Building Software Longevity

The “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment is an interesting way to start fights with historians, but in software, replacing old parts with new parts is required for building software longevity. Designing software in ways that every piece can be replaced is vital to building software for the future.

The Question

The Wikipedia article presents the experiment as follows:

According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the minotaur and then escaped onto a ship going to Delos. Each year, the Athenians commemorated this legend by taking the ship on a pilgrimage to Delos to honor Apollo. A question was raised by ancient philosophers: After several centuries of maintenance, if each individual part of the Ship of Theseus was replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship?

Ship of Theseus – Wikipedia

The Software Equivalent

Consider Microsoft Word. Released in 1983, Word is approaching its 40th anniversary. And, while I do not have access into its internal workings, I am willing to bet that most, if not all of the 1983 code has since been replaced by updated modules. So, while it is still called Word, its parts are much newer than the original 1983 iteration. I am sure if I sat here long enough, I could identify other applications with similar histories. The branding does not change, the core functionality does not change, only the code changes.

Like the wood on the Ship of Theseus, software rots. And it rots fast. Frameworks and languages evolve quickly to take advantage of hardware updates, and the software that uses those must do the same.

Design for Replacement

We use the term technical debt to categorize the conscious choices we make to prioritize time to market over perfect code. It is worthwhile to consider software has a “half life” or “depreciation factor” as well: while your code may work today, chances are, without appropriate maintenance, it will rot into something that is no longer able to serve the needs of your customers.

If I had a “one sized fits all” solution to software rot, I would probably be a millionaire. The truth is, product managers, engineers, and architects must be aware of software rot. Not only must we invest the time into fixing the rot, but we must design our products to allow every piece of the application to be replaced, even as the software still stands.

This is especially critical in Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings, where we do not have the luxury of large downtimes for upgrades or replacements. To our customers, we should operate continuously, with upgrades happening almost invisibly. This requires the foresight to build replaceable components and the commitment to fixing and replacing components regularly. If you cannot replace components of your software, there will come a day where your software will no longer function for your customers.






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