Design principles

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As part of the seminar on the Internet that I help to teach, we read End-to-end arguments in system design, one of my favorite papers in computer science. What makes this such a great paper is that it takes the notion of design seriously. The reason to read the paper isn’t to learn about a nice implementation, or the proof of some theorem, or even how to make an algorithm that runs faster than others when doing some task. Instead, this paper talks about a general principle that informs any work that might be done that involves a network.

Simply put, the end-to-end argument tells us to keep the network simple, and do the work at the endpoints, since those endpoints will need to do most of the work themselves anyway. Worried about who you are talking to? Well, you need to authenticate at the endpoints, so there is no need to do that in the network. Need to check that the message hasn’t been corrupted in transit? That has to¬†be done at the endpoint, so there is no reason to do so in the network, as well. It is an outgrowth of the idea that you don’t want to do work twice. So find the right place to do the work, and ignore it everyplace else. The result of following this principle is that the network we now use is simple, has scaled remarkably, and can be used for all sorts of things it was never intended to be used for. To introduce a new bit of functionality, all that needs to be changed are the end points that need that functionality, not the network itself.

It seems obvious now, but this principle was pretty radical at the time it was proposed. A lot of people thought it would never really work, never really scale, never really perform. It was fine for experimentation and toy applications, but not for real work (that needed token rings, or something far more reliable and guaranteed).

Articles that enunciate general design principles are few and far between, and should be treasured when they are found. My other favorite is Butler Lampson’s Hints on Computer System Design, a paper written in 1983 but still relevant today. The examples may be somewhat outdated, but the hints are still important to understand. The details of the work may change, but the underlying design principles are much closer to being timeless.

In the seminar, we also talked about the design notion that you can solve a problem by introducing a level of indirection. When the first ARPAnet was built, the networking was taken care of by simple, small computers called interface message processors (IMPs), that were responsible for talking to each other, with each IMP connected to a host system. This isolated the differences in the host systems to a local phenomenon; if I wanted to connect I had to deal with local characteristics locally, but not with the special characteristics of the remote hosts I wanted to talk with or connect to. The IMPs offered a level of indirection. When it was realized that there were local networks that wanted to be connected, another level of indirection was introduced. This level looked to an IMP like a host, and to the local network like part of that network. Thus was a gateway born, allowing the local idiosyncrasies of the local networks to be dealt with locally, not globally.

Each of these levels of indirection can also be seen as adding a layer of software into the system that will translate from the local environment to the more global one. Each local environment may have a different gateway, but that is masked from the global environment. The power of software is that it allows a common external interface to be implemented in a different way that is hidden to those who don’t need to know about it.

Discussions of software design have recently centered around various sorts of patterns. While these may be interesting, I do wish we as a community would talk more about the general principles that can inform a wide variety of designs. They are hard to find, often look trivial once they are known, but are important ways to think about how we build our systems.

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