Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Designing a Software System

This is the first guest post on my Blog, this one comes from a PhD student (and previously an MSc at Bournemouth) Mathieu Sanchez.

This post is specifically aimed at the design of complex software systems and is in general feedback on how to so the initial design required for some of our assignments. I was really impressed with this email and decided to share it with everyone.

Design often takes experience, which is why it is so difficult to teach, but there are some "half rules".
  • Write down your concepts, keywords and actions on a piece of paper, there is no need to draw anything. Verbs often translate to a relation and/or a class method (important). Nouns often refer to a class. ( see this and this)
  • Classes are most likely a singular noun. If it is not then maybe you are doing something wrong. In this case, check your multiplicity, and try to find a better name. It can happen that you have "container" classes. Don't name them by what they contain. An example would be a container for several wolves. If you name it wolves, it is unclear, and will lead to confusion. Do you mean a "pack of wolves"? Naming is very important, and will help you get a clearer vision, and help the markers (which is always good).
  • Classes ending in -ER  are a warning flag. It can happen, but if it does, you need to be sure of yourself. Once again, naming might be the issue, not the actual design. (see here here and here)
  • Don't build crazy associations everywhere. Data can travel along an association and should have a strong meaning such as "owns" "directs" etc...
  • Triangle relations are nasty. If you have class A, B and C, there should not be a link between each of them with each other. 
  • If you find that there are many ways to achieve the same task, then there might be some inheritance in there. For instance, shadows in rendering can be done through shadow mapping or shadow feelers. This is crying for inheritance. Make sure you have a look at Liskov substitution if you have inheritance.
  • Many of the common problems are solved with (famous) patterns. For instance, if there are two ways of doing one operations, but can also be combined together to achieve a better result, then there is a pattern for that.
  • When I read a diagram, I first look for a point of entry. And so should you. A point of entry for me is where everything starts, the class that controls the entire system. If it is unclear to you where it starts, then you might have missed something.
  • Think at a higher level at first, don't go straight for details, in fact implementation details such as acceleration structures only come last. The first diagram gives an overview of the system. If the interfaces are correctly made, adding spatial data structures is a piece of cake.
  • Think about extensibility. What if someone else wants to extend your library/system? If I have to jump into your code to add some if/else and edit your interface, then it is just plain wrong. Hence inheritance and factories.

Finally, once you have a draft, you need to review your diagram. The only thing I do when I try to help you is ask you my famous "what is its responsibility, in one and only sentence?". 

Do it yourself. Once the diagram is under your eyes, you can see if one of the classes overlaps with another, or worse, there is no class for a particular class. Then, double check your multiplicity. Read it out loud if needed. You should have two sentences to read. Let s say we have  [ A ] 1 ------- * [ B ], then it would read "A has many B, and B belongs to one and only one A". Multiplicity can be: 0..1 (at most one), 1 (one and only one), 0..* (any number), 1..* (one or more). Your inheritance should be solid if it respects the Liskov substitution principle.

Don't leave your diagrams without explanation, and stand your ground. Design is all about making decisions and trade-offs. I want to know those, because this is what lets me know if you actually worked on this, and are an able analyst, or if you are just fighting to just get a working system.

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