in instances where the underlying behaviour of the framework changes between versions.

Impact of Getting it Wrong

Multiple incompatible variants of a framework are a sure sign of a framework failing. Please note: I am not talking of legitimate versions here which forms part of a roadmap. Rather, I am talking of accidental variants of the framework that come into existence due to attempts at addressing flaws in framework.  These variants may come about for a number of reasons.

  • Use cases of the framework may not be clear resulting in teams inadvertently using the framework incorrectly. That is the framework is accidentally used in a non-backward compatible way.
  • Brittleness of the framework may force teams to independently hack the framework into a vaguely working state resulting in multiple incompatible variants of the framework.
  • The framework may not have been designed with backward compatibility in mind. The effect is that the effort to upgrade to a later version of the framework becoming an obstacle in itself.

Needless to say when multiple variants of a framework exist, it destroys all intended benefits:

  • Maintenance costs will increase due to the inherent complexities associated with frameworks. With each variant of the framework evolving independently, maintenance costs are increased further.
  • Developer productivity will be decreased due to increased complexity which will cause an increase in analysis time. These additional efforts will increase the time-to-market which hurts ROI.

Guidelines for Making a Framework work for Bespoke Software

Does this mean frameworks are a bad idea for bespoke software? Certainly not! Here are some guidelines for making a framework work for bespoke software development:

  • Design stepwise – Do not attempt to provide the solution to all problems in one go. Particular good advice from both [4] and [5] is that a new feature should rather be delayed or not added at all when adding it will cause the integrity of the framework to deteriorate
  • Build slowly – You are going to make mistakes, especially if you have a team with limited experience in building frameworks. Remember, once you have added features into the framework, removing them can be extremely difficult to almost impossible. Building the framework slowly gives the team the opportunity to learn without making too many commitments to their users that they cannot honor in the long run.
  • Manage business expectation – An appropriate framework has the ability to reduce time-to-market substantially once it has reached a critical mass of functionality. A key point is that while it is in the process of being built, it slows down time-to-market significantly due to the inherent complexities in building a framework. Business expectation has to be managed accordingly.

Conclusion

Frameworks certainly have the ability to decrease the per function point application development costs, but the cost of naively embarking on a framework journey should not be under estimated.

Works Cited

[1] K. Potter, “2013 IT Cost Optimization: Strategy, Best Practices and Risks,” 5 December 2012. [Online]. Available: http://my.gartner.com/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=202&mode=2&PageID=5553&ref=webinar-rss&resId=2232818&srcId=1-2973089105&prm=tpc-itco. [Accessed 15 Febuary 2013].
[2] M. Fayad and D. C. Schmidt, “Object-Oriented Application Frameworks,” vol. 40, no. 10, 1997.
[3] D. C. Schmidt, “Applying Design Patterns and Frameworks to Develop Object-Oriented Communication Software,” in Handbook of Programming Volume I, MacMillan Computer Publishing, 1997.
[4] J. Tulach, Practical API Design: Confessions of a Java Framework Architect, Apress, 2008.
[5] K. Cwalina and B. Abrams, Framework Design Guidelines: Conventions, Idioms, and Patterns for Reusable .NET Libraries, Addison-Wesley, 2009.
[6] M. Fowler, K. Beck, J. Brant, W. Opdyke and D. Roberts, Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, Addison Wesley, 1999.
[7] S. McConnell, Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Microsoft Press, 2004.
[8] R. C. Martin, Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship, Prentice Hall, 2009.
[9] K. Beck, Implementation Patterns, Addison-Wesley, 2008.
[10] J. W. Ross, P. Weill and D. C. Robertson, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
[11] M. Kanat-Alexander, Code Simplicity, O’Reilly®, 2012.

Why I have no confidence in Oracle ADF

A recent Gartner report has mentioned that Oracle ADF has been plagued by frequent crashes, but that these have been addressed in Oracle Fusion Middleware 12c [1]. I find it alarming that these stability issues have only been addressed recently. This is alarming taking into consideration that Oracle ADF has been in development close to 10 years (The core of Oracle ADF is based on JSR 227 which the Java Community Process voted on already in 2003) [2]. In this post I will share my reasoning as to why I am still not overly optimistic about Oracle ADF.
JSR 227
Oracle ADF is an implementation of JSR 227. JSR 227 is an attempt at providing standard binding between any frontend and any type of service. Data controls can be created for instance for JDBC, EJB and Web Services [3]. JSR 227 ignores the difference between transactional vs. non-transactional resources and data sources vs. services. In comments on JSR 227 these differences has been highlighted with SAP warning that JSR 227 could violate the integrity of JEE [3].
The Java Community is betting against Oracle ADF
According to Shay Shmeltzer (group manager for Oracle JDeveloper [4]) Oracle has withdrawn JSR 227 “since the other members of the Java community process didn’t show interested in pursuing this approach further.” [5] With the initial vote for the JSR, IBM and BEA have raised concerns around the complexity of JSR 227 and stated that they consider the scope to be too broad [3]. In recent writing Paul Dorsey (from BEA), describes Oracle ADF as highly complex and as a high risk endeavor [6] [3].
Lack of Skills
Edwin Biemond, an Oracle ACE[15] and Java Developer of the year 2009 by Oracle Magazine [7], states that there is a general lack of skills in Oracle ADF. His sentiment is supported by other developers on the forum [8].
Learning Curve
The learning curve for Oracle ADF is very steep. Becoming productive (not expert!) in Oracle ADF takes 3-6 months assuming the person is a skilled Java Web developer [8] [9]. The implications for this are:

  • Any Oracle ADF project shorter than 6 months will be disproportionately expensive due to the ramp-up time required by the team.
  • Any Oracle ADF project shorter than 6 months carries an even higher risk due to the team not being allowed the time to gain the needed knowledge on Oracle ADF.
  • An Oracle ADF project has to be staffed with senior web developers.

Lack of in-depth documentation
The declarative nature of Oracle ADF causes Oracle ADF developer guides to describe “the how” and not “the why”. According to Frank Nimphius (Principle Product Manager for Application Development Tools at Oracle Corporation [10]) Oracle does not plan on providing in-depth documentation but rather they plan on compiling a list of topics which will then be sourced out to the community [11]. Since knowledge regarding the intricacies of Oracle ADF resides within Oracle, this is an approach that is doomed to failure. Indeed, the success of Open Source tools like Spring, Hibernate and JBoss is intimately linked to the availability of in-depth documentation supplied by their designers. In absence of in-depth documentation, Oracle ADF developers are forced to trawl through the source code of Oracle ADF [12]. Source code is a rather poor substitute for proper documentation since in the absence of a design context; the intent of the source code is obfuscated.
Substantial increase in availability of Oracle ADF skills and resources is highly unlikely
Progress on JSR 227 has been rather slow. The initial JCP vote on JSR 227 has taken place 7 July 2003 with a first draft only being available by 11 December 2008. No further progress has been made on this JSR and it has been withdrawn [3]. If one compares progress of JSR 227 to for instance the JSF JSR, the initial vote took place on 29 May 2001 with a Final Release available by 11 March 2004 [13].

This means that Oracle ADF has been in the making for at least 9 years. If it has been impossible in the last 9 years to provide in-depth Oracle ADF documentation and to grow the skills base around Oracle ADF, it is rather unlikely that it will miraculously change in the near future (2 years).

Summary
The risk of an Oracle ADF project is disproportionately high due to its complexity, the lack of in-depth documentation and the absence of skills. This is unlikely to change in the near future.

Works Cited
[1] M. Driver, “Oracle Application Development Framework: Past, Present and Future,” Gartner, 2012.
[2] “JSR 227 Status,” 8 May 2011. [Online]. Available: http://groups.google.com/group/adf-methodology/browse_thread/thread/ca3e8c6776e3e2ef. [Accessed 4 August 2011].
[3] Java Community Process, “JSR-000227 A Standard Data Binding & Data Access Facility for J2EETM Platform,” Java Community Process, 2008. [Online]. Available: http://jcp.org/aboutJava/communityprocess/edr/jsr227/index.html. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[4] S. Shmeltzer, “Shay Shmeltzer,” [Online]. Available: http://shayshmeltzer.sys-con.com/. [Accessed 1Sept 2012].
[5] J. 2. Status, Google Groups: ADF Enterprise Methodology Group, [Online]. Available: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/adf-methodology/yj6MZ3bj4u8. [Accessed 1 Sept 2012].
[6] P. Dorsey, “How Will You Build Your Next System?,” DULCIAN, Inc, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.dulcian.com/papers/IOUG/2012/2012_IOUG_Dorsey_BuildNextSystem.pdf. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[7] E. Biemond, “About Me,” [Online]. Available: http://biemond.blogspot.com/p/about-me.html. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[8] E. Biemond, “Less xml in ADF and move forward to Java EE 6 in 12c,” Google Groups: ADF Enterprise Methodology Group, 2 Jan 2012. [Online]. Available: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/adf-methodology/_fDyNUsXUmo. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[9] S. Davelaar, “How to become an Oracle ADF expert in one week (or in 1 day if you don’t have so much time),” JHeadstart Blog, 13 Sept 2011. [Online]. Available: https://blogs.oracle.com/jheadstart/entry/how_to_become_an_oracle. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[10] F. Nimphius, “Frank Nimphius,” Sys-Con Media, [Online]. Available: http://franknimphius.sys-con.com/. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[11] “ADF’s Learning Curve,” Google Groups: ADF Enterprise Methodology Group, 30 Jan 2009. [Online].Available: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/adf-methodology/KPt0Hf2yudo/TrEW70qkAT4J. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[12] D. Mills, “The GroundBlog by Duncan Mills: Facelets and PanelDashboard Gotchya,” Oracle, 20 Jul 2012. [Online]. Available: https://blogs.oracle.com/groundside/entry/facelets_and_paneldashboard_gotchya. [Accessed 2
Sept 2012].
[13] Java Community Process, “JSR 127: JavaServer Faces,” Java Community Process, 2004. [Online]. Available: http://www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=127. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].
[14] J. Kotamraju, Web Services for Java EE, version 1.3, Sun Microsystems, 2009.
[15] Oracle Corporation, “Oracle ACE Program – FAQ,” Oracle Corporation, 16 Jun 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/community/oracle-ace-faq-100746.html. [Accessed 2 Sept 2012].