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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Software Is a Many-Layered Thing

Broadly speaking, there are two directions one can go in designing a hierarchy of functions or objects. Which direction you choose, and when, has a profound effect on the layering of your code.

One direction is bottom-up, from concrete to abstract — working up from the specific operations in the problem domain that you know you will need to perform. For example, if one is designing firmware for a disk drive, some of the bottom-level primitives might be ‘seek head to physical block’, ‘read physical block’, ‘write physical block’, ‘toggle drive LED’, etc.

The other direction is top-down, abstract to concrete — from the highest-level specification describing the project as a whole, or the application logic, downwards to individual operations. Thus, if one is designing software for a mass-storage controller that might drive several different sorts of media, one might start with abstract operations like ‘seek logical block’, ‘read logical block’, ‘write logical block’, ‘toggle activity indication’. These would differ from the similarly named hardware-level operations above in that they're intended to be generic across different kinds of physical devices.

These two examples could be two ways of approaching design for the same collection of hardware. Your choice, in cases like this, is one of these: either abstract the hardware (so the objects encapsulate the real things out there and the program is merely a list of manipulations on those things), or organize around some behavioral model (and then embed the actual hardware manipulations that carry it out in the flow of the behavioral logic).

An analogous choice shows up in a lot of different contexts. Suppose you're writing MIDI sequencer software. You could organize that code around its top level (sequencing tracks) or around its bottom level (switching patches or samples and driving wave generators).

A very concrete way to think about this difference is to ask whether the design is organized around its main event loop (which tends to have the high-level application logic close to it) or around a service library of all the operations that the main loop can invoke. A designer working from the top down will start by thinking about the program's main event loop, and plug in specific events later. A designer working from the bottom up will start by thinking about encapsulating specific tasks and glue them together into some kind of coherent order later on.

For a larger example, consider the design of a Web browser. The top-level design of a Web browser is a specification of the expected behavior of the browser: what types of URL (like https: or ftp: or file:) it interprets, what kinds of images it is expected to be able to render, whether and with what limitations it will accept Java or JavaScript, etc. The layer of the implementation that corresponds to this top-level view is its main event loop; each time around, the loop waits for, collects, and dispatches on a user action (such as clicking a Web link or typing a character into a field).

But the Web browser has to call a large set of domain primitives to do its job. One group of these is concerned with establishing network connections, sending data over them, and receiving responses. Another set is the operations of the GUI toolkit the browser will use. Yet a third set might be concerned with the mechanics of parsing retrieved HTML from text into a document object tree.

Which end of the stack you start with matters a lot, because the layer at the other end is quite likely to be constrained by your initial choices. In particular, if you program purely from the top down, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position that the domain primitives your application logic wants don't match the ones you can actually implement. On the other hand, if you program purely from the bottom up, you may find yourself doing a lot of work that is irrelevant to the application logic — or merely designing a pile of bricks when you were trying to build a house.

Ever since the structured-programming controversies of the 1960s, novice programmers have generally been taught that the correct approach is the top-down one: stepwise refinement, where you specify what your program is to do at an abstract level and gradually fill in the blanks of implementation until you have concrete working code. Top-down tends to be good practice when three preconditions are true: (a) you can specify in advance precisely what the program is to do, (b) the specification is unlikely to change significantly during implementation, and (c) you have a lot of freedom in choosing, at a low level, how the program is to get that job done.

These conditions tend to be fulfilled most often in programs relatively close to the user and high in the software stack — applications programming. But even there those preconditions often fail. You can't count on knowing what the ‘right’ way for a word processor or a drawing program to behave is until the user interface has had end-user testing. Purely top-down programming often has the effect of overinvesting effort in code that has to be scrapped and rebuilt because the interface doesn't pass a reality check.

In self-defense against this, programmers try to do both things — express the abstract specification as top-down application logic, and capture a lot of low-level domain primitives in functions or libraries, so they can be reused when the high-level design changes.

Unix programmers inherit a tradition that is centered in systems programming, where the low-level primitives are hardware-level operations that are fixed in character and extremely important. They therefore lean, by learned instinct, more toward bottom-up programming.

Whether you're a systems programmer or not, bottom-up can also look more attractive when you are programming in an exploratory way, trying to get a grasp on hardware or software or real-world phenomena you don't yet completely understand. Bottom-up programming gives you time and room to refine a vague specification. Bottom-up also appeals to programmers' natural human laziness — when you have to scrap and rebuild code, you tend to have to throw away larger pieces if you're working top-down than you do if you're working bottom-up.

Real code, therefore tends to be programmed both top-down and bottom-up. Often, top-down and bottom-up code will be part of the same project. That's where ‘glue’ enters the picture.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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