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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Basics of the Unix Philosophy - Rule of Optimization:

Rule of Optimization: Prototype before polishing. Get it working before you optimize it.

The most basic argument for prototyping first is Kernighan & Plauger's; “90% of the functionality delivered now is better than 100% of it delivered never”. Prototyping first may help keep you from investing far too much time for marginal gains.

For slightly different reasons, Donald Knuth (author of The Art Of Computer Programming, one of the field's few true classics) popularized the observation that “Premature optimization is the root of all evil”.[11] And he was right.

Rushing to optimize before the bottlenecks are known may be the only error to have ruined more designs than feature creep. From tortured code to incomprehensible data layouts, the results of obsessing about speed or memory or disk usage at the expense of transparency and simplicity are everywhere. They spawn innumerable bugs and cost millions of man-hours — often, just to get marginal gains in the use of some resource much less expensive than debugging time.

Disturbingly often, premature local optimization actually hinders global optimization (and hence reduces overall performance). A prematurely optimized portion of adesign frequently interferes with changes that would have much higher payoffs across the whole design, so you end up with both inferior performance and excessively complex code.

In the Unix world there is a long-established and very explicit tradition (exemplified by Rob Pike's comments above and Ken Thompson's maxim about brute force) that says: Prototype, then polish. Get it working before you optimize it . Or: Make it work first, then make it work fast. ‘Extreme programming' guru Kent Beck, operating in a different culture, has usefully amplified this to: “Make it run, then make it right, then make it fast”.

The thrust of all these quotes is the same: get your design right with an un-optimized, slow, memory-intensive implementation before you try to tune. Then, tune systematically, looking for the places where you can buy big performance wins with the smallest possible increases in local complexity.

Prototyping is important for system design as well as optimization — it is much easier to judge whether a prototype does what you want than it is to read a long specification. I remember one development manager at Bellcore who fought against the “requirements” culture years before anybody talked about “rapid prototyping” or “agile development”. He wouldn't issue long specifications; he'd lash together some combination of shell scripts and awk code that did roughly what was needed, tell the customers to send him some clerks for a few days, and then have the customers come in and look at their clerks using the prototype and tell him whether or not they liked it. If they did, he would say “you can have it industrial strength so-many-months from now at such-and-such cost”. His estimates tended to be accurate, but he lost out in the culture to managers who believed that requirements writers should be in control of everything.

-- Mike Lesk

Using prototyping to learn which features you don't have to implement helps optimization for performance; you don't have to optimize what you don't write. The most powerful optimization tool in existence may be the delete key.

One of my most productive days was throwing away 1000 lines of code.

-- Ken Thompson

(We'll go into a bit more depth about related ideas in Chapter12.)


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The Art of Unix Programming
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