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Friday Philosophy – Simply Complex July 24, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in development, Management.
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Piet de Visser is an ardent champion of simple solutions within the Oracle arena – and I completely agree with his outlook on this. {Almost}.

Simple solutions usually win long-term as they are easy to understand, easy to look after and easy to change. OK, you may not be getting the absolute best performance you can, you may not be doing the job as completely as you can, but if it is a simple solution then you probably implemented it easily and quickly. This probably also means it cost you not-a-lot in person time and brain power, so you can personally afford to blow it away and do it again. In fact, with all that saved time, money and brain power you can probably afford to create a couple more simple solutions to other problems to.

Perhaps the only thing you are probably losing out on is the kudos of having been smart enough to come up with something very cunning and complicated, to impress everyone with. You’ll get over it, people don’t stay impressed for very long, especially when your mind-bendingly cunning and complicated solution melts into a heap {as a couple of mine have, ho-hum}.

Is your chosen solution simple? I give you a simple test – Explain it to someone.

  • If you can explain it to your colleagues, it is probably quite simple. If you can’t, either the solution is not so simple or your colleagues are.
  • If you can explain it to your boss then it is probably an excellent example of simplicity.
  • If you can explain it to your mum, you have blindingly clever simplicity and your work here is done.

Oh, you remembered that I said I almost agreed with Piet.

I can think of four reasons for not implementing a simple solution. I have listed them in ascending order of being a good reason (best last). And, unfortunately, also descending order of likelihood (most likely last).

  • You were sold a complex solution as complex solutions earn the vendor more money.
  • You needed to impress someone with your incredible technical skills {this could be your peers, quite often it is your boss, but for most of us it is usually ourselves, let’s be honest :-) }
  • You really do need to do something complex for a very valid business reason, like 99.999% availability {eg for that system people can ring up as they have a cough but are convinced they are dying of “swine flu”}.
  • you are creating a generic solution.

What do I mean by the last point? I mean that your one solution has to work for a lot of different situations or usages. The system has to work for a large range of inputs or do a lot of things.

The whole Oracle database  is {in my opinion} a generic solution. A vast and complex one to be sure, but it is intended to work for a little database on a desktop keeping track of the parts in your workshop, an integrated system in eg medical or scientific robots keeping track of thousands of samples, vast data stores of telephone calls so you can do your bills, huge on-line web-based shopping systems, a front end to image or video stores.., the list is a big one. You might need a little Oracle database to hold the list in.

With version 10 Oracle Corp made a big thing about the database looking after itself .  The database was a generic, self-managing, handle-anything solution and you would not need those pesky DBA types to keep the beast working for much longer.

That is why it is so complex and, not matter how much some of us complain {as I myself often do}, it has to be and it is getting more complex with every version. I’ll take my current favorite topic, stats gathering, as an example.

Back with the rule based optimiser, you had a set of rules. 15-16 I think {I’ll let you lot check – google “rule based optimizer oracle -burleson”}. You learnt the rules, understood them and you were home and dry. Except that the RBO could not cope with data-specific oddities, how different access methods were better for different table sizes and index specificity.

So Oracle added statistics and the cost based optimiser. To make use of the cost based logic a load of mathematical calculations and considerations had to be added (and continues to be added), based on statistics you had to collect at the right time and the right level and many sites did not. People complained the CBO “just did not work”, which it did not if you didn’t collect the stats {and sometimes even when you had} but it was doing a lot to cope with a wider range of systems automatically. Histogram stats now allowed skewed data to be coped with, in most situations. 

So they introduced a job to do it for you but it had to detect the right level and type of statistics to gather on all objects, be they tiny tables, massive tables, tables with skewed data, indexes, global indexes on partitioned tables… And yes, once again, it is another complexity you have to get to grips with if it does not fit your particular system demands.

I’m sure you can argue with me over the details, but I think I’m making a valid point that every time a system {be it Oracle or an O/S} is modified to cope automatically with more senarios, it becomes a more complex system. You need a DBA with several manuals welded to their brains to get the best out of this thing now, not less as claimed back at 10’s release {did they make the same claims for 11? I was too busy keeping systems running to really notice at the time}.

Maybe the answer is to stop using generic systems like Oracle and swap them out for a mixture of spreadsheets, MySQL-type simplistic databases, netezza-type systems for datawarehouses, hand cut ‘C’ applications for handling image stores, JAVA apps and flat files for web sites…Only you are going to have to learn how to use all those things to create all the systems you need to create.

You are only going to manage this if you create those dozens of systems as simple ones.

Fuggles was very simple. The lights were on but nobody was home. But that was fine as all she wanted was to sit on you and be scratched.

Fuggles was very simple. The lights were on but nobody was home. But that was fine as all she wanted was to sit on you and be scratched.

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Comments»

1. coskan - July 24, 2009

As an ex SQL Server DBA, I love Oracle because it gives you flexibility of using both simple and complex solutions so 99.9% you will never got stuck on a problem. The link below is a good example of this. OP asked a question and got 4 different answers, some of them are complex some of them are simple.

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1041415/oracle-formatting-number-as-xxx-xx-xxxx/1042054#1042054

Till somebody comes with a better and cheaper Database I think my primary choice will be oracle (of course I will always pray to have a boss who has money to pay Larry:) )

By the way nothing can beat the beauty of simplecity

2. Doug Burns - July 25, 2009

Nice post, Martin. I think Coskan’s hit the nail on the head, though. Another reason why things can be complex is because they offer flexibility. It is nice working in a field where you know that there probably is a possible solution to just about any problem.

The ZX Spectrum was fantastically simple and I loved it for that but, once you’d reach the limits of what it could do, you’d reached the limits. Working towards them was fun, though ;-)

However, because of the complexity that implies, enforcing simplicity yourself where you can promotes elegance and reliability and I’ve always been with Piet on the importance of simplicity.

3. PdV - July 26, 2009

Nice Friday-Post Martin, keep up that stuff and keep us thinking beyond the ind-opt-cost-adj and the scheduler-windows from time to time. And Thx for the link, and the general supportive comments.
I’ll try to live up to the expectation and try to put something sensible up again soon. After I swat out some project-complexity.

My Opinion are all over my presentations, and “Things should be as simple as possible, but not too simple” (Einstein, if I remember well, too lazy to go google on Sunday aft).

Sometimes the complexity is just unavoidable.
Think of error-escalation and retry mechanisms (SOA/ESB isnt the solution, it is just the tool, you stil need to bloody think! gettit ? THINK – that was for the arch…).

Like Doug says Trick with complexity (and flexibility) is to control and contain it. And if controlled correctly, Oracle is a good tool (and sometimes expensive…)

I’m currently one one of those “grown too complex” projects and enjoying it in a funny way. But customer not happy (yet).

Anyway, sun shining, gotta to do the lawn.


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