Programming, Software

The One True Layer Anti-Pattern

A common SQL database anti-pattern is the One True Lookup Table (OTLT). Though laughable the same anti-pattern often occurs at the application development layer. It commonly occurs as part of the mid-life crisis phase of an application.

Initially all objects and representations are coded as needed and to fit the circumstances at hand. Of course the dynamics of the Big Ball of Mud anti-pattern are such that soon you will have many varying descriptions of the same concept and data. Before long you get the desire to clean up and rationalise all these repetitions, which is a good example of refactoring for simplicity. However, at this point danger looms.

Someone will point out eventually that having one clean data model works so well that perhaps there should be one shared data model that all applications will use. This is superficially appealing and is almost inevitably implemented with a lot of fighting and fussing to ensure that everyone is using the one true data model (incidentally I’m using data models here but it might be services or anything where several applications are meant to drive through a single component).

How happy are we then? We have created a consistent component that is used across all our applications in a great horizontal band. The people who proposed it get promoted and everyone is using the One True Way.

What we have actually done is recreated the n-tier application architecture. Hurrah! Now what is the problem with that? Why does no-one talk about n-tier application architecture anymore? Well the issue is Middleware and the One True Layer will inevitably hit the same rocks that Middleware did and get dashed to pieces.

The problem with the One True Layer is the fundamental fact that you cannot be all things to all men. From the moment it is introduced the OTL must either bloat and expand to cover all possible Use Cases or otherwise hideously hamstring development of the application. If there was a happy medium between the two then someone would have written a library to do the job by now.

There is no consistency between which of the two choices will be made; I have seen both and neither of them have happy outcomes. Either way from this point on the layer is doomed: it becomes unusable and before long the developers will be trying to work their way around the OTL as much as possible, using it only when threatened with dismissal.

If the codebase continues for long enough then usually what happens is the OTL sprouts a number of wrappers around its objects that allow the various consumers of its data to do what they need to. When eventually the initial creators of the OTL are unable to force the teams to use the layer then the wrappers tend to suck up all the functionality of the OTL and the library dependency is removed.

In some ways this may seem regressive, we are back at the anarchy of objects. In fact what has been created is a set of vertical slices that represent the data in the way that makes sense for the context they appear in. These slices then collaborate via external API interfaces that are usually presented via platform neutral data transfer standards (HTTP/JSON for example) rather than via binary compatibility.

My advice is to try to avoid binary dependent interactions between components and try to avoid creating very broad layers of software. Tiers are fine but keep them narrow and try to avoid any tier reaching across more than a few slices (this particularly applies to databases).

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