From Here to the Asteroid Belt (I)

When I came up with the title line, I had a completely different conclusion in mind. It’s a nice line though. In contrast to the conclusion, it stayed.

Oh and by the way: Spring is finally here:

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(spring at the office, so much work lately, so little time to enjoy it)

This is one of those “what’s the right tool for the problem” posts. Most, me being no different, try to use tools they know best for essentially any problem at hand. And this is good instinct. It’s what people have always done and obviously they did something right. Knowing a tool well is of great value and typically supersedes in effectiveness the use of a tool that might be more powerful – if used correctly – but that you are not an expert at.

At scale however, when building something more complex or widely distributed, tool choice becomes decisive and intrinsic qualities such as simplicity, reliability, popularity, platform independence, performance, etc. may outweigh the benefits of tool expertise.

What I want to look at specifically is the applicability of a programming and execution platform for deployment scenarios ranging from an in-house, or SaaS deployments to massively distributed stand-alone applications such as mobile apps or desktop applications.

The latter two form the two endpoints of the custom vs. non-custom development scale and the non-distributed to arbitrarily distributed scale.

The rules are pretty clear:

In-house/SaaS: Complete control. The system is the application is the solution. There is no customization or distribution problem because everything is (essentially) 100% custom and 0% distributed.

Mobile/Desktop: No control over the single instance that is executed somewhere in the wild. Hard to monitor what is going on, minimal to no customization, potentially infinitely many instance in use concurrently.

But what about the places in between. The customized business solutions that drive our economic backbone from production sites to warehouse solutions, from planning to financials, from team productivity to workflow orchestration?

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Let’s say you have an application that is part standard solution (to be used as is) but typically requires non-trivial customization, adaptation, extension to be effectively useful.

What are the options?

Option C: Maintain a code line per instance or customer

That is (still?) a popular method – probably because it is simple to start with and it makes sure the original developer is in complete control.

That is also its downside: It does not scale well into any sort of eco-system and licensing model including third-parties. For a buyer it means 100% dependency on a supplier that most likely got paid dearly for a customer specific modification and will asked to be so at any time of further adaptation and extension.

Option P: Build a plugin model on top of a binary platform API

That is the model chosen for browsers and similar applications. It works very well as long as the platform use-case is sufficiently well defined, and the market interesting enough.

It obviously requires to invest significantly into feature rich and stable APIs, as well as into an effective plug-in model, a  development approach for plug-ins, and a distribution channels or bundling/installation model.

In essence you build a little operating system for some specific application case – and that is simply not an easy and cheap task to do right.

Option S: Ship (significant) source code and support extension and customization on site

This approach has several strong advantages: You can supply hot fixes and highly special customization with minimal interference. Customization is technically not limited to particular functions or API. There is no extra cost per installation on the provider side compared to Option C.

It assumes however that the ability to change, version, and deploy is built-in and necessary tools are readily available. As code life-cycle is now managed on-site, some attention need to be paid to handle code life cycle cleanly.

From a consumer’s point of view it reduces dependency and (leaving legal considerations aside) technically enables inclusion of third-party modifications and extensions.

Scenario Determines Tool

In part II we will look at how the three different scenarios above translate into tool approaches. Stay tuned.

 

 

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