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Software Reuse Is Dead, Long Live Software Reuse

Make yourself a hero

I know what you're probably thinking as you look at the title of this article: "software reuse - been there, done that, and it doesn't work...."

And it's true that many a software architect or project leader on a WebLogic project has broken his or her pick on the slag heap of reuse efforts and that the legacy of monolithic CASE tool suites has left a bad taste in many developers' mouths when it comes to developing reusable software. So, what has changed to make software reuse feasible today? Three key factors make software reuse initiatives worth considering or reconsidering at this juncture:

  • Mature, component-based development environments
  • Web services and service-oriented architectures
  • Software engineering processes and tools oriented towards reuse
I'll be discussing why each of these factors makes a difference towards the goal of effective software reuse, and why, in many cases, they combine with business factors to make a software reuse initiative a mandatory part of standard operating procedure in a rapidly increasing number of IT organizations.

Mature, Component-Based Development Environments
As we look at the past 20 years in software development, we see steady progress being made, both in the sophistication of programming techniques and the language-specific services being made available to the developer. From the early days of C, with its limited set of standard libraries and very much of a do-it-yourself mentality, to structured programming initiatives, to the early days of widespread object-oriented programming, to CORBA's distributed component infrastructure and services to today's modern J2EE and .NET component infrastructures, we can identify some major elements that make building and consuming reusable software feasible.

Structured programming techniques contributed to the notion of well-defined functional contracts to be consumed by callers of a module. Defining a contract in terms of its preconditions, expected input and output parameters (including the semantics of those parameters), side effects, and any exception conditions that may result from invocation of the function being described went a long way towards instilling a clean delineation between caller and invoked module.

Object-oriented programming introduced the concepts of data encapsulation and polymorphism, each of which contributed to effective software reuse. Data encapsulation freed the caller of an object from exposure to the underlying data structures used to manage persistent data and allowed the information being passed on a method call to be aligned more precisely with the caller's objectives. Polymorphism enabled the developers of a class to provide meaningful abstractions combined with underlying flexible implementations tuned to specific algorithmic needs, while allowing the calling code to be effectively decoupled from those implementations.

Taking the notion of decoupling one step further, distributed component technology provided developers with the ability to define and deploy coarse-grained component interfaces whose underlying implementations assembled a cluster of cohesive operations dealing with common data and functional objectives. While the tools provided with early component infrastructures such as CORBA were limited, and developers often had to be "rocket scientists" to get everything to work together correctly, when done right, the resulting deployed component landscape provided an efficient, flexible, and reusable application infrastructure.

Finally, the maturity of the two major component architectures, J2EE and .NET, gave developers a rich and stable platform upon which to build and deploy their components. The technical services provided by these two architectures, such as transactional integrity, messaging and directory services, security, exception processing, remoting, and many others make it possible for developers to focus on the function of their components rather than all of the underlying technical infrastructure required to make them work.

Web Services and Service-Oriented Architectures
I'm sure some of you are wondering, "Aren't Web services synonymous with service-oriented architectures? What exactly is a service-oriented architecture and how does it differ from Web services?" Simply put, a service-oriented architecture is one in which application functions are consolidated and presented in a loosely coupled form independent of their underlying implementation. These loosely coupled services typically present coarse-grained capabilities that are meant to be assembled together through some form of messaging runtime.

With that said, many, if not most, service-oriented architectures take advantage of the Internet-based Web service infrastructures being implemented and promoted by the major application server vendors. Web services and service-oriented architectures encourage - in fact, they demand - reuse by their very nature, as the sole purpose of a service is to expose a set of functional capabilities to multiple consumers. If that isn't reuse, then what is? In addition, because services are meant to be deployed once and accessed in place, they encourage the notion of business process assembly that crosses application boundaries - weaving together a series of services in support of a business process that may be described through a graphical design-time user interface. While the tools and underlying mechanisms to support this notion are still in their infancy, initiatives such as BPEL4WS (Business Process Execution Language For Web Services) show great promise in enabling this form of application development. Although it's unrealistic to expect that graphical application assembly will ever fully take the place of other development techniques, it will certainly take its place alongside those techniques and, in the process, encourage more effective reuse of underlying services.

Services and components also have a very symbiotic relationship that supports software reuse. Components are often the underlying mechanism behind a service, either fully implementing the functionality defined by the service or providing the necessary glue code to connect the modern Web service infrastructure with one or more legacy systems.

Software Engineering Processes and Tools
Great strides have been made in the past decade toward more disciplined and effective software development processes. Iterative methods such as RUP (Rational Unified Process) encourage early discovery, implementation, and refinement of key requirements. Incremental enhancements delivered on a regular and timely basis are a far cry from the heavyweight waterfall methodologies that typically resulted in late delivery of software that didn't meet user needs, not the least because those user needs changed from the time the original requirements were defined.

RUP and other modern software development processes encourage reuse by injecting specific software development asset (SDA) search and reuse review checkpoints into the development process. These search-and-review activities occur at all levels of the development life cycle from initial requirements definition, through analysis and design, and down to implementation. Modern UML-based modeling techniques also encourage reuse by providing analysts and developers with a concise, graphical means to crisply define functional requirements. Requirements in this form can then be consumed by other development tools such as code generators, mapping engines, and asset metadata repositories. UML-based IDE tools can be used not only to create UML but also to apply reusable knowledge SDAs such as design patterns to the resulting code, automatically preserving consistency between source code and model.

The Business Case for Reuse
With these tools and techniques in hand, and with IT budgets continuing to experience strong cost-cutting pressures, it's hard not to see the justification for a reuse initiative within an IT organization of any size. Dr. Jeffrey Poulin, noted software industry reuse expert, has compiled numerous studies that indicate reuse payback occurs on the first reuse of an SDA, even taking into account the extra effort required to build the asset for reuse. Michael Blechar, vice president and research director at Gartner Research, states, "Enterprises can substantially improve application development productivity and quality, while also decreasing time-to-market, by a factor of 5:1 or more through a committed software asset reuse program. At the heart of this initiative must be the ability for analysts and developers to easily locate and reuse these assets." Take the time to investigate the tools available to you to encourage reuse. (I'll cover process and tools in more detail in a future editorial.) Even something as seemingly simple as disseminating architectural guidance to development teams as UML models distributed through an asset metadata repository can produce significant payback in the form of code implemented using industry and organizational best practices, thus greatly reducing the chance of rewriting or experiencing heavy maintenance costs down the road. Adding the ability to define and distribute well-structured, coarse-grained components and services throughout your organization can accelerate productivity and, just as important, improve application consistency dramatically throughout your organization - and maybe make you a hero in the bargain!

More Stories By Brent Carlson

Brent Carlson is vice president of technology and cofounder of LogicLibrary, a provider of software development asset (SDA) management tools. He is the coauthor of two books: San Francisco Design Patterns: Blueprints for Business Software (with James Carey and Tim Graser) and Framework Process Patterns: Lessons Learned Developing Application Frameworks (with James Carey). He also holds 16 software patents, with eight more currently under evaluation.

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