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Winds of Change against the Rock of Legacy

Rocks in the wind

Image by WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com)

Don’t you just hate it when that program you use all the time gets upgraded yet again, making everything different and you can’t find any of the features that you know should still be in there. It’s as if great chunks of the program have been re-written. Wouldn’t it be great if they just left things alone, maybe just adding on some new functionally on top of what is there.

Or would it?

If you want to see programs like that you need only look at library systems. Not all systems of course, there are some new products out there, but library systems have traditionally been one of the slowest IT technologies to change and develop and when they do it is to add on functionality to existing architecture.
So what kind of effect does this give?

One of the main things people notice about library systems is how cumbersome they can be in comparison to other types of IT system, it can seem like you have to do half a dozen seemingly pointless steps to carry out what should be the most basic of actions. Then there can be functionality which would seem a simple improvement but you find out that the system you are using is unlikely ever to be able to do this because of how complicated this is to add in.

A classic example of this is the Reports module of a certain well known library system. Reports in library systems are used for a whole range of purposes, from pulling data from printing letters through to actually making changes to the system (a bit more about that later). You would expect in a part of the system with the function of providing printouts to be able to decide how you would want these to look, however what you get is a text only document whose only formatting is line breaks and spaces (or no tabs, no font formatting, nothing). What is worse, despite numerous? comments to the company supplying the system, this situation looks likely to remain as it is indefinitely. Why?

This was a puzzler for me until I came across some old documentation for this library system, from back when it had a command line interface (so before having a “windows like” interface was normal). When I looked through this old document I was most surprised to recognise the interface. The screen display of this old command line interface was the very same as the printed reports still produced by the system.

This starts to make sense when you think about how computers handle printing. A printout to a computer is basically an output, now an output can be (among other things) sent to a computer screen or to a piece of paper.  The implication is that back in the pre-windows computer days the suppliers of the library system faced the problem of their customers wanting the system to produce printed reports. You can imagine the thought processes of the developers. “They want printed reports? No problem. Just send the system output to the printer, job done”.

A nice neat solution, the customers get their printouts and the developers don’t have to re-write the system. Then Windows comes along and everyone wants these new fangled graphical interfaces. Again you can imagine the thought processes of the developers. “They want a graphical interface? No problem. We can add one on to the system, job done”.

So the graphic interface gets added on top of what is already there, the interface includes a reports module to request reports from the system but because the interface sits on top of what is already there then the actual reports are still the output from the earlier command line interface – so contain no formatting other than line breaks or spaces, as this was all that was possible with the command line interface.  Makes sense. Almost.

It does also explain one of the things about library systems I found puzzling when I first started to work with them. Why on earth do you use the Reports module, which logically is for creating printed outputs from the system, to make changes to the system data itself. The Reports module is sitting on top of the old command line interface, so becomes the ‘logical’ place to use to input commands but being a reports module these commands are inputted through “running a report”.

When looked at this way it starts to make sense, but could hardly be described as intuitive. The system is the way it is because aspects of it have been added overtime to what was before, but without extensively changing it. What you wanted, right?

So perhaps there is something to be said for those programs that seem to get extensively re-written periodically. After all imagine what a train would be like if it had been developed by just adding to what had gone before. We would have more overhead luggage space, as after all it would be designed to be big enough to easily store a gentleman’s top hat. But more care would need to be taken on the design of the tracks, to make sure they were not a trip hazard to the horses pulling the train along.

Happy New Year

The new year has started which can only mean one thing, resolutions time.

Yes, News Year’s Resolutions, those promises you make only to too soon break.

Why do we do it?  I can’t claim to know.  I do wonder if we set ourselves up to fail by setting our targets to high – “I want to be perfect” is never going to be something we will achieve.  So what happens, when we fail to be perfect we give up – and end up doing nothing.

So what is my New Year’s resolution? 

To not make unrealistic resolutions.  That way I hope this year to stick to them None of my resolutions will make be perfect, but will make that little step towards improving my life.

Let’s hope my resolution to update this blog is realistic (perhaps not considering last year).

Happy New Resolutions.

2012 gone but the world still here

Hurrah, it’s 2013. And better yet the world did not end.

The Mayan calendar is now finished and the universes’ response was – absolute nothing.

Which interestingly enough was what happened at the last great calendar date, and the one before that, and before that.

Absolutely nothing.

Why?

We all get excited by Calendar events, ‘it’s the last day of the millennium’ ‘it’s the last day of the Mayan calendar’ – and so on, and so on.  But it seems we are forgetting a key thing about calendars.

Somebody made it all up.

There was a bit of a clue in the fuss about the Mayan calendar.  The Mayans made it up, I am not talking about the supposed events due to happen on a particular date; I am talking about the date itself.  Calendars are a human invention.  We invented them to co-ordinate our actions, originally things like planting crops but now almost everything we do is organised around a calendar.

I am not saying this is a bad thing, imagine turning up for an job interview and but finding you missed it because your Tuesday the 9th is on a different day to the companies Tuesday the 9th.  But it does mean that calendar dates have no more significance than anything else made up, the universe won’t end because it’s a particular date because it is only a particular date because we say it is.   

Of course I am not saying that the universe isn’t going to end, it still might, but personally I’m not going to give any more importance to any predictions of the worlds end than I do to those who stand on street corners with “the end is nigh” signs.

Mind you, they could be right….

Happy New Year

The time of festive feasting is over and now is time for all those resolutions that you swear you will keep but you know will be forgotten by February.

But this year will be different right!

Right?

Well the truth is we don’t know if it is going to be different but, like last year, we can try and make it so.

So good luck with your resolutions, I hope you stick to yours (and I hope I stick to mine).

Who knows, maybe this year I’ll update this blog more that once a year! (an unrealistic resolution perhaps).

To Blog or not to blog

Ok so the title has been used before. But it is a question that is becoming more and more relevant to people who wish to be successful in their career. I am not going to presume to suggest an answer to the question – there are lots of other blogs that will attempt to do that (and being blogs you can guess their answer).

I am simply going to talk about this page or blog or website, or online environment; or whatever you want to call it. Sorry, am I being a bit random on the description? The truth is, although on a technical level this is a blog I have never (until now?) used it as such.

Sitvisvobiscum  was originally a website consisting of a number of HTML pages written using Dreamweaver. Why? For the pragmatic reason that I was getting married and I needed/wanted somewhere to make available information to guests (yes I still did the traditional thing of writing letters but lists of hotels and car parks near the church make dull reading on a letter).

So why change a perfectly good website into a blog – in a word, laziness. Writing a traditional (old fashioned?) HTML page based website can be simple enough but does tie you into a lot of work to maintain it; and after yet another instance of messing around with local copies and FTPing files I decided life was too short and moved the site over to a blog.

So now I have a blog but haven’t been a blogger; and think that perhaps now is the time to start.  Of course the next question is, do I have anything to say?

I guess we will see.

Pic of the moment

Vietnam sunset

This photo was taken some years ago now, when I was on my honeymoon in Vietnam