Software ICs

“Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.” —Kevin Kelly

Software engineers should look to their hardware counterparts for approaches to managing complexity. Before the advent of Integrated Circuits, electronic circuits were generally complex creatures with many interconnected discrete components. The complexity of the circuit was visible, difficult to manage and adversely affected the cost of products. With the advent of ICs much of this complexity was hidden inside the chips themselves. The job of designing complex functionality into products became much easier.

Despite many attempts over the years, software design has never been able to replicate this IC design paradigm. The advent of object-oriented programming languages and tools was supposed to address some of these issues. While object-oriented design offers some significant improvements in areas such as GUI programming it doesn't always do a great job of hiding complexity. In fact, they often simply shift the complexity into other areas in the software development chain such as testing, toolsets, class library design or the learning curve.

Modern hardware design requires a complex skillset. What the advent of ICs did, however, was allow the hardware designer to use a given chip in a product design without having to understand the exact physics and layout of the circuits contained within the chip itself. As long as the designer conformed to the specs at the external interface to the chip (pins) the chip will react in a very predictable manner. This is what encapsulation of complexity offers: complexity hiding and predictable/reproducible behavior. Objects in software design offer partial complexity hiding, but the software designer often still has to know and master a complex language (e.g., C++) in order to be able to wire objects together into a product. Objects are very poor at providing predictable and reproducible software behavior. Furthermore, the language of the objects themselves often dictates the language used to “wire them together”. In our opinion, true encapsulation of complexity behind a universally simple and extendable API is what is required to produce a software IC. The software designer should not have to master a complex object-oriented language and toolset in order to be able to “wire together” these software ICs. At the very least the software designer should be able to choose the wiring language independent of the chip language.

Process Encapsulation

Many RTOSes have pioneered the use of user-space processes as an encapsulation scheme. One of the oldest to use this scheme is QNX TM ( Since 1980, QNX has released a continuous series of innovative OSes that were based upon a set of cooperating processes all using a Send/Receive/Reply messaging paradigm. QNX's approach to kernel design differs greatly from that used in Linux and we do not wish to reinflame the infamous microkernel vs. monolithic kernel debate. Suffice to say that we believe that the process model and the Send/Receive/Reply messaging paradigm first pioneered by QNX offers the key ingredients of a successful software IC.

In most modern operating systems, including Linux, the process is a very robust computing entity. There are several layers of protection offered to a process and the resources it embraces when running on a processor. It is very difficult for two processes to inadvertently adversely affect one another. If a given process encounters a fatal bug and crashes, it is rare that the entire system will be compromised. So the userispace process in Linux offers us a great container for our software IC. Now all we need is the software analog of the pins. This is where the messaging paradigm comes in.

Tokenized Messaging

One of the most powerful message formats is also one of the simplest. We can view a message as simply a collection of bytes. This collection of bytes is divided into two parts. The first field of bytes which is of fixed length is always present in every message and taken together, these bytes represent a unique message identifier called a token. The balance of the message (which can be of variable length) represents the token context-sensitive data. When two processes wish to exchange such messages they simply agree on a token scheme and on the format for each tokenized message they want to exchange. The interprocess message transport layer need not be concerned at all with the message content.

Figure 1. Tokenized



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