In The Never-Shipping Product, I mentioned seven ways to add complexity, and one of them was “Lock-In To Bad Technologies.” But what’s a “bad” technology? Is it all just based on opinion? Should we throw our hands up in the air and give in to the whims of our junior developer who thinks writing the application in BASIC is a great idea?
Well, okay, maybe it’s not all opinion. There must be some way to tell a good technology from a bad one (besides looking back after five years of development and saying, “Wow, we really shouldn’t have decided to base our product off of Microsoft Bob.”)
When I’m evaluating a technology for inclusion in one of my projects, I look particularly at the technology’s survival potential, interoperability, and attention to quality.
By “survival potential” I mean “how long is this software going to continue to be maintained?” If you get stuck with libraries or some dependency that becomes obsolete, you’re really in for some trouble. You can get some idea of the survival potential of the software by seeing how often they’ve released recently. Also, how responsive are they to bug reports? Do they have a mailing list that’s very active with users and developers? Are there lots of people online talking about this technology? If a technology has a lot of momentum now, you can be fairly sure that it’s not going to die any time soon.
By “interoperability” I mean, “Does this system use some standard that would allow us to switch to a different system if we want, in the future?” For example, some database systems support standard SQL very well. Some other ones aren’t as good about that–they have strange behaviors that don’t agree with the standard, or they just don’t support it at all. Using a database with standard-SQL support would allow you to switch to any other standard-SQL database in the future, whereas using a less-standard database would lock you in.
The final one, “attention to quality,” is more of a subjective measurement, but the idea is to see if the product is getting better in its recent releases. If it’s open-source, check if they’re refactoring and cleaning up the code base. Is it becoming easier to use or more complex? Do the people who maintain the technology actually care about the quality of their product, or are they just code monkeys working for the pay? Are there are a lot of serious security vulnerabilities in the software that have been published lately?
Lock-in is a worse problem when you’re using proprietary software than when your dependencies are open-source. Proprietary vendors can just stop supporting something (or go out of business), whereas in the open-source world anybody is free to pick up a codebase and maintain it if the original maintainers drop it. Granted, open-source projects are just as likely to fall out of existence as proprietary projects are, but at least there’s the hope (particularly if the project was very popular) that somebody will come around to maintain it again, with open-source.
Proprietary vendors also have a monetary incentive to lock you into their technologies–even their free technologies. Once you start using their free technologies, they can sell you services and products related to them. Open-source vendors usually lack that monetary incentive, and so are more likely to be “friendly” when you want to switch away from them. This isn’t always true (some proprietary vendors beat the pants off of open-source vendors in terms of interoperability, and some open-source products will still lock you in), but it’s enough the case that I automatically think “let’s use open-source” when I’m looking for interoperability.
There are other aspects to look at when you’re choosing a technology, and some of it really is opinion. Some people like the way Ruby looks better than the way Python looks. That’s a valid reason to choose a technology sometimes–if you just like some technology more than another one, and everything else seems equal according to the criteria above, go with the one that makes you happy. After all, you’re the one who’s going to be using it–your opinion matters! All I’ve tried to do here is give some universal guidelines that can be used to weed out the definitely bad choices, and the rest is up to your personal research, needs, and desires.