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Friday Philosophy – Lead or Lag (When to Upgrade)?

I was involved in a discussion recently with Debra Lilley which version of Oracle to use. You can see her blog about it here (and she would love any further feedback from others). Oracle now has a policy that it will release the quarterly PSUs for a given point release for 12 months once that point release is superseded. ie once 11.2.0.3 came out, Oracle will only guarantee to provide PSUs for 11.2.0.2 for 12 months. See “My Oracle Support” note ID 742060.1. However, an older Terminal release such as 11.1.0.7 is not superseded and is supported until 2015 – and will get the quarterly PSU updates. This left the customer with an issue. Should they start doing their development on the latest and theoretically greatest version of Oracle and be forced to do a point upgrade “soon” to keep getting the PSUs, or use an older version of Oracle and avoid the need to upgrade?

Oracle Nostalgia

When preparing the material for my “Oracle Lego – an introduction to Database Design” presentation for the UKOUG last week, I was looking back at my notes from a course on the topic from “a few years back”. There were a few bits which made me smile.

Oracle’s [SQL] implementation conforms to ANSI standard, although referential integrity will not be enforced until version 7

Will the Single Box System make a Comeback?

For about 12 months now I’ve been saying to people(*) that I think the single box server is going to make a comeback and nearly all businesses won’t need the awful complexity that comes with the current clustered/exadata/RAC/SAN solutions.

Now, this blog post is more a line-in-the-sand and not a well researched or even thought out white paper – so forgive me the obvious mistakes that everyone makes when they make a first draft of their argument and before they check their basic facts, it’s the principle that I want to lay down.

Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success

Alternative title “The lady from Patient Admin – she says YEEESSSS!!!!!!”

What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

Friday Philosophy – The start of Computing

This week I finally made a visit to Bletchley Park in the middle of England. Sue and I have been meaning to go there for several years, it is the site of the British code-breaking efforts during the second world war and, despite difficulties getting any funding, there has been a growing museum there for a number of years. {Hopefully, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, granted only this month, will secure it’s future}.

Why is Bletchley Park so significant? Well, for us IT-types it is significant because Alan Turing did a lot of work there and it was the home of Colossus, one of the very first electrical, programmable computers. More generally of interrest, their efforts and success in cracking enemy ciphers during WW2 were incredibly important and beneficial to the UK and the rest of the allies.

In this post, I am not going to touch on Colossus or Alan Turing, but rather a machine called the “Bombe”. The Bombe was used to help discover the daily settings of the German Enigma machines, used for decrypting nearly all German and Italian radio messages. All the Bombes were destroyed after the war (at least, all the UK ones were) to help keep secret the work done to crack the cyphers – but at Bletchley Park the volunteers have recreated one. Just like the working model of Babbage’s Difference Engine, it looks more like a work of art than a machine. Here is a slightly rough video I took of it in action:

My slightly rough video of the bombe

{OK, if you want a better video try a clearer video by someone else.}

I had a chat with the gentleman you see in both videos about the machine and he explained something that the tour we had just been on did not make clear – the Bombe is a parallel processing unit. Enigma machines have three wheels. There are banks of three coloured disks in the bombe (see the picture below). eg, in the middle bank the top row of disks are black, middle are yellow and bottom are red. Each vertical set of three disks, black-yellow-red, is the equivalent of a single “enigma machine”. Each trio of disks is set to different starting positions, based on educated guesses as to what the likely start positions for a given message might be. The colour of the disk matches, I think, one of the known sets of wheels the enigma machines could be set up with. The machine is then set to run the encrypted message through up to 36 “Enigmas” at once. If the output exceeds a certain level of sense (in this case quite crucially, no letter is every encrypted back to itself) then the settings might be correct and are worth further investigation. This machine has been set up with the top set of “Enigmas” not in place, either to demonstrate the workings or because the machine is set up for one of the more complex deciphering attempts where only some of the banks can be used.


This is the bombe seen from the front

The reason the chap I was talking to really became fascinated with this machine is that, back in about 1999, a home PC programmed to do this work was no faster than the original electro-mechanical machines from 1944 were supposed to have taken. So as an engineer he wanted to help build one and find out why it was so fast. This struck a chord with me because back in the late 1990′s I came across several examples of bespoke computers designed to do specific jobs (either stuff to do with natural gas calorific value, DNA matching or protein folding), but by 2000, 2002 they had all been abandoned as a general PC could be programmed to be just as fast as these bespoke machines – because bespoke means specialist means longer and more costly development time means less bangs for your buck.

Admittedly the Bombe is only doing one task, but it did it incredibly fast, in parallel, and as a part of the whole deciphering process that some of the best minds of their time had come up with (part of the reason the Bletchley Park site was chosen was that it was equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge and, at that time, there were direct train links. {Thanks, Dr Beeching}. ).

Tuning and reliability was as important then as it is now. In the below picture of the back of the machine (sorry about the poor quality, it was dim in that room), you can see all the complex wiring in the “door” and, in the back of the machine itself, those three rows of bronze “pipes” are in fact…Pipes. Oil pipes. This is a machine, they quickly realised that it was worth a lot of effort to keep those disks oiled, both for speed and reliability.


All the workings of the Bombe from the back

Talking of reliability, one other thing my guide said to me. These machines are complex and also have some ability to cope with failures or errors built into them. But of course, you needed to know they were working properly. When these machines were built and set up, they came with a set of diagnostic tests. These were designed to push the machine, try the edge cases and to be as susceptible to mechanical error as possible. The first thing you did to a new or maintained machine was run your tests.

1943, you had awesome parallel processing, incredible speed and test-driven development and regression testing. We almost caught up with all of this in the early 21st Century.

In Defense of Agile Development (and Their Ilk)

In my previous post I asked the question “why doesn’t Agile work?”. I’m not sure the nuance of the question came over correctly.

I’d just like to highlight that the question I asked was “Why does agile not work”. It was not “Why is Agile rubbish“. I’ve said a few times in the past couple of weeks that I like the ideology of Agile and I am (and have been for years and years) a strong proponent of prototyping, cyclic development, test driven design and many other things that are part of the Agile or XP methodologies.

That distinction in the title is a really important distinction and one I’d hoped I’d made clear in my post. Looking back at my post though, I think it is clear I failed :-( . I highlighted reasons why I think Agile does not work and in my head I was thinking “if we avoid these, Agile could work” – but when you write something down it does not matter what is in your head if it does not reach the paper.

I’m actually frustrated that in the last few years I have not seen Agile really succeed and also that this must be the normal situation, going on the response you get when the topic of Agile comes up with fellow technicians and comments on my own blog.

However, on that post about Agile two people who’s opinion I deeply respect came back at me to say “Agile does work!”. Cary Millsap, who many of you will have heard of as the “Method R” guy and the person behind Oracle Flexible Architecture. And Mike Cox, who most of you won’t have heard of but Mike taught me a lot about sensible development back in the 90′s. He’s one of the best developers I have ever had the pleasure of working with and I know he has had great success with Agile and RED. I’m not sure if they read my post as “Agile is Rubbish” or they are, like me, simply frustrated that it can work but so often does not.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this weekend and I was helped by Cary’s paper on the topic that he mentioned in his comment. I’d highly recommend downloading it as it is an excellent description of not only why Agile can help but describes how and some of the pitfalls {I’d started my own post on that, but go read Cary’s}. I should add, you can see Cary present his case for Agile at the UKOUG conference this year.

So where does this bring me to? Well, I think “Is Agile good or bad” has become almost an “IT religion” topic, people love it or loath it and it is based on what they have seen of the methodology in real life. No, that’s wrong, it is based on what they have seen that has been labelled with that methodology in real life. Or worse, it is based on anecdotal opinion of those around them. The thing is, if you look at what XP is supposed to consist of or what Agile Programming is supposed to consist of, most of us would agree that a great deal of it makes sense in many situations. I’d disagree with some of the details in Cary’s paper but overall I’m in strong agreement. Sadly, What Agile and XP is supposed to be is not well matched by what you see on the ground in most cases. So even if these methodologies are right for the situation, what has been implemented is not the methodology but probably more a slap-dash process that simply jettisons documentation, design and proper testing. This whole thread sprung from my lamenting the demise of database design and several of the comments highlighted that the introduction of Agile seemed to equate, at least in part, with the demise of design. As MIke and Cary say, and as I think anyone who has successfully utilized Agile would say, Design is an integral part of Agile and XP methodology.

Agile can and does work. But many things can and do work, such as taking regular exercise to keep healthy or regularly maintaining your house to keep it weathertight. Like Agile, both take effort but the overall benefit is greater than the cost. And like Agile, do it wrong and you can make things worse. If your window frames are starting to rot and you just slap a new layer of top-coat on them all you will do is seal in the damp and rot and hide the problem – until the glass falls out. Going for a regular 5 mile run is good for you – but not if you are 10 stone (60KG) overweight and have not run in years. A 5 mile run is also not a good idea if you want to be a long-jumper. Right training (methodology) for the right aim. Also, just like keeping healthy, house maintenance or anything that takes effort but works, proponents tend towards extremism – probably as a reaction to the constant {perceived} pig-headedness of critics or the failure of people to just do what now seems so sensible to them {think reformed smokers}. I’ll have to buy Cary and Mike pints to make up for that jibe now, and promise them it was not aimed at them personally…

Sadly, the reality is, Agile does not work 90% of the time it is tried. So, does that mean Agile is actually rubbish? Or at least, not fit for purpose, because many companies are not able to use it? Companies are there to achieve something and the IT systems are part of achieving that something. If Agile cannot aid that IT department then Agile is the wrong way for that department and company.

*sigh* I’ve gone on and on about this and still not got to my own main point, which is this.

- Can we identify reasons for Agile and XP Failing.
- Having identified the Reasons, can we fix them in simple ways?
- Can we create some simple guidelines as to when a project should be more Agile and when it should be more Up-Front design.

I’d love to know people’s opinions on those three points above.

Friday Philosophy – Why doesn’t Agile work?

Why doesn’t Agile Development Methodology seem to work?

I’m going say right here at the start that I like much of what is in Agile, for many, many years I’ve used aspects of Rapid Application Development {which Agile seems to have borrowed extensively from} to great success. However, after my post last week on database design, many of the comments were quite negative about Agile – and I had not even mentioned it in my post!

To nail my flag to the post though, I have not seen an Agile-managed project yet that gave me confidence that Agile itself was really helping to produce a better product, a product more quickly and most certainly not a final system that was going to be easy to maintain. Bring up the topic of Agile with other experienced IT people and I would estimate 90% of the feedback is negative.

That last point about ongoing maintenance of the system is the killer one for me. On the last few projects I have been on where the culture was Agile-fixated I just constantly had this little voice in my head going:

“How is anyone going to know why you did that in six months? You’ve just bolted that onto the side of the design like a kludge and it really is a kludge. When you just said in the standup meeting that we will address that issue ‘later’, is that the same “later” that accounts for the other half-dozen issues that seem to have been forgotten?”.

From what I can determine after the fact, that voice turns out to be reason screaming out against insanity. A major reason Agile fails is that it is implemented in a way that has no consideration for post-implementation.

Agile, as it is often implemented, is all about a headlong rush to get the job done super-quick. Ignore all distractions, work harder, be completely focused and be smarter. It really does seem to be the attitude by those who impose Agile that by being Agile your staff will magically come up with more innovative solutions and will adapt to any change in requirements just because they work under an agile methodology. Go Agile, increase their IQ by 10 points and their work capacity by 25%. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Some people can in fact think on their feet and pull solutions out of thin air, but they can do that irrespective of the methodology. People who are more completer-finishers, who need a while to change direction but boy do they produce good stuff, have you just demoralized and hamstrung them?Agile does not suit the way all people work and to succeed those people it does not suit need to be considered.

The other thing that seems to be a constant theme under Agile is utterly knackered {sorry, UK slang, knackered means tired, worn out and a bit broken} staff. Every scrum is a mad panic to shove it all out of the door and people stop doing other things to cope. Like helping outside the group or keeping an eye on that dodgy process they just adopted as it needed doing. Agile fails when it is used to beat up team. Also, I believe Agile fails when those ‘distractions’ are ignored by everyone and work that does not fall neatly into a scrum is not done.

I suppose it does not help that my role has usually been one that is more Production Support than development and Agile is incompatible with production support. Take the idea of the scrum, where you have x days to analyse, plan, design, unit test and integrate the 6 things you will do in this round. On average I only spend 50% of my time dealing with urgent production issues, so I get allocated several tasks. Guess what, if I end up spending 75% of my time that week on urgent production issues, and urgent production issues have to take priority, I can screw up the scrum all on my own. No, I can’t pass my tasks onto others in the team as (a) they are all fully assigned to their tasks and (b) passing over a task takes extra time. Agile fails when it is used for the wrong teams and work type.

I’ve come to the conclusion that on most projects Agile has some beneficial impact in getting tasks done, as it forces people to justify what they have done each and every day, encourages communication and gives the developers a reason to ignore anything else that could be distracting them as it is not in the scrum. Probably any methodology would help with all of that.

My final issue with Agile is the idiot fanatics. At one customer site I spent a while at, they had an Agile Coach come around to help the team to become more agile. I thought this was a little odd as this team was actually doing a reasonable job with Agile, they had increased productivity and had managed to avoid the worst of the potential negative impacts. This man came along and patronisingly told us we were doing OK, but it was hard for us to raise our game like this, we just needed help to see the core values of Agile and, once we did, once we really believed in it, productivity would go up 500% {That is a direct quote, he actually said “productivity will go up by 500%”}. He was sparkly-eyed and animated and full of the granite confidence of the seriously self-deluded. I think he managed to put back the benefits of Agile by 50%, such was the level of “inspiration” he gave us. Agile fails when it is implemented like a religion. It’s just a methodolgy guys.

I find it all quite depressing as I strongly suspect that, if you had a good team in a positive environment, doing a focused job, Agile could reap great rewards. I’m assured by some of my friends that this is the case. {update – it took my good friend Mike less than an hour to chime in with a comment. I think I hit a nerve}.

Friday Philosophy – The Dying Art of Database Design?

How many people under the age of {Martin checks his age and takes a decade or so off} ohh, mid 30′s does any database design these days? You know, asks the business community what they want the system to do, how the information flows through their business, what information they need to report on. And then construct a logical model of that information? Judging by some of the comments I’ve had on my blog in the last couple of years and also the meandering diatribes of bitter, vitriolic complaints uttered by fellow old(er) hacks in the pub in the evening, it seems to be coming a very uncommon practice – and thus a rare and possibly dying skill.

{update – this topic has obviously been eating at my soul for many years. Andrew Clark and I had a discussion about it in 2008 and he posted a really good article on it and many, many good comments followed}

Everything seems to have turned into “Ready, Fire, Aim”. Ie, you get the guys doing the work in a room, develop some rough idea of what you want to develop (like, look at the system you are replacing), start knocking together the application and then {on more enlightened projects} ask the users what they think. The key points are the that development kicks off before you really know what you need to produce, there is no clear idea of how the stored data will be structured and you steer the ongoing development towards the final, undefined, target. I keep coming across applications where the screen layouts for the end users seem to almost be the design document and then someone comes up with the database – as the database is just this bucket to chuck the data into and scrape it out of again.

The functionality is the important thing, “we can get ‘someone’ to make the database run faster if and when we have a problem”.

Maybe I should not complain as sometimes I am that ‘someone’ making the database run faster. But I am complaining – I’m mad as hell and I ain’t gonna take it anymore! Oh, OK, in reality I’m mildly peeved and I’m going to let off steam about it. But it’s just wrong, it’s wasting people’s time and it results in poorer systems.

Now, if you have to develop a simple system with a couple of screens and a handful of reports, it might be a waste of time doing formal design. You and Dave can whack it together in a week or two, Chi will make the screens nice, it will be used by a handful of happy people and the job is done. It’s like building a wall around a flower bed. Go to the local builders merchants, get a pallet of bricks, some cement and sand (Ready), dig a bit of a trench where you want to start(Aim) and put the wall up, extending it as you see fit (Fire). This approach won’t work when you decide to build an office block and only a fool from the school of stupid would attempt it that way.

You see, as far as I am concerned, most IT systems are all about managing data. Think about it. You want to get your initial information (like the products you sell), present it to the users (those customers), get the new (orders) data, pass it to the next business process (warehouse team) and then mine the data for extra knowledge (sales patterns). It’s a hospital system? You want information about the patients, the staff, the beds and departments, tests that need doing, results, diagnoses, 15,000 reports for the regulators… It’s all moving data. Yes, a well design front end is important (sometimes very important) but the data is everything. If the database can’t represent the data you need, you are going to have to patch an alteration in. If you can’t get the data in quick enough or out quick enough, your screens and reports are not going to be any use. If you can’t link the data together as needed you may well not be able to DO your reports and screens. If the data is wrong (loses integrity) you will make mistakes. Faster CPUS are not going to help either, data at some point has to flow onto and off disks. Those slow spinning chunks of rust. CPUS have got faster and faster, rust-busting has not. So data flow is even more important than it was.

Also, once you have built your application on top of an inadequate database design, you not only have to redesign it, you have to:

  • do some quick, hacky  fixes to get by for now
  • migrate the existing data
  • transform some of it (do some data duplication or splitting maybe)
  • alter the application to cope
  • schedule all of the above to be done together
  • tie it in with the ongoing development of the system as hey, if you are not going to take time to design you are not going to take time to assess things before promising phase 2.

I’m utterly convinced, and experience backs this up, that when you take X weeks up front doing the database design, you save 5*X weeks later on in trying to rework the system, applying emergency hacks and having meetings about what went wrong. I know this is an idea out of the 80′s guys, but database design worked.

*sigh* I’m off to the pub for a pint and to reminisce about the good-old-days.

Friday Philosophy – Tainted by the Team

A while ago whilst working on one project, a colleague came back to his desk next to mine and exclaimed “I hate working with that team! – they are so bad that it makes everyone who works with them look incompetent!”

Now there is often an argument to be made that working with people who are not good at their job can be great for you, as you always looks good in comparison {it’s like the old adage about hanging around with someone less attractive than you – but I’ve never found anyone I can do that with…}. It is to an extent true of course, and though it can seem a negative attitude, it is also an opportunity to teach these people and help them improve, so everyone potentially is a winner. I actually enjoy working with people who are clueless, so long as they will accept the clues. You leave them in a better state than when you joined them.

However, my friend was in the situation where the team he was dealing with was so lacking in the skills required that if you provided them with code that worked as specified, which passed back the values stated in the correct format derived from the database with the right logic… their application code would still fall over with exceptions – because it was written to a very, very “strict” interpretation of the spec.

In one example, the specification for a module included a “screen shot” showing 3 detail items being displayed for the parent object. So the application team had written code to accept only up to 3 detail items. Any more and it would crash. Not error, crash. The other part of the application, which the same people in the application team had also written, would let you create as many detail items for the parent as you liked. The data model stated there could be many more than 3 detail items. I suppose you could argue that the specification for the module failed to state “allow more than three items” – but there was a gap in the screen to allow more data, there was the data model and there was the wider concept of the application. In a second example, the same PL/SQL package was used to populate a screen in several modes. Depending on the mode, certain fields were populated or not. The application however would fail if the variables for these unused fields were null. Or it would fail if they were populated. The decision for each one depended on the day that bit of the module had been written, it would seem. *sigh*

The situation was made worse by the team manager being a skilled political animal, who would always try to shift any blame to any and all other teams as his first reaction. In the above examples he tried to immediately lay the blame with my colleague and then with the specification, but my colleague had managed to interpret the spec fine (he did the outrageous thing of asking questions if he was not sure or checked the data model). Further, this manager did not seem to like his people asking us questions, as he felt it would make it look like they did not know what they were doing. Oddly enough they did NOT know what they were doing. Anyway, as a consequence of the manager’s hostile attitude, the opportunity to actually teach the poor staff was strictly limited.

That was really the root of the problem, the manager. It was not the fault of the team members that they could not do the job – they had not had proper training, were unpracticed with the skills, siloed into their team, not encouraged to think beyond the single task in front of them and there was no one available to show them any better. The issue was that they were being made to do work they were not able to do. The problem, to my mind, was with the manager and with the culture of that part of the organisation that did not deal with that manager. He obviously did not believe that rule one of a good manager is to look after the best interests of your team. It was to protect his own backside.

But the bottom line was that this team was so bad that anything they were involved in was a disaster and no one wants to be part of a disaster. If you worked with them, you were part of the disaster. So we took the pragmatic approach. When they had the spec wrong, if we would alter our code to cope, we would alter our code. And document that. It gave us a lot of work and we ended up having a lot of “bugs” allocated to our team. But it got the app out almost on time. On-going maintencance could be a bit of an issue but we did what we could on our side to spell out the odditites.

I still know my friend from above and he still can’t talk about it in the pub without getting really quite agitated :-)