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

Glue Layers

When the top-down and bottom-up drives collide, the result is often a mess. The top layer of application logic and the bottom layer of domain primitives have to be impedance-matched by a layer of glue logic.

One of the lessons Unix programmers have learned over decades is that glue is nasty stuff and that it is vitally important to keep glue layers as thin as possible. Glue should stick things together, but should not be used to hide cracks and unevenness in the layers.

In the Web-browser example, the glue would include the rendering code that maps a document object parsed from incoming HTML into a flattened visual representation as a bitmap in a display buffer, using GUI domain primitives to do the painting. This rendering code is notoriously the most bug-prone part of a browser. It attracts into itself kluges to address problems that originate both in the HTML parsing (because there is a lot of ill-formed markup out there) and the GUI toolkit (which may not have quite the primitives that are really needed).

A Web browser's glue layer has to mediate not merely between specification and domain primitives, but between several different external specifications: the network behavior standardized in HTTP, HTML document structure, and various graphics and multimedia formats as well as the users' behavioral expectations from the GUI.

And one single bug-prone glue layer is not the worst fate that can befall a design. A designer who is aware that the glue layer exists, and tries to organize it into a middle layer around its own set of data structures or objects, can end up with two layers of glue — one above the midlayer and one below. Programmers who are bright but unseasoned are particularly apt to fall into this trap; they'll get each fundamental set of classes (application logic, midlayer, and domain primitives) right and make them look like the textbook examples, only to flounder as the multiple layers of glue needed to integrate all that pretty code get thicker and thicker.

The thin-glue principle can be viewed as a refinement of the Rule of Separation. Policy (the application logic) should be cleanly separated from mechanism (the domain primitives), but if there is a lot of code that is neither policy nor mechanism, chances are that it is accomplishing very little besides adding global complexity to the system.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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