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Simple solution VS over-engineering

Written by Solène, on 13 May 2021.
Tags: #software #opensource

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Introduction §

I wanted to share my thoughts about software in general. I've been using and writing software for a long time and I've seen some patterns over time.

Simple solutions §

I am a true adept of the "KISS" philosophy, in which KISS stands for Keep It Simple Stupid, meaning make your software easy to understand and not try to make it smart. It works most of the time but after you reach your goal with your software, you may be tempted to add features over it, or make it faster, or make it smarter, it usually doesn't work.

Over-engineering §

In the opensource world, we have many bricks of software that we can put together to build better tools, but at some point, you may use too many of them and the service is unbearable in regards to maintenance / operating, the current trend is to automate this by providing those huge stacks of software through docker. It may be good enough for users, it does certainly the job and it works, why should we worry?

Failure and reversibility §

When you use a complicated software, ALWAYS make sure you have a way out: either replace product A with product B or make sure the code is easy to fix. If you plan to invest yourself into deploying a complex program that will store data (like Nextcloud or Paperless-ng), the first question you should have is: how can I move away from it?

Why would you move away from something you are deploying right now because it's good? Software can be unmaintained after some time and you certainly don't want to run a network based obsolete program, due to dependency hell it may not work in the future because it relies on some component that is not available anymore (think python2 here), you may have bugs after a long use that nobody want to fix and prevent you to use the software correctly (scalability issue due to data growth).

There are tons of reasons that something can fail, so it's always important to think about replacements.

- are the data stored in a way you can extract? data could be saved as a plain file on the file system but could also be stored in some complicated repositories format (ipfs)

- if data are encrypted, can you decrypt it? If it's GPG based, you can always work with it, but if it's custom made chunk encryption like Seafile does, it's a lot harder without the real program.

- if the software is packaged for your system, it may not be forever, you may have to package it yourself in a few years if you want to keep it up to date

- if you rely on external API, it may be not able indefinitely. Web browser extensions are a good example, those programs have tightened what extensions could do over time and many tricks had to be used to migrate from API to API. When you rely on a extension, it's a real issue when the extension can't work anymore.

Build your own replacement? §

There are many situations in which you may prefer to build your own service with your own code than using a software ready on the shelf. There are always pros and cons, you gain control and reliability over features and ease of use. Not everyone is able to write such scripts and you may fail and have to deal with the consequences when you do so, this is something that must be kept in mind.

- backups: you could use rsync instead of a complex backup system

- "cloud" file storage: rsync/sftp are still a viable option to upload a file "to the cloud" if you have a server, a simple https server would be enough to share the file, the checksum of the file could be used as an unique and very long file name.

- automation: a shell script executed over ssh could replace ansible or salt-stack to some extent

There are many use case in which the administrator may prefer a home-made solution, but in a company context, you may have to rely on that very person instead of relying on a complex software, which moves the problem to another level.

Conclusion §

There are many reasons a software could fail, be abandoned, not work anymore, you should always assess such situations if you don't want to build a fragile service. Easiest ideas have less features but are a lot more reliable and resistant to time than complex implementations. The more code you involve, the more issues you will have.

We are free to use what we want, in open source we are even free to make changes to the code we use, this is fantastic. Choice always come with pros and cons and it's always better to think before hand than facing unwise consequences.