January 16, 2016

Design Locality

Coupling and cohesion are two properties that drive many software design decisions. Coupling refers to the amount or degree of interdependencies between modules. High coupling is foul because it means changes in one module may affect others and is also indicative of incorrect abstractions. Cohesion refers to the number of duties for which a particular module is responsible. A highly cohesive module is one that does few tasks and does them well. It’s never a good idea to spread a module too thin. Clearly, high cohesion is best.

These properties are often considered separately but assessed in unison. For instance, I was taught to design software that exhibited low coupling and high cohesion. Although they are both measured separately, they were (are) almost always the goal. Coupling is trivial to quantify. Example methods are based on computing the number of module dependencies via header inclusion, library imports, and function calls. Cohesion is somewhat trickier to quantify. A rough estimate of can be gleaned from the relationship between the functions of a module. For example, if all functions in a module perform some type of logging and are all named “log_X,” and the name of said function is “Logger” (or something to that effect), it’s clear that the module has good cohesive properties. The purpose of the module can be succinctly described in a short sentence (e.g., “this module handles logging”) and the internals reflect that single behavior [1]. It would be inappropriate, for example, to put a function called “createFile” or “sendLogToServer” in this module.

Experience is the only way to hone your skills and be able to identify code smells indicative of poor designs. However, there are other ways to detect smells without measuring these two metrics separately. Having worked on a fairly diverse set of projects and software systems, I’ve observed correlations between well-designed software (according to these two metrics) and easily observable properties. Software that exhibits such a positive correlation has what I refer to as good design locality. The idea of design locality is simple: a design of a feature exhibits high locality if it is well-contained in a set of closely-related files and modules. In other words, it does not have implementation dependencies that are located in or spread out among other modules and the implementation logic is contained in modules (and files) that are in close logical proximity.

Intuitively, poor locality means that a design is hard to comprehend because it involves understanding a larger piece of the system. This difficult can manifest itself when seemingly simple changes to a design or feature require one to understand an unnecessarily large part of the system. Poor locality leads to a sparse representation of the problem where relevant details are scatted amongst other pieces of code that are necessarily important. A simple analogy to illustrate the difference good and bad locality is the difference between storing a sparse matrix as an actual two-dimensional data structure containing many zeros (e.g., unnecessary details) or as a list of lists without any added fluff. The difference is important. Leaner representations of the problem are easier keep in memory at a time. This makes the design easier to understand and, as a consequence, eases the development experience. Put simply, designs with good locality are those which can be easily understood without excavating through unnecessary code.

To give an example of how poor locality can manifest itself in code, I’ll describe an old piece of the PARC security library used in the CCNx project [2]. There once were modules called PublicKeySignerPkcs12Store and SymmetricSignerFileStore. If you’re not sure what these do from the name alone, you’re not alone. Are they key stores? Are they responsible for signing things? If so, what things do they sign? Are symmetric keys considered to be digital signature keys? The answer to many of these questions was “yes” and as a result the API for each of these modules was quite bloated. They both conformed to a common interface which provided functions to obtain a public key, private key, and certificate digest, extract DER encoded keys, obtain a hasher used for the signature algorithm (yes, I know…), get the signature algorithm details (e.g., RSA, DSA, etc.), and sign a message (a buffer). This once-specialized module mutated into a blob over time as the need for key- and signature-related operations spread throughout the CCNx code base. This led to dependencies in several different libraries for different purposes. For example, the Libccnx code, which implements the CCNx network stack, uses it for computing digital signatures on egress messages. Other parts of the code use it to build key stores and extract public keys to create identities. Given this breadth, the design is clearly not local. I set out to refactor this design when I couldn’t easily accomplish the simple task of creating a public key. I had to read and understand unrelated modules and unit tests in order to do this (i.e., the Libccnx signing code).

To refactor these modules I divvied them up based on their apparent responsibilities. Specifically, I split the modules into separate key stores, public and private key management modules, and signing hierarchies. Each of these were given a succinct and concise interface that is used to perform operations relevant to the module. For example, key stores only handle storing and extracting keys. To create a public key I now only need to examine the public key module. If I wanted to build a self-signed certificate, I look at the certificate module. If I wanted to construct something to sign a message (buffer), I look at the signer and its unit tests. There were longer any cyclical dependencies between these modules; Key stores depend on certificates, signers depend on key stores, etc. This is clearly a much more narrow design since a single feature (e.g., signing a message) is mapped to a well-defined and highly cohesive (set of) module(s).

To illustrate the reduction in locality, I measured the dependencies before and after the refactoring. The reduction is measured with respect to the (PKCS12 variant of the) key store module and the signer. The dependencies are simple counts of how many times the relevant modules were included for use when a key store was needed.

$ grep -i --include \*.h --include \*.c '/parc_PublicKeySignerPkcs12' -r * | wc -l
$ grep -i --include \*.h --include \*.c '/parc_Pkcs12KeyStore' -r * | wc -l
$ grep -i --include \*.h --include \*.c '/parc_PublicKeySigner' -r * | wc -l

As you can see, only 18 out of 57 modules needed to use the PublicKeySignerPkcs12Store module for PKCS12 key stores. The new design relocates this functionality to the key store module and therefore improves the overall locality.

Design locality is by no means a formal metric. It’s a principle that I try to use to guide my design decisions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the intention is to use this to drive low coupling and high cohesion in designs. One might then ask, “how do they relate to coupling and cohesion?”. Consider it this way. Narrow designs (i.e., those with good locality) necessitate minimal coupling since they do not, by (my informal) definition, contain dependencies on many other modules. The modules involved in the implementation of a design are relatively small. Conversely, wide designs cross modules and include unrelated code. As dependencies that may grow far and wide, high coupling is produced.

Let’s now consider cohesion. As I’ve described it, a design with good locality can be implemented as a single, massive module with many unrelated functions. Moreover, the designs of many features can map to such a module. This may be indicative of a design with poor cohesion. However, it may also reflect the fact that a module has a very high degree of cohesion and that it is being reused appropriately. For example, many features require logging. The implementation of these features will all depend on some logging module. That doesn’t mean the logging module has low cohesion (in fact, it’s quite the contrary).

Design to module mapping (i.e., module dependencies).

Clearly, the mapping of a design to its constituent modules must be more fine-grain to determine the cohesiveness of the module. It must map features to parts of modules. This mapping exposes the information we need in order to identify where in the system are points of low cohesion. To illustrate, consider the following slightly modified mapping.

Function-level module dependencies.

The left-hand design has one module that contains three separate functions used by three separate designs. This is clearly the wrong level of abstraction. Refactoring the module to separate these functions into their own modules which are then invoked by a parent module (or API) cleans up the dependencies and increases the cohesion of the once-blob.

I do believe I’ve rambled enough for now, so I’ll end here. In the future I’ll attempt to document the methods and software I use when measuring coupling and cohesion in my own projects.


  • [1] http://mortoray.com/2015/04/29/cohesion-and-coupling-good-measures-of-quality/
  • [2] http://blogs.parc.com/ccnx/