Having all the source code in one file

An early, and supposedly influential, analysis of the Coronavirus outbreak was based on results from a model whose 15,000 line C implementation was contained in a single file. There has been lots of tut-tutting from the peanut gallery, about the code all being in one file rather than distributed over many files. The source on Github has been heavily reworked.

Why do programmers work with all the code in one file, rather than split across multiple files? What are the costs and benefits of having the 15K of source in one file, compared to distributing it across multiple files?

There are two kinds of people who work with code all in one file, novices and really capable developers. Richard Stallman is an example of a very capable developer who worked using files containing huge amounts of code, as anybody who looked at the early sources of gcc will be all to familiar.

The benefit of having all the code in one file is that it is easy to find stuff and make global changes. If the source is scattered over multiple files, then working on the code entails knowing which file to look in to find whatever; there is a learning curve (these days screens have lots of pixels, and editors support multiple windows with a different file in each window; I’m sure lots of readers work like this).

Many years ago, when 64K was a lot of memory, I sometimes had to do developer support: people would come to me complaining that the computer was preventing them writing a larger program. What had happened was they had hit the capacity limit of the editor. The source now had to be spread over multiple files to get over this ‘limitation’. In practice people experienced the benefits of using multiple files, e.g., editor loading files faster (because they were a lot smaller) and reduced program build time (because only the code that changed needed to be recompiled).

These days, 15K of source can be loaded or compiled in a blink of an eye (unless a really cheap laptop is being used). Computing power has significantly reduced these benefits that used to exist.

What costs might be associated with keeping all the source in one file?

Monolithic code makes sharing difficult. I don’t know anything about the development environment within which these researched worked. If there were lots of different programs using the same algorithms, or reading/writing the same file formats, then code reuse often provides a benefit that makes it worthwhile splitting off the common functionality. But then the researchers has to learn how to build a program from multiple source files, which a surprising number are unwilling to do (at least it has always been surprising to me).

Within a research group, sharing across researchers might be a possible (assuming they are making some use of the same algorithms and file formats). Involving multiple people in the ongoing evolution of software creates a need for some coordination. At the individual level it may be more cost-efficient for people to have their own private copies of the source, with savings only occurring at the group level. With software development having a low status in academia, I don’t see any of the senior researchers willingly take on a management role, for this code. Perhaps one of the people working on the code is much better than the others (it often happens), but are they going to volunteer themselves as chief dogs body for the code?

In the world of Open Source, where source code is available, cut-and-paste is rampant (along with wholesale copying of files). Working with a copy of somebody else’s source removes a dependency, and if their code works well enough, then go for it.

A cost often claimed by the peanut gallery is that having all the code in a single file is a signal of buggy code. Given that most of the programmers who do this are novices, rather than really capable developers, such code is likely to contain many mistakes. But splitting the code up into multiple files will not reduce the number of mistakes it contains, just distribute them among the files. Correlation is not causation.

For an individual developer, the main benefit of splitting code across multiple files is that it makes developers think about the structure of their code.

For multi-person projects there are the added potential benefits of reusing code, and reducing the time spent reading other people’s code (it’s no fun having to deal with 10K lines when only a few functions are of interest).

I’m not saying that the original code is good, bad, or indifferent. What I am saying is that the having all the source in one file may, or may not, be the most effective way of working. It’s complicated, and I have no problem going with the flow (and limiting the size of the source files I write), but let’s not criticise others for doing what works for them.

Three books discuss three small data sets

During the early years of a new field, experimental data relating to important topics can be very thin on the ground. Ever since the first computer was built, there has been a lot of data on the characteristics of the hardware. Data on the characteristics of software, and the people who write it has been (and often continues to be) very thin on the ground.

Books are sometimes written by the researchers who produce the first data associated with an important topic, even if the data set is tiny; being first often generates enough interest for a book length treatment to be considered worthwhile.

As a field progresses lots more data becomes available, and the discussion in subsequent books can be based on findings from more experiments and lots more data

Software engineering is a field where a few ‘first’ data books have been published, followed by silence, or rather lots of arm waving and little new data. The fall of Rome has been followed by a 40-year dark-age, from which we are slowly emerging.

Three of these ‘first’ data books are:

  • “Man-Computer Problem Solving” by Harold Sackman, published in 1970, relating to experimental data from 1966. The experiments investigated the impact of two different approaches to developing software, on programmer performance (i.e., batch processing vs. on-line development; code+data). The first paper on this work appeared in an obscure journal in 1967, and was followed in the same issue by a critique pointing out the wide margin of uncertainty in the measurements (the critique agreed that running such experiments was a laudable goal).

    Failing to deal with experimental uncertainty is nothing compared to what happened next. A 1968 paper in a widely read journal, the Communications of the ACM, contained the following table (extracted from a higher quality scan of a 1966 report by the same authors, and available online).

    Developer performance ratios.

    The tale of 1:28 ratio of programmer performance, found in an experiment by Grant/Sackman, took off (the technical detail that a lot of the difference was down to the techniques subjects’ used, and not the people themselves, got lost). The Grant/Sackman ‘finding’ used to be frequently quoted in some circles (or at least it did when I moved in them, I don’t know often it is cited today). In 1999, Lutz Prechelt wrote an expose on the sorry tale.

    Sackman’s book is very readable, and contains lots of details and data not present in the papers, including survey data and a discussion of the intrinsic uncertainties associated with the experiment; it also contains the table above.

  • “Software Engineering Economics” by Barry W. Boehm, published in 1981. I wrote about the poor analysis of the data contained in this book a few years ago.

    The rest of this book contains plenty of interesting material, and even sounds modern (because books moving the topic forward have not been written).

  • “Program Evolution: Process of Software Change” edited by M. M. Lehman and L. A. Belady, published in 1985, relating to experimental data from 1977 and before. Lehman and Belady managed to obtain data relating to 19 releases of an IBM software product (yes, 19, not nineteen-thousand); the data was primarily the date and number of modules contained in each release, plus less specific information about number of statements. This data was sliced and diced every which way, and the book contains many papers with the same data appearing in the same plot with different captions (had the book not been a collection of papers it would have been considerably shorter).

    With a lot less data than Isaac Newton had available to formulate his three laws, Lehman and Belady came up with five, six, seven… “laws of software evolution” (which themselves evolved with the publication of successive papers).

    The availability of Open source repositories means there is now a lot more software system evolution data available. Lehman’s laws have not stood the test of more data, although people still cite them every now and again.