The limitation of frameworks.

In my young days when I began coding, the synonym for code reusability was libraries in procedural languages and classes in object oriented languages, then it became modules or software packages, and afterwards it became frameworks.

Trends change, the sense of these words may differ but the goal stays the same: doing more in less code you share with the others.

I could do a very abstract presentation of the limitations of frameworks, but let's talk of code as if it is literature.

What is a language?

I do learn computer languages like I learn foreign languages, I like to focus on typical expressions that make the language interesting, I don't try to translate one word for one word. These are the idiomatic expressions. Some language put a stress on manipulating vectors of data like a single variable, others on being terse, others on letting you express the way you want.

A language in itself to be efficient has to be embraced as a whole, as a frame set. And the reward for accepting the language are new ideas, and new ways to express yourself. For me a programmer likes a language more than the others for a question of aesthetic. That's why language wars are so heated and opinionated.

What is a program?

A program is a story you tell in a language and some stories sound better in some languages. For instance erlang or node.js seem better suited to tell asynchronous stories. R seems better suited to tell a story about how a series of data can be interpreted as information....

A program is an essay; your customer set a stage with characters,  one or more places, some events situation he wants you to build a story that leads to the desired conclusion. In the middle you are alone with a sort of bible given by the customers with all that is relevant to set the stage, and no one cares how you do it, but you have to tell a consistent story driving the characters in the desired stage.

What is a pattern?

A (design) pattern is like a cliché in a story. When you see a hero saving a nice lady in distress you expect them to kiss in the end. Well, as a coder I mainly think this way: given an initial conformation of data and a desired outcome, I sometimes have a feeling of déjà vu and  will lazily tell my story in an obvious way (that may not be obvious to a duchess for it is sometimes crude). This is not code since words may vary. We all have a style or constraints given by the customer that may alter the possibility to use a crude cut'n paste. So patterns are not about actual code it is about a global direction.

It is like when you want to make a gag in a movie, you can rely on quiproquo, rolling gags, misdirections... These are mechanisms you can rely on, you still have to describe the situation and write the dialogue, you cannot just adapt a sketch of another movie.

Wrapping up and stating what a framework is

I see programming as writing an essay given constraints given by an editor. The editor wants us to write in a genre, with given elements, with a desired conclusion and a deadline. We could write anything in the world if we had enough time, but since our schedules are tight we have to be terse, fast, and reuse patterns and code.

Frameworks are mainly story generators. 

Do you see these TV shows  with stereotyped characters, stereotyped situations, and stereotyped development according to a «bible»? Do you remember Starsky & Hutsch, J.A.G. (and all Belissario production), New York Special Unit ...
These TV shows are to literature what frameworks are to the computer languages: a restriction of what you can do with your imagination. They were enjoyable shows amongst these ones (Wild Wild West for instance) and it is not a bad thing. Of course, some scenarists made TV shows evolve by not telling the same story other and other during the whole show and still they stayed consistent: I still have fond memories of Twin Peaks, or babylon 5.

I don't say frameworks are bad: we need them, because of the deadlines.

I say they limit our options to already existing stories. As a coder, I do think that writing a story that already exists is a waste of time. Adapt an existing story (buy a software) if you want something close to an existing story. When you make variation to an existing show you take the risk to alter the conceptual integrity of the story. In programming I call this «disengaging a framework». This as far as I am concerned is tough. I remember having to add a custom authentication mechanism to turbogears for a flash application and it took me two weeks to have it right.

My experience is the more constraints a framework imposes, the less idiomatic (in regard to the original language it is coded in) a framework is, the harder to disengage it will be.

Why disengaging a framework matters?

I remember why I decided I would never code in python one day.

It was in 2004 I was directing a topic at Free Software Meeting and since the organisation was eating its own dogfood, the website was in a CMS framework (Plone?) in python. I pride myself in understanding languages quickly because they all share common roots (the more languages you know the easier it is to learn new ones), and I had a problem: speeches were not sorted in alphabetical order but regarding the DB id. I thought it would be easy to find where the list was sorted to introduce the right ordering functions. In 6 hours I was unable to find how it was working, because it was not a language, it was a frame set very hard to grok. And frameworks are not a language they are yet more powerful, but so less expressive.

But when I tell you the customers are coming with strict situations, characters and definitive ideas of what they wanted : I lied

"Programmers don't burn out on hard work, they burn out on change-with-the-wind directives and not 'shipping'."
Mark Berry 
Customers are the biggest liars, they always want something slightly different than the initial specification, and different from what the framework you have chosen proposes. Thus you will have to disengage sooner or later.

Can we improve the situation on the code side?

Well, the situation has improved already since a long time ago.

What I described so far as frameworks are jumbo web frameworks like Ruby on Rails, symfony, Django, turbogears, Plone, ASP.NET ...

Thanks to developers such as Blake Mizerany (who inspired Armin Roacher I guess for flask) and numerous other developers we have already have lightweight frameworks: ramaze (ruby), play (java) ,flask (python), sinatra (python), dancer (perl) .... frameworks are not bad, they are fantastic tools to code less, but they freeze you in a mindset while our added value lies in our agility. Thus, the main quality of a modern framework (in my opinion) is its flexibility.

Furthermore, these last years I have met developers that have almost always coded with one framework. I notice some of them hardly knew the finesse of the language they code in (and I like to call them monkey coders). But for the others I wonder what they will become when their framework will become obsolescent? Will they still be able to code in python (ruby, PHP, Perl or whatever)? Maybe Zed Shaw was wrong, Ruby on Rails was not a ghetto, maybe all jumbo frameworks are ghettos.

Like the dealers in «the wire» speaking their slang for too long ... staying in their culture for too long and hardly able to leave their former life of dealers or junkies.  

PS thanks to bruno  for the corections
«the wire» is an amazing show
If I was a rubyist I would code web sites with ramaze
If I was a perl coder I would use dancer
And if I was a coder I would not use PHP because it is neither consistent nor terse.


Anonymous said...

I think this is why I've always been a fan of CherryPy. Sure, it doesn't have a bunch of hype and it isn't the newest async kid on the block. What it does is let you write Python code. It gives you tools and plugins for providing modular components for your application. It gives you different methods of dispatching that help to mix and match things like routes and simple object traversal. It has a small, but reasonably complete, standard set of tools and features you can turn on (or off) and configure in order to effectively use your environment.

CherryPy does give you templating language or require a MVC paradigm. Instead it gives you the tools necessary to use the best design and libraries that meet your needs.

julien tayon said...

s/Cherry pie does/Cherry Pie does not/ I guess :)

ksss, it is so unnice of you to uncover the fact I lied about frameworks being just the same as library and pointing out the fact that frameworks are usually about making asynchronous logic handled in a sequential fashion since I wanted to make a post on the topic later:P Spoiler!

On the other hand you are also pointing what makes me uneasy about jumbo frameworks they are un-idiomatic. I don't like django, Zope because they are unpythonic. RoR is not ruby, symfony is not PHP ... I think of them not as a supersets of the languages but as limited subsets.

And btw, even though I am a flask user, I see diversity in *micro frameworks* as a good news. Good ideas will spread, bad ones will be forgotten and I really think we should not limit our scope to only python frameworks (after all mitshuhiko became famous for porting the good idea of a ruby framework), and Perl/Ruby/python are pretty similar.