December 27, 2010

Book Review: Beautiful Architecture

Beautiful Architecture: Leading Thinkers Reveal the Hidden Beauty in Software Design by Diomidis Spinellis

I got a chance to review one of the books in OReilly's "Beautiful" series, in this case it was Beautiful Architecture.
One of the attractions of the books in this series, is the premise that you get to hear first-hand accounts, in an essay format, from the people behind some of the more interesting projects out there. So the book can be viewed as an opportunity to ask a bunch of innovative technologists the question: how did you build it?

On the back cover the book claims that the contributors cover notable and innovative software architectures. At first glance the table of contents looked pretty promising, for example “The architecture of the Facebook platform”. However, after spending some time with the book and reading through 5 random chapters, it feels like there is just not enough substance for the book to achieve what most people are probably hoping to get out of the book: concrete blueprints or solid design patterns to build systems demonstrating desired characteristics.

For the first 45 or pages of the book, the essays tended to meander around the topics of general definition of architecture vs software design etc, and general experience of people working on some non-trivial projects. But somehow the conversation always feels more academic than practical. So you kind of feel like you are sitting on a plane waiting for it to disengage from the gate and move towards the tarmac. And given the fact that this book is supposed to be about “beautiful” architectures, I am not at all sure why we need to spend time reading about “The Messy Metropolis”. Given the title and general back cover description of the book I was expecting the narratives to be more specific and more parallels drawn with real-world systems that people interested in this book could be building.

The chapter “Architecting for Scale” by Jim Waldo, was also a bit underwhelming. We basically get a pretty high level overview of a system that was never really tested in the field, was not thoroughly bench-marked, and is addressing a fairly narrow problem domain of online gaming. Although some interesting ideas are presented, you have a hard time agreeing that this is necessarily beautiful because it does not seem that the system is proven to successfully solve their scalability goals. The chapter about facebook platform also failed to describe the thinking process and design trade-offs, you get a description of general building blocks but you don't really get any aha moments.

I did enjoy “Software Architecture: Object-Oriented versus Functional” by Bertrand Meyer, however one might argue that the book might have been better off focusing on systems architecture and concrete examples of real-world projects as opposed to discussion of type systems and other programming language esoterica, especially when the Meyer makes it clear that he has not actually worked in finance nor released production systems dealing with financial contracts.

I think this book is decent read on your e-book reader, but if you have limited bookshelf space and want to keep it filled with true classics, this book is not it.

3/5 stars.

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