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Posted Sep 10, 2001

The Black Box Approach - Page 3

By DatabaseJournal.com Staff

I have an idea, borne out by first-hand experience, as to why database-backed software development efforts so frequently fail. Let me be clear that I'm including here those projects that may not be documented as failures, but take much longer to roll out and deploy than originally planned because of the need to perform a major 're-write', 're-architecture', or  'tuning' effort. Personally, I call these delayed projects 'failures': more often than not they could have been completed on schedule (or even faster).

The single most common reason for failure is a lack of practical knowledge of the database — a basic lack of understanding of the fundamental tool that is being used. The 'blackbox' approach involves a conscious decision to protect the developers from the database. They are actually encouraged not to learn anything about it! In many cases, they are prevented from exploiting it. The reasons for this approach appear to be FUD- related (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). They have heard that databases are 'hard', that SQL, transactions and data integrity are 'hard'. The solution — don't make anyone do anything 'hard'. They treat the database as a black box and have some software tool generate all of the code. They try to insulate themselves with many layers of protection so that they do not have to touch this 'hard' database.

This is an approach to database development that I've never been able to understand. One of the reasons I have difficulty understanding this approach is that, for me, learning Java and C was a lot harder then learning the concepts behind the database. I'm now pretty good at Java and C but it took a lot more hands-on experience for me to become competent using them than it did to become competent using the database. With the database, you need to be aware of how it works but you don't have to know everything inside and out. When programming in C or Java, you do need to know everything inside and out and these are huge languages.

Another reason is that if you are building a database application, then the most important piece of software is the database. A successful development team will appreciate this and will want its people to know about it, to concentrate on it. Many times I've walked into a project where almost the opposite was true.

A typical scenario would be as follows:

  • The developers were fully trained in the GUI tool or the language they were using to build the front end (such as Java). In many cases, they had had weeks if not months of training in it.
  • The team had zero hours of Oracle training and zero hours of Oracle experience. Most had no database experience whatsoever.
  • They had massive performance problems, data integrity problems, hanging issues and the like (but very pretty screens).

As a result of the inevitable performance problems, I would be called in to help solve the difficulties. I can recall one particular occasion when I could not fully remember the syntax of a new command that we needed to use. I asked for the SQL Reference manual, and I was handed an Oracle 6.0 document. The development was taking place on version 7.3, five years after the release of version.6.0! It was all they had to work with, but this did not seem to concern them at all. Never mind the fact that the tool they really needed to know about for tracing and tuning didn't really exist back then. Never mind the fact that features such as triggers, stored procedures, and many hundreds of others, had been added in the five years since the documentation to which they had access was written. It was very easy to determine why they needed help— fixing their problems was another issue all together.

The idea that developers building a database application should be shielded from the database is amazing to me but still the attitude persists. Many people still take the attitude that developers should be shielded from the database, they cannot take the time to get trained in the database — basically, they should not have to know anything about the database. Why? Well, more than once I've heard '... but Oracle is the most scalable database in the world, my people don't have to learn about it, it'll just do that'. It is true; Oracle is the most scalable database in the world. However, I can write bad code that does not scale in Oracle easier then I can write good, scaleable code in Oracle. You can replace Oracle with any technology and the same will be true. This is a fact — it is easier to write applications that perform poorly than it is to write applications that perform well. It is sometimes too easy to build a single- user system in the world's most scalable database if you don't know what you are doing. The database is a tool and the improper use of any tool can lead to disaster. Would you take a nutcracker and smash walnuts with it as if it were a hammer? You could but it would not be a proper use of that tool and the result would be a mess. Similar effects can be achieved by remaining ignorant of your database.

I was recently working on a project where the system architects had designed a very elegant architecture. A web browser client would talk over HTTP to an application server running Java Server Pages (JSP). The application logic would be 100 percent generated by a tool and implemented as EJBs (using container managed persistence) and would be physically located on another application server. The database would hold tables and indexes and nothing else.

So, we start with a technically complex architecture: we have four entities that must talk to each other in order to get the job done: web browser to a JSP in the Application Server to an EJB to the database. It would take technically competent people to develop, test, tune, and deploy this application. I was asked to help benchmark this application post-development. The first thing I wanted to know about was their approach to the database:

  • What did they feel would be the major choke points, areas of contention?
  • What did they view as the major obstacles to overcome?

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