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Have We Got It All Backwards with Software Assembly?

Java, SOA, Web Services, XML, OSGi, and Henry Ford

Eric Newcomer's Blog

I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Back in the 90s I was on a big project to standardize enterprise software. We wrote a few papers about it, and a chapter in a book. We often used the "Henry Ford" analogy, which relates to the impact standards for interchangable parts had on hard goods manufacturing.

The Henry Ford analogy says that the hard job in mass assembly is getting the interchangeable parts standardized - thereafter creating the moving assembly line is the easy job. Ford pulled it off with the significant market success of the Model-T and changed the world.

In the original story (which the link directly above summarizes), the crucial quote for us was:"The key to mass production wasn't the continuously moving assembly line, as many people believe, but rather the complete and consistent interchangeability of parts and the simplicity of attaching them to each other."

But of course in the updated book, Toyota further changed the world from craft to mass production (i.e. Ford's achievement) to lean production. In software however we are still struggling to achieve mass production, never mind lean production.

The application of the Ford analogy to software is that if you can standardize application programming APIs and communications protocols, you can meet requirements for application portability and interoperability. If all applications could work on any operating system, and easily share data with all other applications, IT costs (which are still mainly labor) would be significantly reduced and mass production achievable.

The industry has seen many efforts in this direction fail, or only partially succeed. Today's environment is better than the early 90s, but we still have incompatibilities across various editions of Java, enough differences among J2EE application server implementations to inhibit easy migration among them, and of course a significant level of incompatibility between enterprise Java, Microsoft .NET, and IBM mainframe environments. Applications that want to leverage the best of breed across these environments typically have to do a lot of craft, i.e. hand coding.

Seven years ago I remember thinking Web services and XML might finally solve the problem, but perhaps because of the way the specifications were implemented (basically adapting to existing technologies) in the end only a partial solutoin was achieved. Yes, interoperability is improved compared to what it had been, but it still requires too much hand coding.

Even though I've been working towards the "Henry Ford" analogy for more than a decade, recent exposure to inversion of control concepts (e.g. Spring and Guice) and OSGi makes me think the mass production analogy is backwards for software after all.

The Ford analogy has played out in software typically by positioning the assembly problem as the easy part of the job and creating resuable services for assembly as the hard part of the job. I can't tell you how many times I've heard business process modeling and orchestration tools pitched at "business analysts" only to discover the proper use of the tool requires someone who can actually code.

The easy part should be developing the reusable services. The hard part should be their composition and assembly.

Corporations around the world are squeezing IT budgets, which means looking to reduce labor costs. Many are turning to outsourcing to China and India, and others are looking to hire college graduates in place of highly paid (and more highly skilled) coders.

But almost by definition the Ford analogy can't work. You cannot really get lower skilled, untrained developers to tackle sophisticated problems such as component reuse. They can create simple objects incorporating business logic, and to use one description, the plainer the old Java object (POJO) the better.

What we need are not simple tools for business analysts to compose services into flows. We need sophisticated tools for architects and designers to import POJOs and plain old anything else, check them for conformance to the plan, and fix them up for deployment. What's the right analogy here? Farming?

More Stories By Eric Newcomer

Eric Newcomer is an Integration Architect in the CTO department at at Credit Suisse. Previously he was Chief Technology Officer at IONA and has been involved with computers since 1975 and professionally since 1978, primarily in the area of online tranasction processing. He was also involved in Web services from the beginning, contributing to several specifications and related industry initiatives. Currently he is Co-Chair of the Enterprise Expert Group at OSGi Alliance.

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