Friday, April 1, 2016

Law of Parsimony Strikes Back

Let me first start off by saying (hate it when people start off saying this - usually means some principled BS is coming) that many new Big Data technologies such as the concept of Map/Reduce, Machine Learning and products such as Hadoop, Spark and NoSQL databases are great tools to have in your IT arsenal. Also don't forgetting other infrastructure technologies such as hardware virtualization, software containers and other micro-services deployment architectures that are making IT environments more flexible and more manageable (note, this does not mean simpler). There is no doubt these technologies fit a number of problem domains that in the past where very hard to do with standard computing stacks, IT tooling, and relational database technology.

Now having said that, let's be careful not to over apply them and end up with a system that is fragile and takes an army (or perhaps small army) of super smart operations people to deploy and run. I always go back to one of my favorite principles, "the law of parsimony" or sometimes referred to as Occam's razor. Boils down to the reality that nature has a habit of looking for the simplest path to solve a problem. We can't sometimes see simple elegance although. Take for example nature's design of the common leafy tree. Wile it has complex structure, this structure comes from some very simple principles.

I feel we are at a point with technology where we are advancing at a great pace, but in the process of doing this we are creating a lot of complexity. As Occam's razor states, complexity is a relative consideration among the alternatives, so the bar is always moving up with what we consider to be complex, but we sometimes need to step back and not use a bulldozer when a shovel will do the job just as good and will not break down on us when we need it most.

I feel that way with a lot of technology I see being applied. There are so many options to choose from that sometimes the simplest option for the problem is overlooked. This might be human nature, "he who dies with the most toys wins", but this can be a costly mistake for many businesses.

I often joke that if you give me a bunch of plain old app servers (pick your favorite) and a relational database (pick your favorite), I can move the world (might need a load balancer in there somewhere ;). So, when you are in your next architecture design meeting ask yourself this question, can I bend my tools to my will or do I need new toys to play with :)

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