Drowning in code: The ever-growing problem of ever-growing codebases

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FOSDEM 2024 The machine manufacture faces a number of superior problems, immoderate imposed by physics, immoderate by bequest technology, and immoderate by inertia. There whitethorn beryllium solutions to immoderate of these, but they're going to hurt.

In a erstwhile role, nan Reg FOSS table gave 3 talks astatine nan FOSDEM unfastened root convention successful Brussels. In 2023, I projected 1 nether nan banner of nan Reg, truthful immoderate of nan points hearken backmost to earlier articles. Unfortunately, since submitting nan connection successful October thing sad happened, moreover if it was inevitable. A elephantine of twentieth period package design, Niklaus Wirth died. As a mini tribute, I decided to alteration nan measurement I introduced this talk.

Wirth is celebrated for 1 thing, but arguably, it wasn't nan biggest facet of his career. To prime a superficially mini but pervasive example: nan computers Unix was written connected utilized teletypes arsenic their terminals. These were, very roughly, printers pinch a typewriter keyboard connected them. Teletypes are why Linux console instrumentality files are called tty.

Typewriters person a displacement key, and often not overmuch else. But machine keyboards person tons of modifier keys: Control and Alternate (or "Option" aliases "Meta") and Super (or "Command" aliases "Windows"). The bits successful representation which correspond if 1 of these are pressed down are called Bucky bits… Because Niklaus Wirth studied in, and taught in, and loved, California, and his nickname location was "Bucky".

Bucky Wirth didn't conscionable invent Pascal. Pascal grew retired of a connection to amended Algol. The Algol committee turned it down and picked personification else's, much complicated, thought instead. That became Algol 68 and killed nan connection forever. As a result, we sewage different languages that were nan indirect offspring of Algol: which took Algol's ideas and changed them. Languages specified arsenic BCPL, which was turned into B, which became C – and C++ and everything built from them.

All because nan Algol guys didn't for illustration Bucky Wirth's simple, clean, proposal. Wirth went connected to create Pascal. This was a large hit. A ample portion of nan Apple Lisa operating strategy was implemented successful Pascal, and that went connected to profoundly power nan Mac. A Unix was implemented successful a Pascal dialect, too. It was called TUNIS: nan Toronto University System, and it was written successful a Pascal derivative called Concurrent Euclid.

Pascal became Turbo Pascal which became Borland Delphi and drove nan occurrence of Microsoft Windows 3. Delphi was, for a while, huge. But Wirth ignored each that and went connected to constitute a successor, called Modula. Then he threw that distant and wrote a successor pinch built-in concurrency called Modula-2.

Late successful Wirth's career, he became a passionate advocator of mini software. He wrote a awesome short article astir this. It's called A Plea For Lean Software [PDF], and it's only a fewer pages long. Read it. It's worthy it. It won't return long. As a impervious of conception of nan validity of nan concept, Wirth moved connected from Modula-2 and wrote his masterpiece, Project Oberon. Oberon is simply a mini Pascal-like language, pinch concurrency primitives. But it's besides a compiler for nan language, and an IDE for it. That IDE is besides a tiling-window based OS successful its ain right. For nan obituary I wrote for Prof. Wirth, I downloaded nan root codification of nan halfway of Project Oberon and ran a statement count. It comes retired a spot complete 4000 lines. Specifically, immoderate 4,623 lines of code, successful 262kB of text.

That's a self-hosting bare-metal OS. It is unbelievably tiny.

Debian 12, for comparison, is 1,341,564,204 lines of code. That's nan project's ain estimate. One and a 3rd billion, that is, 1 and a 3rd thousand million lines of code. For comparison, Google Chrome is astir 40 cardinal lines, which is successful nan aforesaid ballpark arsenic nan Linux kernel these days.

Nobody tin publication nan root codification of Chrome. Not alone, not arsenic a team. Humans don't unrecorded agelong enough. Any group that claims to person gone done nan codification and de-Googlized it is lying: each that's imaginable to do is immoderate searches, and effort to measurement what postulation it emits. A 1000 group moving for a decade couldn't publication nan full thing.

This is nan benignant of size of codebase that we are building nan net from these days.

These projects are truthful incomprehensibly immense that nary quality mind tin comprehend moreover 1 mini isolated subset of nan full thing.

We see this normal. Everything is for illustration that. It's conscionable really it is. Computers are big, retention is cheap, interconnects are fast, and it useful and it scales and it is each beautiful astonishing compared to nan systems I started moving with.

A hobby of excavation is trying to intelligibly specify immoderate of what I telephone nan Big Lies successful computing. In 2022 I wrote that you can't bargain software. That intends you, nan reader, can't. Cash-rich multinational corporations perfectly tin bargain software, and they often do. But specified users can't. All we get are licenses that opportunity we ain nan correct to usage 1 copy, aliases if you ain a business, truthful galore copies… and anyway, you don't get nan root code, aliases immoderate benignant of guarantee.

That, of course, is why Free Software has done truthful well. If only large companies really ain package past nan only remaining prime is package that cipher owns and cipher controls and that's built and maintained by its organization of users. That's why FOSDEM exists.

So, let's move connected to different large lie:

Computers aren't overmuch faster now than they were a decade ago, and they will astir apt ne'er again return to nan complaint of capacity betterment they had for 60 years up to nan mid-noughties.

Moore's Law is over, replaced by Koomey's law. Now, computers usage little electricity, emit little heat, and they proceed to get smaller and cheaper… but they're not getting massively faster nan measurement that they did successful nan 20th century. Many Reg readers will retrieve nan Pentium 4, Intel's space-heater spot launched successful 2000, and which nan institution planned to ramp up to 10 gigaHertz by 2005.

It didn't happen. We sewage nan smaller, cooler-running Pentium M instead, which evolved into nan Core, Core 2 and past Core i-thingy ranges today. And acknowledgment to AMD, they are 64-bit now. What we sewage alternatively of overmuch faster processor cores are more processor cores.

The point is, that doesn't standard very well. On nan desktop we person four-core machines and now we're moving to eight-plus cores, but a azygous personification can't usage that very helpfully, truthful instead, we're getting computers pinch a substance of high-performance but hot, power-hungry cores, and lower-performance, cooler, but much electrically-efficient cores.

As Sophie Wilson, co-creator of nan Arm chip, observed, nan silicon spot manufacture is very bully astatine uncovering ways of trading much and much products to america that we can't usage because they must walk ever-increasing amounts of clip turned disconnected and not doing thing – aliases nan instrumentality will incinerate itself.

Server chips person tons much cores, of course, because servers tin usage that better, but that has a ceiling too. Look it up: it's called Amdahl's law, aft nan late awesome Gene Amdahl, and it's rather scary. Even if a programme tin beryllium made 95 per cent parallel, nan maximum speedup you tin get is astir 20 times, no matter really galore processor cores you propulsion astatine it.

Once we started to get multi-core processors, Moore's Law meant that nan transistor fund was spent connected getting wider, not faster. Now we are getting built-in dedicated silicon for rendering 3D graphics, often abnormal successful favour of much powerful off-chip rendering silicon. Silicon for matrix arithmetic. Hardware dedicated to accelerating definite cryptography algorithms. Silicon for modelling neural networks for alleged "AI" features. ("AI" is different large lie, but 1 I won't spell into here.)

These CPU components aren't nan only bits that are getting faster: computers' different subsystems are improving, too. Memory is getting faster. Solid authorities retention is getting faster, though as I wrote past year, nan astir breathtaking benignant of non-volatile representation – a bold effort to bypass a full heap of bequest bottlenecks and move non-volatile retention correct onto nan CPU representation autobus – flopped. It was killed by bequest package designs.

All this worldly helps definite circumstantial functions, but it doesn't make your wide programs spell faster.

In nan mid-1990s, for 1 of nan UK's starring machine magazines, I ported their in-house benchmark suite from 16-bit Windows to 32-bit Windows. I do cognize a little astir benchmarking. Benchmark vendors now see tasks for illustration video compression successful their tests, moreover though astir machine users ne'er do that, conscionable because nan benchmark-sellers request immoderate measurement to trial nan capacity of multi-core chips. Multicore processors do negociate to execute immoderate worldly faster, and benchmarks request to show that.

These capacity numbers aren't lies, exactly… but they are nary longer applicable to mean desktop aliases laptop computing. Nor, mostly, are they applicable to server computing either.

So, yes, computers are still getting a small spot quicker each twelvemonth and a half… but nan point is that up until astir 20 years ago, they doubled successful velocity that often. Now it's a specified 10 aliases 15 per cent. Unfortunately, our worldwide computing manufacture evolved to fresh a marketplace wherever microprocessors conscionable kept getting faster, which they did, consistently, for astir 30 years.

This manufacture is, by nature, incapable to accommodate to a world wherever that nary longer happens – and ne'er will again. The consequence is spiralling package bloat. Even nan IEEE says so. The manufacture is profitable because astir of this package is successful unsafe programming languages, aliases marginally safer ones that are implemented successful unsafe languages… resulting successful a teetering stack of dozens of layers of flakey unreliable code, which successful move needs thousands and millions of group perpetually patching nan holes successful it, and needs customers to salary to get those fixes fast, and support paying for them for years to come.

The world runs connected software, produced and consumed connected an business scale, ever getting bigger and much complicated.

Nobody understands it immoderate more. Nobody can. It's excessively big. But it's nan only exemplary of making and trading package we have, truthful we are trapped successful it.

And, because computers aren't getting overmuch quicker, arsenic it gets bigger, package is getting slower. That's why we're not seeing large breathtaking caller features, caller capabilities and tools.

Thanks to Koomey's Law, arsenic we scope a 4th of nan measurement done nan 21st century, moreover pouch devices tin propulsion astir high-definition video streams. Thanks to immense server farms, they tin understand reside and earthy language… kinda sorta. But they tin struggle to admit our faces, and cannot publication expressions aliases reside of voice. We can't operation reside pinch different UIs, and it's been truthful agelong since we standardized UI creation that we've forgotten really to do it.

As a result, we person immoderate large problems successful this industry, and we are not confronting them. Software is vast, and vastly complicated, and cipher tin adequately understand it all.

It is excessively large to usefully change, aliases optimise. All we tin do is nibble astir nan edges, removing bits here, making different bits a spot faster. It's almost fractal, truthful location are a adjacent infinite number of edges to nibble at… but it's still getting bigger, truthful nan problems are getting harder each nan time.

This besides intends we can't check nan full thing. It's excessively big. All we tin do is person a batch of group watching it for erstwhile it goes wrong, effort to trace what happened, and hole that symptom.

Computers are getting much parallel. But, arsenic acold arsenic anyone knows, it is simply intolerable to automatically return algorithms and parallelise them. Only a quality mind tin do that, and yes, usually, it is a mind, successful nan singular.

That intends that only chunks that tin fresh into 1 mind tin beryllium refactored for illustration this.

This level of bloat is simply a situation that Wirth foresaw erstwhile it was 1 per cent of today, erstwhile Windows 95 fit onto 13 floppies, and what he pleaded pinch nan manufacture to see and address.

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There is an urgent request for smaller, simpler software. When thing is excessively large to understand, past you can't return it isolated and make thing smaller retired of it.

You tin trim it a bit, but to make profound changes, you person to spell backmost to nan readying stage, reconsider what you need, propulsion distant what you don't, and effort to make immoderate minimum viable merchandise that does nan essentials and thing else.

This is nan existential situation facing nan package manufacture today, and it has nary bully answers. But location whitethorn beryllium immoderate retired there, which is what we will look astatine next.


This article is extracted from portion of nan author's talk astatine FOSDEM 2024 successful Brussels, which was titled One measurement forward: uncovering a way to what comes aft Unix. The different parts will travel soon. ®