Posts By: Andrew Rendell

Andrew is a principal consultant with Valtech UK. He is a hands on technical delivery consultant with over twelve years of professional experience in delivering new media and mobile internet applications in the telecommunications industry. He has experienced many of the negative aspects of large, complex software development projects and therefore never ceases to be refreshed by the practicality and effectiveness of the agile approach. He has used various agile techniques in his work with Valtech in the United Kingdom over the last five years. Andrew has presented at Agile 2008, Agile Edge and other conferences and seminars.

Testing and concurrency

Our team is currently working with a client on a medium sized, medium complexity Java application which has quite low test coverage. We are introducing characterisation tests to snapshot functionality. These will give us the confidence to r…

Testing and concurrency

Our team is currently working with a client on a medium sized, medium complexity Java application which has quite low test coverage. We are introducing characterisation tests to snapshot functionality. These will give us the confidence to refactor away technical debt and extend the application without regression. One of the problems we are experiencing is… Read more »

Importance of real time performance monitors

Decent log entries are essential. On our current project we aim to write enough data to allow off-line analysis of performance and usage plus errors. I am also an advocate of more immediate and accessible runtime information. Log analysis i…

Concrete problems when developers opt out of TDD

We have two major classifications of automated test in common use:

Acceptance tests which execute against the application in its fully deployed state.
Unit tests which typically target a single class and are executed without instan…

Anti-pattern: The release vehicle.

At my current client site you cannot get a piece of compiled code into production unless you can find an appropriate ‘release vehicle’, i.e. a planned high ceremony release of the component which has been officially prioritised, scheduled an…

Tale of two SCRUM stand ups

I walked past two teams doing their daily SCRUM standup today. Both teams claim to be agile. I didn’t join in (even as a chicken) but just observed for a minute or so.

The first team was sitting down in a breakout area. Their body language spoke volumes. There was not one single participant maintaining eye contact with anybody else. Two people were playing on their phones. One developer had his head in his hands. Most had bored expressions. The team leader who is also the SCRUM master was the only person who spoke for the entire time I watched.

The second team was stood in a space near their desks. They were gathered round a task board which appeared to be up to date and the focus of several of the individual’s updates. One person spoke at a time. Almost everybody appeared to be paying attention to whomever was speaking. Most updates were short and concise. A couple rambled on.

Other than both teams calling their meeting a SCRUM I could see no similarities.

As our agile adoption has spread beyond the original teams I suppose it is inevitable that as the experience gets spread a little thinner that people will simply label their existing activities with agile sounding names. Often we have no clear remit in those teams to supply a mentor and to try offer advice would result in rebuttal as team leaders guard their territory. Does this matter? Is there a risk that these teams who are not practicing agile correctly will diminish and discredit agile in the eyes of our programme managers? This is sounding a bit like an excuse for an Agile Inquisition going round checking that no team is using Agile’s name in vain. This cannot be a good thing either.

Value and cost in hardware and software

Neal Ford’s presentation on emerging architecture contained a reference to the controversial Intel practice in the 1990s regarding the 386-SX math co-pro. Intel were producing two variants of the 386 chip at the time:

  • The 386-DX which featured a math co-processor on board which allowed faster execution of floating point maths required in financial applications, graphics packages etc..
  • The 386-SX which was cheaper but did not feature the math co-processor and therefore was less ‘powerful’. It had enough to differentiate itself from the previous generation of 286 chips but was regarded as distinctly inferior to its more expensive sibling.

This all sounded fair enough until it became public that the 386-DX and 386-SX shared the same manufacturing process including the construction of the maths co-processor. Where the process differed was that at some point the math copro in the SX chip was destroyed via some mechanical process. Suddenly the perception of the SX went from a lower spec product to a broken product. In Neal Ford’s presentation he described the whole process as Intel selling customers their trash, like the SX was a defective unit being offloaded to unsuspecting users as a working chip.

At a very low technical level Neal’s statement is true but not at a commercial or practical level. Intel engineers were given a change in requirements by their marketing department: Produce a chip that is going to enter the budget market to complement but not fully compete against the 386-DX. They looked at their system and determined the most efficient way to achieve this end was to ‘re-configure’ existing 386-DX chips. This was likely much much cheaper than setting up a whole new production line and testing the brand new chip it produced. To do otherwise would be against the pragmatic engineering ideals that Agile is supposed to champion. If you flip the argument around and say: Should we redesign from scratch the entire process to achieve the same end result but at much higher cost just so that we claim that the chip contains no parts that it doesn’t need. Maybe we find this so objectionable because a chip is a tangible entity and we are used to associating (rightly or wrongly) the cost of raw materials and manufacturing with the value of such items. Maybe we don’t factor in the cost of design and marketing, which I suspect are massive for a complex, consumer electronic product like a cutting edge CPU.

This pattern raised its head again, but with less fuss, a couple of years ago when HP shipped high end servers with multiple CPUs. Some of the CPUs were disabled upon delivery. If the customer’s processing requirements increased over time (which they always do) then they could pay HP who could then remotely enable the additional processors without the customer incurring the cost of an engineer on site, downtime for installation etc. etc.. Again, this early step towards todays processing on demand cloud computing concept raised some eyebrows. Why should customer’s pay for something that was going to cost the supplier nothing? Again, this is a preoccupation with the physical entity of the manufactured component. If the additional CPUs had been sitting idle in a HP server farm rather than at the customer’s site and purchasing them involved work being sent across the network my suspicion is that nobody would have had any objections.

We use a UML design tool at my current client site called Visual Paradigm. It has a number of editions, each with a different cost. It has a very flexible license purchase system which we have taken advantage of. We have a large number of standard level licenses because the features that this edition gives will support most of our users most of the time. Occasionally we need some of the features from a more expensive edition. Its not that only one or two individuals require these features, we all need them, just very occasionally. The Visual Paradigm license model supports this beautifully. We have a couple of higher edition licenses. On the rare occasion that users need the extra features they just start the program in the higher edition mode. As long as no other users connected to our license are using the higher edition at that time, there is no issue. The similarity with the examples above is that there is only one installation. We don’t need to install a different program binary every time we switch edition. We love this as it makes life easy. I am sure Visual Paradigm like it as well as it simplifies their build and download process.

Two me the two scenarios, software and hardware appear pretty much identical. Everybody appreciates that the cost of creating a copy of piece of software is so close to zero that it is not worth worrying about. Therefore we don’t mind when a supplier gives us a product with bits disabled until we make a payment and get a magic key. It’s harder to think of hardware in the same way, that the build cost doesn’t matter. That there might be no difference in manufacturing costs for two products with very different customer prices. The cost of delivering the product, like delivering software, includes massive costs which have nothing to with creation of the physical artifact.  

Maybe this wasn’t the point in the above presentation but I guess the thing that startled me was that my natural inclination was to immediately associate the value with the tangible item. In my head this is all getting mixed up with free (as in speech) software and the idea that it is unproductive and unethical to patent / own / charge for ideas.

Agile 2009

I have spent the week at the Agile2009 conference in Chicago. This annual conference, now in its eighth year, is the premier international gathering for agilsts. It caters for a whole spectrum of experience from new comers to the discipline to the gurus who are leading the way.

I attended some very thought provoking sessions as well as presenting my own experience report on techniques for technical architecture in an agile context. My colleague from Valtech US, Howard Deiner, battled hardware and network issues to present a well received demonstration of Continuous Integration. Both sessions got reasonable attendances in the face of stiff competition from competing presentations being held in parallel. Both received very positive feedback from attendees (mine scored 80% for command of topic and 78% overall). I got lots of positive feedback for my session in conversations with conference attendees throughout the week. This was very much appreciated.

My presentation is backed up by an IEEE Report which was published in the conference proceedings. The report’s premise is that incumbent waterfall software development processes force technical architects into a position of isolation and ineffectiveness (the ivory tower). The challenge I (any many many other TAs) have faced is how to deliver the guarantees of technical correctness and consistency that clients (especially those moving from waterfall to agile) demand when some of the most widely used conventional techniques for architecture have been discredited. I am thinking primarily of the emphasis placed on up front detailed design and architectural review.

The report details architectural problems during scale up of a previously successful agile project. The report then describes and evaluates a number of techniques employed on the project to deliver the technical architecture without ascent of the ivory tower. The conclusions include the justification that documentation is not an effective tool for technical governance and that the architect must target activities which bring them closer the the actual implementation. This mirrors Neal Ford’s point in his Emerging Architecture presentation that we need to accept that the real design is the code, not the summaries and abstractions of the code presented via the numerous tools (UML, narrative documents, whiteboard sessions) at our disposal. Other conclusions include the identification of automated tests as an architect’s, not just a tester’s, most effective tool for delivering a correct solution. The paper also identifies that soft skills around communication and people management, often the anathema of the conventional architect are critical to success. Finally the report concludes that utilizing the most cost effective techniques (rather than just the most technically powerful) were key. (That does not mean you cannot justify the use of expensive techniques, just that they may only be justifiable on the most important components in the system).

Agile 2009 was a great balance of real world experiences (such as my session) and more philosophical, academic sessions. There also the chance to listen to some insightful keynotes and take part in some exciting expert sessions which challenged the way we work. It is always easier to learn in a community of professionals with real experience and this was definitely the case at this conference. I learned as much over dinner and in break out sessions as I did in the formal seminars.

I am going to blog what I learned in some of sessions in the next couple of days, possibly earlier as I am stuck at Chicago O’Hare for eleven hours after a ‘mechanical issue’ with our plane!

Use of best of breed open source

Over the last two years of my current project I have noticed a recuring pattern. On several occasions we have identified an implementation pattern which commonly appears on many enterprise projects. That pattern is common enough that there is a well known (i.e. at least one person in the team has heard of it) open source solution which appears to be recognised by the community as being best of breed. In order to reduce risk and increase our velocity we use that open source component, possibly making changes to the design to more effectively incorporate the ready to run package. The theory (and one I fully buy into) being that be using the open source library we free up time to concentrate on the part of our solution which are truly unique and require bespoke software.

The recurring pattern I see is that on at least four occasions the best of breed package has proven to be severely sub-optimal. What is worse is that most of the time these deficiencies occur when we move into high volume load test in a cluster. It seems only then that we discover some limitation. Typically this is caused by a particular specialism required for our application which then exercises some part of the library that is not as commonly utilised as others and therefore less stable. Some times the limitation is so bad that the library has to be refactored out before launch and other occasions the issue becomes a known restriction which is corrected at the next release. All of the significant refactorings have involved replacement of the large, generic, well known library with a much smaller, simpler, bespoke piece of code.

I am undecided whether this is a positive pattern or not. On one hand using the standard component for a short period helped us focus on other pieces of code. On the other, the identification of issues consumed significant resource during a critical (final load test) period. The answer probably is that it is okay to use the standard component as long as we put it under production stresses as quickly as possible. We then need to very carefully take account of the effort being consumed and have an idea of the relative cost of an alternative solution. When the cost of the standard component begins to approach the cost of the bespoke then we must move swiftly to replace it. The cost should also factor in maintenance. We need to avoid the behaviour where we sit round looking at each other repeating "This is highly regarded piece of software, it can’t be wrong, it must be us." for prolonged periods (its okay to say this for a couple of hours, it could be true). I used to work for a well known RDBMS provider. I always felt that the core database engine was awesomely high quality and that anybody who claimed to have found a defect was probably guilty of some sloppy engineering. I knew however, from painful experience, that you did not have to stray far from the core into the myriad of supported options and ancillary products to enter a world of pure shite. The best of breed open source components are no different.

Some of the problem components:

ActiveMQ (2007) – We thought we needed an in memory JMS solution and AcitveMQ looked like an easy win. It turned out that at that release the in-memory queue had a leak which required a server restart every ten to fifteen days. It also added to the complexity of the solution. Was replaced by very few lines of code utilising the Java 5 concurrency package. I would still go back to it for another look, but only if I was really sure I needed JMS.

Quartz (2007) – The bane of our operations team’s life as it would not shutdown cleanly when under load and deployed as part of a Spring application. Replaced by the Timer class and some home grown JDBC.

Quartz (2009) – Once bitten, twice shy? Not us! The shutdown issue was resolved and we needed a richer scheduling tool. Quartz looked like the ticket and worked well during development and passed the limited load testing we were able to do on workstations. When we moved up to the production sized hardware and were able to put realistic load through we discovered issues with the RAMJobStore that were not present with the JDBC store (which we didn’t need). It just could not cope with very large (100 000+) numbers of jobs where new jobs were being added and old ones deleted constantly.

Professional Services Day

We had an excellent professional services day today. Rather than the previous format of set talks and dry presentations the organiser used the Open Spaces pattern. He drew up a grid with time slots and rooms then invited the attendees to write a single topic suggestion on a card and out it in a slot. When everybody who wanted to put a card in then he invited a second and then a third round.
The result was a suprisingly large number of different sessions. I was able to make it through the day without having to sit through anything dull or non-applicable. The large number of sessions meant that the groups were small and everybody got to interact. Good stuff!