ABSTRACTION: IMPOSING ORDER ON COMPLEXITY IN SOFTWARE DESIGN

Mary Shaw, Carnegie Mellon University

The success of a complex designed system depends on the correct organization and interaction of thousands, even millions, of individual parts. If the designer must reason about all the parts at once, the complexity of the design task often overwhelms human capability. Software designers, like other designers, manage this complexity by separating the design task into relatively independent parts. Often, this entails designing large systems as hierarchical collections of subsystems, with the subsystems further decomposed into sub-subsystems, and so on until the individual components are of manageable size.

For typical consumer products, the subsystems are physical components that can be put together on assembly lines. But the principle of hierarchical system organization does not require an assembly line. Simon1 tells a parable of two watchmakers, Hora and Tempus. Both made excellent watches and were often visited by their customers. Their watches were similar, each with about 1000 parts, but Hora prospered while Tempus became progressively poorer and eventually lost his shop. Tempus, it seems, made his watches in such a way that a partially assembled watch fell apart any time he put it down to deal with an interruption. Hora, on the other hand, made stable subassemblies of about 10 parts and assembled these into 10 larger assemblies, then joined these to make each watch. So any time one of the watchmakers was interrupted by a customer, Tempus had to restart from scratch on the current watch, but Hora only lost the work of the current 10-unit assembly—a small fraction of Tempus’ loss.

Software systems do not require manual assembly of parts, but they are large, complex, and amenable to a similar sort of discipline. Software design benefits from hierarchical system organization based on subsystems that are relatively independent and that have known, simple, interactions. Software designers create conceptual subassemblies with coherent, comprehensible capabilities, similar to Hora’s subassemblies. But whereas Hora’s subassemblies might have been selected for convenience and physical organization, computer scientists are more likely to create structure around concepts and responsibilities. In doing so they can often state the idea, or abstraction, that is realized by the structure; for example, the capabilities of a software component are often described in

1  

Herbert A. Simon, 1997, Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 188ff.



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