Engineering deals in lifetimes, both human and otherwise. If not fatigue or fracture, than corrosion or erosion; if not war or vandalism, then taste or fashion claim not only the body but the very souls of once-new machines…

The lifetime of a structure is no mere anthropomorphic metaphor, for how long a piece of engineering must last can be one of the most important considerations for its design.

Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design

Unfathomed misunderstanding is further revealed by the term “software maintenance”, as a result of which many people continue to believe that programs —and even programming languages themselves— are subject to wear and tear. Your car needs maintenance too, doesn’t it? Famous is the story of the oil company that believed that its PASCAL programs did not last as long as its FORTRAN programs “because PASCAL was not maintained”.

Edsger W. Dijkstra, On the cruelty of really teaching computing science

Before Borland’s new spreadsheet for Windows shipped, Philippe Kahn, the colorful founder of Borland, was quoted a lot in the press bragging about how Quattro Pro would be much better than Microsoft Excel, because it was written from scratch. All new source code! As if source code rusted.

The idea that new code is better than old is patently absurd. Old code has been used. It has been testedLots of bugs have been found, and they’ve been fixed. There’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t acquire bugs just by sitting around on your hard drive. Au contraire, baby! Is software supposed to be like an old Dodge Dart, that rusts just sitting in the garage? Is software like a teddy bear that’s kind of gross if it’s not made out of all new material?

Joel Spolsky, Things You Should Never Do, Part I

In the two quotes above, Dijkstra and Spolsky ridicule the notion that software systems wear out. Unlike physical systems, software doesn’t suffer from fatigue due to prolonged usage.

And, yet, anyone who has uttered the phrase “legacy system” in the presence of a software engineer and watched the change of expression on their face knows that engineers find older code more difficult to deal with than newer code. The motivation of Dijkstra’s and Spolsky’s writings above is to express contempt for this point of view.

What Dijkstra and Spolsky are missing is that the world changes around software. Software doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s part of an ecosystem. Legacy systems have legacy dependencies, and run in legacy environments. Those dependencies and environments are not static, they change over time, and sometimes the old ones go away, or are too expensive or risky to keep using.

Software is indeed different from physical artifacts, in that software artifacts (source code, binaries) don’t change with use. But in the world of software, that’s exactly the problem. The world keeps changing, and the software doesn’t, unless you put the work into it. And, unlike civil engineers, we aren’t yet good at thinking about the intended lifetime of a software system when we’re designing it.

3 thoughts on “Bitrot

  1. Yes, the world changes around software—including the people who developed it! They move on, or they forget what they were thinking when they wrote it.

    Using Naur’s view of programming as theory building (, part of the problem with legacy software is that the understanding of the underlying theory that the software represents has blurred or atrophied. The bits may be the same but we don’t know what to do with them.

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