Sunday, May 25, 2008

What makes a technology lightweight?

What makes a technology lightweight? Being lightweight is considered a good thing. Lightweight technologies are popular with developers because they are simpler and less cumbersome to work with. The downside, of course, is that lightweight technologies can be less feature rich than their more "heavyweight" alternatives. Whether this matters depends on whether the missing features are actually required, that is, whether the value that these features provides outweigh the overhead that is added.

Plenty of technologies are "sold" on the basis of being lightweight. While most of us have an intuitive idea of what lightweight means, it's quite useful to think of this concept in terms of a more concrete set of questions or criteria. This can be helpful in making comparisons between frameworks and technologies, and indeed for assessing claims made on behalf of particular technologies.

1. How much system resource does the technology use?
This is the most obvious measure of how heavyweight a technology is. What is the memory footprint of an application? A more narrow definition of lightweight vs heavyweight technology is most likely to focus on this aspect of the definition.

2. Do applications need special runtime support to run?
If the technology requires special runtime support, then it automatically becomes more heavyweight. A good example is EJB 2, which requires applications to be run and tested in a container. Even if the container is embeddable in a standard JVM (for example within the IDE), this can make it more difficult to test applications, particularly if tests themselves need to run within the container interactive with the code under test.

3. Are any special build steps required for the application?
If the technologies require artifacts to be packaged in a certain way, then this adds an overhead to the build cycle. A related question is, can applications be run directly in an IDE without an explicit build? The most lightweight technologies by this definition require no build steps at all - you simply fire up the application in your IDE.

4. How difficult is it to test applications which use the technology?
If a technology requires special runtime support (see 2.) or it is complex to set up dependencies for running tests, the barrier to writing effective integration tests is raised, resulting in a reduction in productivity and/or quality.

5. Can applications be updated dynamically, or do updates require a restart?
If every change made requires an application restart, this can make the technology feel more heavyweight, especially if restarts are time consuming.

6. How easy is it to modularise applications which use the technology?
Technologies which allow applications to be packaged and run in a modular way will feel more lightweight than those which require everything to be run up as an amorphous "blob", especially as the application grows in size and the need to be more fine-tuned about what is deployed becomes more obvious.

7. Do applications require any code generation, either source code or byte code?
Applications which require code generation generally involve extra build steps which can complicate the build process and/or slow down the build/test cycle. Byte code generation can hide much of this pain, but does introduce a measure of complexity which can make a technology feel heavyweight.

8. How quick are applications to start?
Technologies that are slow to start are clearly more heavyweight - they are doing more, have more going on behind the scenes, and are using more memory. They also are more likely to leave behind the perception that they are inefficient.

9. How complex is the technology to understand?
The more complex a technology is, the more heavyweight it will feel. One way of thinking of it is this: for each step you take in working with the technology, the more time you will need to spend thinking about what you are doing, relative to simply doing.

10. Is any special tool support required to be productive with the technology?

If special tool support is required to make you productive with a technology, then this technology will feel more heavyweight than one which imposes no such requirements. Now, not only do you need to worry about dependencies in your runtime environment, you need to worry about those in your tooling environment. Also, its slower to get going with the technology to start with.

You can take this methodology further by ranking frameworks and technologies on a scale of 1 to 10 on each of these points. Some frameworks and technologies which purport to be lightweight are actually considerably less so when evaluated against these criteria.

In my next blog, I will evaluate Impala's lightweightness against these criteria.

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