Sunday 28 October 2012

How limitation can be source of goodness - NoSQL, REST and more

[Level C3]

It just dawned on me. I came to a startling realisation that limitation/restriction/constraint  - which are words with negative connotation - can/will generate creativity and lead to goodness. This is more or less is saying "less is more". But looking at it from another angle.

Story of twitter

I do not know about you but I think Twitter is one of the biggest inventions of recent decades, somewhere along the lines of Gutenberg's printing or Priestly's Soda. Regardless of what most think about the revolution of social networking, I believe Twitter is not of the same breed - it is not a compressed facebook.

Twitter is centred around a stupidly simple idea: you have 140 characters to express yourself. No more. Yes, it also has re-tweet, follow, favourite, etc but these are features, if you remove them twitter will be more or less twitter although its usefulness will be limited. But if you remove the 140 character limitation suddenly it is not twitter anymore. Twitlonger is not twitter. With all due respect to @daltonc with a limitation much different from 140 characters will not make a new twitter.

But why? Because by limiting you to use only 140 characters, you are forced to express yourself more succinctly. Makes you think really hard about what you want to say and remove all that matters less. Limitation leads you towards the ethos of twitter. You cannot write a line in the terms and condition of twitter  asking users to write only intelligent tweets but twitter has achieved this by enforcing its 140 characters limitation.

Why NoSQL matters

They say behind every successful man, there is a powerful woman. And I would say behind every inflexible and crippling architecture in the enterprise there is a big legacy database. Database becomes legacy soon after the first release, since other layers change but database cannot keep up. What I mean by database is an RDBMS database (SQL Server, Oracle, you name it.

We have cut down our processes, we do agile, we do lean, we have got continuous integration, we do unit testing and TDD, we do BDD and continuous deployment, we do ... we have built a process to minimise the risk and impact of change. Yet it is so difficult to change and the hardest to change is database.

The crux of this issue goes to the fact that business logic creeps into database. I recently witnessed how a complex calculation had to be done in an inaccurate rounding since it had to match the database calculation logic - yes there was calculation in database. 

We all believe that we should not put the business logic in database. But why do we keep doing it? Because we can. The problem is best practices and disciplines are difficult to enforce when project is late, we have a critical bug to fix or we need to make a quick change to the system and easiest solution is to change the stored procedure.

As far as SQL Server is concerned, we can have intra-model logic (calculated fields), domain-wide logic (stored procedure and user-defined functions) and cross-boundary logic (service broker) - and you can even deploy compiled code (SQL CLR). And since we can, we will.

And here is why I think NoSQL is useful - apart from all the hype around it. You simply cannot put business logic in it, so you don't. And this will lead into better design. So I like NoSQL not because of what I can do but because of what I cannot do. I would agree with Stonebraker's article and believe that NoSQL technologies could be low-tech compared to hi-tech RDBMS, but I cannot abuse them in the same way. NoSQL fully focuses on storage and retrieval and not replicating all those features that should not be implemented in a database (XML Manipulation, Message Bus, logic etc)

A table in SQL can translate to 5-6 Redis data structures so that you could effectively query and access data. So there is more work to be done but I like it since I would really think about what I need to store and what I need to query back (remember twitter?).

Lessons from REST

Regardless of all the bloated hype and endless controversies in interpreting REST, it works. It just simply works. So we have a set of constraints and if you follow them it will lead to goodness. Example? HTTP.

REST is an absolute example of how constraints can lead to a better design.

Limitation in creative arts

I am big fan of minimalism and Philip Glass is one of my favourite contemporary composers. In minimalism, a compact musical idea is repeated to create rhythm, melody and ultimately harmony - and this is usually created using layers of repetitive chords. For me who love minimal music, Satyagraha opera is the pinnacle of minimal musical expression through a limiting set of musical material. 

Apart from musical material, limitation in number of instruments is also an important aspect. String quartet is one of the most expressive forms of music - and I just love it be it Beethoven or Shostakovich. Rock counterpart for the string quartet is probably the rock trio (singer as an instrument?) where some of the best music ever produced (from Jimi Hendrix and Cream to Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana). 

In social and political terms, we have experienced an explosion of modern and beautiful art in the eastern bloc during the oppression of communist governments. Composers and film directors had to find their own language to express their art. Since they could no longer look outside for inspiration, they turned inside and a new era of creativity and great art flourished: Andrei Tarkovsky, Istvan SzaboAndrzej Wajda, Shepitko and many more. Shostakovich arguably produced his best works during the fierce Stalinist oppression. It is interesting that when the restrictions are lifted, artist is no longer able to produce the same quality of works. Wajda's Iron Man seemed like just a shabby copy of Marble Man. And Tarkovsky's two last films made outside Russia did not feel like the previous ones. 

The same oppression created the new wave of Iran Cinema with the likes of Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui, Kiarostami and others.

Now should we create an oppressive government so that we get a great artistic output?! No, but perhaps we can have a 60's style drug revolution which does the same :)

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