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Mr. Lott has been involved in over 70 software development projects in a career that spans 30 years. He has worked in the capacity of internet strategist, software architect, project leader, DBA, programmer. Since 1993 he has been focused on data warehousing and the associated e-business architectures that make the right data available to the right people to support their business decision-making. Steven is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 141 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Legacy Code Preservation: What's the Cost?

04.26.2013
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It's 1980-something. We're working on a fairly complex system that includes some big machines and three computers. One of the computers has a magnetic tape drive into which it writes a log of interesting events. In the 80's, this was a pretty big deal.

An operational run will produce a log; then we can use customized applications to analyze and reduce the log to something more useful and focused. The first step is to do some data extraction to get the relevant log entries off the tape and into a disk file that engineers can work with.

Recall that the spreadsheet has only been around for a few weeks at this point in the history of computing. Sums and counts require programs. In this case, they are written in Fortran.
So far, so good. My job is to add yet another feature to the data extraction program. It will pull some new different bits of data off the logs.

The log entries are, of course, fairly complex. This is not different from log scraping in a web server context. Some log entries have to be ignored, others have to be merged. Some have cryptic formats.

The Code Base

The extraction application has been in use (and heavily modified) for a couple of years. Many programmers have touched it. Many.

The data extractor is written in a language called JOVIAL. This is not a problem. It's the language of the large system being built. The engineers are happy to use Fortran for their off-line analysis of the files.

There's a subtlety that arises in this mixed language environment. Any engineer with Fortran skills can whip together an analysis program. But only the favored few programmers know enough JOVIAL to tweak the data extraction program. And they're all busy writing the real software, not supporting analysis and trouble-shooting.

This data extractor program suffers from a lot of "copy-and-paste" programming. Blocks of code are repeated with minor changes. Standard modules are repeated with differences from the official copy that the entire rest of the system uses. Block comments don't nest, so it's hard to remove a large chunk of code which contains a block comment.

Further, it suffers from "Don't Delete Diddly" programming. Large swaths of code are left in place, relegated to a subroutine that never gets used. Other blocks of code are circumvented with a GOTO statement to simply jump over the code.

And, it has a complex history and provenance. In order to debug anything on the complex target system, the logger had to be the first thing up and running. Therefore, the logger specifically predates all other features of the application. It doesn't involve any rational reuse of any other piece of software.
This is the 80's, so version control and forking a new version were simply not done.

My job was to make a minor revision and extract just one certain type of log entry. Effectively a "filter" applied to the log.

After several days of reading this mess, I voted with my feet. I wrote a brand-new, from-scratch, "de novo" program (in Fortran, not JOVIAL) which reads the tape and produces the required log entries.

Why?

It was cheaper than messing with the legacy code base. Less work. Less risk of breaking something. And less long-term cost from continuing to maintain the data extractor.

Grief and Consternation

Discarding the legacy JOVIAL analysis program was a kind of heresy. It was a Bad Thing To Do. It "Raised Questions."

Raised Questions? Really? About what?

Did it raise questions about the sanity of managers who preserved this beast? Or about the sanity of programmers doing copy-and-paste programming?

I had to endure a lengthy lecture on the history of the data extraction program. As if the history somehow made a bad program better.

I had to endure begging. The legacy program should be preserved precisely because it was a legacy. Really. It should be "grandfathered in" somehow. Whatever that means.

Preservation

The original Jovial data extractor program still existed. It still ran. It could still be used. The JOVIAL code base and tools (and skilled programmers) remained available.

No one had deleted anything. There was no actual problem.

We had just started to realize that it was time to move on.

I started with a clean, simple Fortran program that read the logs, extracted records, and created files that engineers could work with.

But, but doing that, I guess that I had called somebody's baby ugly.

This new Fortran program preserved the essential knowledge from the original JOVIAL program. Indeed, I think that one of the reasons for all the grief was that I had exposed relevant details of the implementation, stripped clean of the historical cruft.

The tape file format and the detailed information on the log file records had gone from closed and embedded in just one program to open and available to more than one program.

The Fortran program exposed the log file details so that anyone could write a short (and more widely readable) Fortran program. This allowed them to avoid the cost and complexity of waiting for someone like me to modify the JOVIAL extraction program.

The file format is merely a technical detail. It's the analyses that were of real value. And none of that was in the original JOVIAL program. They remained as separate Fortran programs.

Published at DZone with permission of Steven Lott, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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