Abstractions and implicit preconditions

One of my favorite essays by Joel Spolsky is The Law of Leaky Abstractions. He phrases the law as:

All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.

One of the challenges with abstractions is that they depend upon preconditions: the world has to be in a certain state for the abstraction to hold. Sometimes the consumer of the abstraction is explicitly aware of the precondition, but sometimes they aren’t. After all, the advantage of an abstraction is that it hides information. NFS allows a user to access files stored remotely without having to know networking details. Except when there’s some sort of networking problem, and the user is completely flummoxed. The advantage of not having to know how NFS works has become a liability.

The problem of implicit preconditions is everywhere in complex systems. We are forever consuming abstractions that have a set of preconditions that must be true for the abstraction to work correctly. Poke at an incident, and you’ll almost always find an implicit precondition. Something we didn’t even know about, that always has to be true, that was always true, until now.

Abstractions make us more productive, and, indeed, we humans can’t build complex systems without them. But we need to be able to peel away the abstraction layers when things go wrong, so we can discover the implicit precondition that’s been violated.

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