james mckay dot net

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24
Jul

Interchangeable data access layers == stealing from your client

This is one of those so-called “best practices” that crops up a lot in the .net world:

You need to keep the different layers of your application loosely coupled with a clean separation of concerns so that you can swap out your data access layer for a different technology if you need to.

It all sounds right, doesn’t it? Separation of concerns, loose coupling…very clean, SOLID, and Uncle Bob-compliant, right?

Wrong. Contrary to what you may have been told by .net traditionalists, this is not a best practice. Oren Eini, aka Ayende Rahien, debunked it thoroughly about four years ago.

What he said needed to be said. Trying to abstract out your data access layer so you can swap it out is an exercise in chasing rainbows: it just piles on friction and obstructs you from other, more important optimisations. Every project that I’ve ever seen that has attempted this kind of abstraction has been riddled with severe SELECT n+1 problems that could not be resolved without breaking encapsulation.

Nobody is saying here that separation of concerns is bad per se. What is bad, however, is inappropriate separation of concerns — an attempt to decouple parts of your system that don’t lend themselves to being decoupled. Kent Beck has a pretty good guideline as to when separation of concerns is appropriate and when it isn’t: you should be dealing with two parts of your system which you can reason about independently.

You can not reason about your business layer, your presentation layer, and your data access layer independently. User stories that require related changes right across all your layers are very, very common.

(Nitpickers’ corner: I’m not talking about test mocks here. That’s different. It’s relatively easy to make your test mocks behave like Entity Framework. It’s orders of magnitude harder to make NHibernate or RavenDB behave like Entity Framework.)

Because of this, implementing the strict separation of concerns necessary to make your persistence mechanism pluggable means enforcing strict protocols which slow down day to day development, increase your estimates significantly, adversely affect performance, and make some user stories impossible — all for a requirement that 99% of projects never need, and even for those that do, you can’t guarantee that it will even work, that you won’t have overlooked a myriad of very subtle issues that trip you up all over the place.

You will be diverting significant amounts of developer time and resources — for which your client is paying — away from adding business value which they are asking for, onto a high-maintenance non-functional requirement which they are not.

In other words, if you are attempting to make your data access layer interchangeable, you are stealing from your client.

If you can present a valid business case for making your persistence mechanism interchangeable, then it’s a different matter, of course. But even then, you should still warn them of the extra costs involved as well as the risk that it may not even be possible in the end. Otherwise you won’t be delivering good value for money.

16
Jul

The Anaemic Business Layer

The three-layer architecture, with your presentation layer, your business layer and your data access layer, is a staple of traditional .net applications, being heavily promoted on sites such as MSDN, CodeProject and the ASP.NET forums. Its advantage is that it is a fairly canonical way of doing things, so (in theory at least) when you get a new developer on the team, they should have no trouble in finding where everything is.

Its disadvantage is that it tends to breed certain antipatterns that crop up over and over and over again. One such antipattern is what I call the Anaemic Business Layer.

The Anaemic Business Layer is a close cousin of the Anaemic Domain Model, and often appears hand in hand with it. It is characterised by business “logic” classes that don’t actually have any logic in them at all, but only shunt data between the domain model returned from your ORM and a set of identical model classes with identical method signatures in a different namespace. Sometimes it may wrap all the calls to your repository in catch-log-throw blocks, which is another antipattern in itself, but that’s a rant for another time.

The problem with the Anaemic Business Layer is that it makes your code much more time consuming and difficult to maintain, since you have to drill down through more classes just to figure out what is going on, and you have to edit more files to make a single change. This in turn increases risk because it’s all too easy to overlook one of the places where you have to make a change. It also makes things restrictive, because you lose access to certain advanced features of your ORM such as lazy loading, query shaping, transaction management, cross-cutting concerns or concurrency control, that can only properly be handled in the business layer.

The Anaemic Business Layer is usually symptomatic of an over-strict and inflexible insistence on a “proper” layered architecture, where your UI is only allowed to talk to your business layer and your business layer is only allowed to talk to your data access layer. You could make an argument for the need for encapsulation — so that you can easily change the implementation of the methods in the business layer if need be — but that’s only really important if you’re producing an API for public consumption by the rest of the world. Your app is not the rest of the world, and besides, those specific changes tend not to happen (especially for basic CRUD operations), so I’d be inclined to call YAGNI on that one.

The other reason why you might have an Anaemic Business Layer is that you’ve got too much going on in your controllers or your data access layer. You shouldn’t have any business logic in either, as that hinders testability, especially if you’re of the school of thought that says your unit tests shouldn’t hit the database. But if that’s not the case, then it’s time to stop being so pedantic. An Anaemic Business Layer serves no purpose other than to get in the way and slow you down. So ditch your unhelpful faux-“best practices,” bypass it altogether, and go straight from your UI to your repository.

07
Oct

Your best practices are (probably) nothing of the sort

Now I have nothing against best practices per se.

But if you are going to tell me that something is a “best practice,” please first make sure that it really is a best practice. The software development world is plagued by so-called “best practices” that are nothing of the sort, that just introduce friction, ceremony and even risk without offering any benefits whatsoever in return. Some of them were once perfectly valid but have been superseded by developments in technology; some of them were based on widely held assumptions that have since been proven to be incorrect; some of them are based on total misunderstandings of something that someone famous once said; and some of them are just spurious.

I’ll give one example here, which came up in a discussion on Twitter the other day. It’s quite common for people to put their interfaces in one assembly, their business logic in a second, their repositories in a third, their models in a fourth, their front end in a fifth, and so on. This is all done in the name of “having a layered architecture.” The problem with this is that it makes dependency management harder (in fact in the pre-NuGet days it was an absolute nightmare) and forces you to jump around all over the place in your solution when making changes to related classes. It just adds friction, without even solving the problem it claims to solve: separate assemblies are neither necessary nor sufficient for a layered architecture. Oh, and it also violates the Common Closure Principle, which states that classes that change together must be packaged together.

Unfortunately, these so-called “best practices” proliferate because most developers lack the courage to question them, for fear of being viewed as incompetent or inexperienced by those with the authority to hire, fire or promote them. The people who promote garbage “best practices” tend to have Many Years Of Experience At Very Impressive Sounding Companies, and if you’re not that experienced (or confident) yourself, that can be quite intimidating. You don’t agree that we should put our interfaces, enums, business classes, repositories and presentation layers in separate assemblies? You obviously don’t understand a layered architecture!

Don’t let that intimidate you though. When somebody tells you that “you’re not following best practices,” it’s an indication that in their case, Many Years Of Experience At Very Impressive Sounding Companies actually means one year of experience repeated many times building run of the mill CRUD applications on outdated technologies at places that store users’ passwords in plain text. They are almost certainly not active on GitHub, or Twitter, or Stack Overflow, they are very unlikely to have hobby projects, and they probably never discuss programming with experts from outside their own team, let alone from other technology stacks.

In other words, The Emperor Has No Clothes.

But when something really is a best practice, it’ll be quite different. For starters, they will cite the practice concerned by name. They won’t tell you that “you’re not following best practices” but that “you’re violating the Single Responsibility Principle” or “you’re making test driven development harder” or “You Ain’t Gonna Need It” or something else specific. Another hallmark of a genuine best practice is that it will have tangible, enumerable benefits that are actually relevant to your situation. Here are some questions you can and should ask about it:

  1. Does it make it easier to get things right?
  2. Does it make it harder to get things wrong?
  3. Does it make it easier to back out when things go wrong?
  4. Does it make it easier to diagnose problems?
  5. Does it make it easier to get things done faster and with less effort without compromising points 1-4?
  6. Does it deliver the benefits that it claims to deliver? What evidence do you have that it does?
  7. Does it solve problems that you are actually likely to face, or is it one big YAGNI-fest?
  8. Are the problems that it solves still relevant, taking into account the current state of technology, market forces, security threats, and legislative or regulatory requirements?
  9. What alternative approaches have you considered, and how did they compare? It’s nonsensical to talk about “best practices” when you have nothing to compare them against, because the word “best” is meaningless in a sample size of one.
  10. Do its benefits actually outweigh its costs? In practice? In your situation?
  11. Have you understood it correctly, and are you sure you’re not confusing it with something else?

Any best practice that is worth following will stand up to scrutiny. And scrutinised it should be. Because blindly doing something just because somebody cries “best practices” is just cargo cult. And cargo cult programming is never a best practice.