Chosing a development platform

Sunday, October 1, 2006

technology02.pngLAMP, Zend, .Net, Struts, Ruby on Rails, Catalyst, and a hundred other development platforms all compete for you attention, all pretending to be the only thing you’ll ever need to satisfy your every needs in web or UI development.
Making a decision is really hard: you want the best for your new project and want to make the right decision. In most cases, that means not cursing yourself down the line for a choice that didn’t turn out as expected.

When you start looking into all these platforms you can be blown away by the ease of implementation and elegance of some; your head spins at all the features and claims being made and it becomes hard to achieve a rational decision.

I’ve been faced with that very issue recently and it sucks. Actually, the time spent investigating all these possibilities is really what is being sucked away.
Of course, learning about new technologies is not just fun, it’s also essential: you have to keep on top of what’s new and decide if you want to join in on the fun or just stay comfortably where you are.

I also realized that you need to get away from the coolness factor of each these much touted technologies and actually try to be objective.
During my investigation, I tried to decide what were the really important factors that I should consider to make a rational choice.

I came up with the list of the following 10 questions that I think everyone should ask themselves when choosing a platform for an important project.

1- Is the platform wide enough?

New technologies that can show amazing productivity get all the buzz. After all, that’s what we developer want: enough with the nuts & bolts! Give us a toolbox with all new shinny power tools! The problem is that often these technologies are impressive, but looking beyond the sample projects into what actual users get confronted to, you start noticing discussion threads that should obviously signal that the platform is not wide enough.
Choosing a technology that hasn’t achieved its goals can be a huge problem down the line: you implement 80% of your project in record time, only to realise that the platform you chose doesn’t support proper cross-browser detection, or that its implementation of security is way too lax, or that it only support XML for data storage and now you actually need a real database for performance reasons…
In those cases, you can of course develop those areas yourself and contribute to the project, but doing so supposes that you planed it all along and you factored that in your schedule, both in time and in cost.

2- Is it popular?

In other words: are other professional people actually using that platform in real life? I’m not talking about Joe Developer using it for his local community church website. I’m talking about businesses or large organisations actually using that software platform successfully.
If all you need is a simple 3 page website, then professional popularity amongst the Top 500 business companies is probably not that important. On the other hand, if you plan to build a large project, or you know that your project could grow large in the future, then you probably want to ensure that others have taken it there before you.

3- Is it mature?

Has the platform existed for long enough that it went through enough abuse to withstand almost anything you can throw at it?
A technology that is only a couple year old may be too young to have evolved to the point where it actually can solve most common and not-so-common problems. Technology evolves through iterations: each one is a good long hard look at what didn’t work and tries to fix, improve and extend.
A young technology may be more cutting-edge and exciting, but when you need to commit to it for a big project, its age may quickly come as an issue; its shinny surface may blind you to the black holes waiting below…

4- Are local developers available?

Always think about the future. When you’re gone from the project, who is going to look after it? Getting a web project entirely in Rebol may be cool and fun, but how many people in your city actually use that thing anyway?
Aren’t you creating a liability if you’re dead-set on choosing a platform that cannot be maintained?

5- Is it scalable?

Most projects start small but dream of ending-up big.
It’s usually fine at the beginning when the number of users and visitors is manageable, but what happens when you start to be successful?
After all, that’s why we craft our projects: we want them to succeed, we want the world to see them. When the world starts coming though, will the terrific platform we’ve chosen break at the seams?
How much overhead does the platform create? It is flexible in its database support? Is there a way to implement clustering or persisting sessions accross multiple servers?
What’s the cost in memory and CPU resources? How many simultaneous connections can you get? What are the bottlenecks? What do you need to do to compensate for them? How much would it cost?

6- Do you have control?

Some frameworks work hard for you and can make you really productive. Sometime though, they try too hard and hide too much from you.
When a feature doesn’t exactly work the way you want you have to dig deep into the entrails of the beast to make sense of it and change its behaviour.
A platform that was all nice and pretty can get very dirty and complex inside, making it difficult to adapt to your needs.
A platform should do most of the hard work but still allow you to redefine its default behaviour without much hassle. It should be built with extensibility in mind, making easy thing easy and difficult things possible.
A case in point are 4G development platforms: they usually have a fairly narrow field of expertise and tend to use graphics and nice simple paradigms to quickly build complex tasks but when you are faced with a specific issue that hasn’t been solved by the platform, you often have to resort to ugly hacks to get around their limitations.

7- Does it satisfies the essential constraints for your project?

When being blinded by something cool, we often become skewed in our judgement and guilty of lowering the importance of constraints that are actually critical for our project.
In all honesty, I really wanted to use Ruby on Rail, and I liked the principle and elegance of it so much that I came to seriously consider it, that is, until I came to my senses and looked into something that is critical to my project: support for complex Asian languages.
Ruby is being developed in Japan, so you could think that it should be able to handle complex ideographic characters well.
Turns out that the Japanese are not terribly fond of Unicode and, unless I’m mistaken, prefer to use Code Pages instead. The result is that Ruby doesn’t have great support for Unicode, and that sucks.
That’s why Unicode was created: to attempt to simplify all this patchwork of implementations that are not compatible with each other.
Because I needed to be able to handle English, Mandarin, Cantonese and probably any other language out there, Unicode is the only viable option to abstract the issue of language enough that it becomes manageable.
So because of Ruby’s poor support for Unicode, it would not be rational to use Ruby on Rails for my particular project as it would probably greatly increase the complexity and hacks necessary to manage complex Asian languages in a unified and simple way.

8- Documentation?

All framework have a more or less steep learning curve: you need to think differently to adapt to the particular framework’s frame of mind, so to speak.
Make sure that the framework has a lively community, that it has more documentation than you can swallow and that documentation is well organised.
Make sure also that there are samples, tutorials, webcasts, videos or whatever that cover the principle aspects of it.
A beautiful framework no-one talks about means that no-one will answer when you have a question. A beautiful framework without documentation is useless. A beautiful framework with lots of disorganised docs means that you’re going to waste a lot of time experimenting instead of building your project.

9- Support?

Here I mean support in the wide sense of the word: who is behind the framework. Are they likely to stay in business long after your project has been completed?
Are they commercial or Open Source? In either case there are issues for and against: a commercial venture backed by a small company may falter and disappear overnight. Similarly, an exciting open source project managed by only 2 people can suffer the same fate when they decide to move on. Support also includes what help is available to you when you encounter issues. Is there any guarantee that you could have your important technical questions answered?
If you encounter a large issue, is there someone to help you?
I would contend that the best and most serious projects should have professional help available: you can always fall back on paying someone to help you through, whether it’s the original developers, a paid-for support hotline or a third-party specialist, it’s important that you know you can get your answers when you’re stuck.
Developing for an important project without safety net is dangerous: you can waste a lot of time and effort, endangering the very project you are undertaking, if you stumble on a problem you cannot solve yourself.
Large frameworks like .Net or big Open Source projects usually have enough users and support groups and specialists that it’s likely any question you may have has already been answered somewhere or that you can pay someone to help you out when you need it most.

10- What do you know best?

Every framework is based around a particular data-management model. Every framework is built with a particular programming language in mind. Every framework demands that you learn something new. How comfortable are you with the requirements? how long is it going to take you to start to get really productive?
Like their real-world counterpart, it can take very little time to learn a new language’s words and syntax but it takes years to become proficient in it. A framework adds another layer of abstraction that you will need to get experienced at.
If you need to both learn a new language and a new framework, chances are that you are at best months away from being able to churn code without having to look into the documentation every 5 minutes.
Learning new languages and concepts is necessary, but again, if you chose that route you must be sure that your project has that learning curve built-in, otherwise you’re going to move at the pace of a turtle when in fact you chose that particular framework because you though you would be more productive and faster than a sparrow.
If you chose a new framework, make sure that you already possess most of the knowledge it requires: in my particular instance, I chose .Net and C# because I have already worked in that framework and I know it can tackle the project without me having to waste too much time on learning the platform rather than implementing the project.

We all should seize any opportunity to learn something new. Learning is often more exciting than doing the same old thing over and over again and it’s a necessary part of staying in business. Curiosity is an excellent quality that must be nurtured and indulged.
The issue is when to do it.

Choosing a new development framework is not easy. The best way to tackle the problem is to pose it as a risk analysis study.

The framework you chose should simply be the one that poses the least risk to you succeeding your project.

Entry Filed under  :  Business,Musing,Programming,Web Design

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Renaud This is a simple technical weblog where I dump thoughts and experiences from my computer-related world.
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