Monday, December 28, 2009

The Secret Architect's Cabal

Recently, I had two very weird "meta" questions on the subject of OO design.

They bother me because they imply that some Brother or Sister Architect has let slip the presence of the Secret Technologies that we Architects are hiding from the Hoi Polloi developers.

These are the real questions. Lightly edited to fix spelling and spacing.
  • "What are the ways to implement a many to many association in an OO model?"
  • "Besides the relational model, what other persistence mechanisms are available to store a many to many association?"
These are "meta" questions because they're not asking anything specific about a particular data model or set of requirements. I always like unfocused questions because all answers are good answers. Focus allows people to see through the smoke and mirrors of Architecture.

The best part about these questions (and some similar questions that I didn't paste here) is that they are of the form "Is there a secret technique you're not telling us about?"

It's time to come clean. There is a Secret Cabal of Architects. There are things we're not telling you.


The many-to-many question shows just how successful the Society of Secrets (as we call ourselves) has been about creating a SQL bias. When folks draw higher-level data model diagrams that imply (but don't show) the required many-to-many association table, the Architects have failed. In other organizations the association table is So Very Important that it is carefully diagrammed in detail. This is a victory for forcing people to think only in implementation details.

In the best cases, the DBA's treat the association table as part of the "dark art" of being a DBA. It's something they have to dwell on and wring their hands over. This leads to developers getting wrapped around the axle because the table isn't a first-class part of the data model, but is absolutely required as part of SQL joins.

It's a kind of intellectual overhead that shows how successful the Secret Architecture Society is.

The presence of a dark secret technique for implementing association leads to smart developers asking about other such intellectual overhead. If there's one secret technique, there must be many, many others.

It is to laugh.

The Secret Techniques for Associations

The problem arises when someone ask about the OO implementation of many-to-many associations. It's really difficult to misdirect developers when the OO implementation is mostly trivial and not very interesting. There's no easy to add complexity.

In Python there are a bunch of standard collections. The language has a bunch that are built in. Plus, in Python 2.6, the collections module has Abstract Base Classes that clearly identify all of the collections.

There isn't too much more to say on the subject of many-to-many associations. That makes it really hard to add secret layers and create value as an architect.

The best I can do with questions like this is say "I was sworn to secrecy by the secret Cabal of Architects, so I can't reveal the many-to-many association techniques in a general way. Please get the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West if you want more answers."


The persistence question, however, was gift. When someone equates "relational model" with a "persistence mechanism", we have lots of room to maneuver. I know that we're talking about a "relational database" as a "persistence mechanism". However, it's clear they don't know that, and that's my opportunity to sow murkiness and confusion.

Sadly, the OS offers us exactly one "persistence mechanism". Yet, the question implies that the Secret Cabal of Architects know about some secret "alternative persistence mechanisms" that mere programmers can't be told about.

Every device with a changeable state appears as a file. All databases (relational, hierarchical, object, whatever) are just files tarted up with fancy API's that allow for performance and security. Things like indexing, locking, buffering, access controls, and the like are just "features" layered on top of good-old files. But those features are So Very Important, that they appear to be part of persistence.


Logical vs. Physical

What's really helpful here is the confusion folks have with "Logical" vs. "Physical" design layers.

Most DBA's claim (and this is entirely because of ERwin's use of the terms) that physical design is when you add in the database details to a logical design. This is wrong, and it really helps the Architect Secret Society when a vendor misuses common terms like that.

The Physical layer is the file-system implementation. Table spaces and blocks and all that what-not that is the underlying persistence.

The Logical layer is what you see from your API's: tables and views.

The relational database cleanly separates logical from physical. Your applications do not (indeed, can not) see the implementation details. This distinction breaks down in the eyes of DBA's, however, and that lets us insert the idea that a database is somehow more than tarted-up files.

Anyone asking about the "relational model" and "persistence mechanism" has -- somehow -- lost focus on what's happening inside the relational database. This allows us to create Architectural Value by insisting that we add a "Persistence Layer" underneath (or on top of or perhaps even beside) the "Database Layer". This helps confuse the developers by implying that we must "isolate" the database from the persistence mechanism.

Many-to-many and ORM

Sadly, these two questions may turn out to be ORM questions. The problem with ORM layers is that the application objects are trivially made persistent. It's really hard to add complexity when there's an ORM layer.

However, a Good Architect can sometimes find room to maneuver.

A programmer with SQL experience will often think in SQL. They will often try to provide a specific query and ask how that SQL query can be implemented in the ORM layer. This needs to be encouraged. It's important to make programmers think that the SQL queries are First Class Features. The idea that class definitions might map directly to the underlying data must be discouraged.

A good DBA should insist on defining database tables first, and then applying the ORM layer to those tables. Doing things the other way around (defining the classes first) can't be encouraged. Table-first design works out really well for imposing a SQL-centered mind-set on everyone. It means that simple application objects can be split across multiple tables (for "performance reasons") leading to hellish mapping issues and performance problems.

No transaction should make use of SQL set-oriented processing features. Bulk inserts are a special case that should be done with the database-supplied load application. Bulk updates indicate a design problem. Bulk deletes may be necessary, but they're not end-user oriented transactions. Bulk reporting is not transactional and should be done in a data warehouse.

Subverting the ORM layer by "hand-designing" the relational database can create a glorious mess. Given the performance problems, some DBA's will try to add more SQL. Views and Dynamic Result Sets created by Stored Procedures are good ways to make the Architecture really complex. The Covert Coven of Architects likes this.

Sometimes a good developer can be subvert things by creating a "hybrid" design where some of the tables have a trivial ORM mapping and work simply. But. A few extra tables are kept aside that don't have clean ORM mappings. These can be used with manually-written SQL. The best part is populating these extra tables via triggers and stored procedures. This assures us that the architecture is so complex that no one can understand it.

The idea of separating the database into Logical and Physical layers hurts the Architectural Cabal. Wrapping the Logical layer with a simple ORM is hurtful, too. But putting application functionality into the database -- that really helps make Architecture appear to be magical.

The Persistence Mechanisms

The bottom line is that the Secret Conference of Architects doesn't have a pat answer on Persistence Mechanisms. We have, however, a short list of misdirections.
  • API and API Design. This is a rat-hole of lost time. Chasing API design issues will assure that persistence is never really found.
  • Cloud Computing. This is great. The cloud can be a great mystifier. Adding something like the Python Datastore API can sow confusion until developers start to think about it.
  • Multi-Core Computing. Even though the OS handles this seamlessly, silently and automatically, it's possible to really dig into multi-core and claim that we need to rethink software architecture from the very foundations to rewrite our core algorithms to exploit multiple cores. Simply using Unix pipelines cannot be mentioned because it strips the mystery away from the problem.
  • XML. Always good a for a few hours of misdirection. XML as a hierarchical data model mapped to a relational database can really slow down the developers. Eventually someone figures it out, and the Architect has nothing left to do.
  • EJB's. This is digging. It's Java specific and -- sadly -- trumped by simple ORM. But it can sometimes slow the conversation down for a few hours.


  1. "list of misdirections"

    I knew it! I just knew it! Architects are like magicians, they make something happen and then your stuck wondering how they did that. :-)

  2. There is no Secret Architectural Society. It is a lie. Mr Lott will be disciplined. You have not read this post.