Complex software makes economic sense

Economic incentives motivate complexity as the common case for software systems.

When building or maintaining existing software, often the quickest/cheapest approach is to focus on the features/functionality being added, ignoring the existing code as much as possible. Yes, the new code may have some impact on the behavior of the existing code, and as new features/functionality are added it becomes harder and harder to predict the impact of the new code on the behavior of the existing code; in particular, is the existing behavior unchanged.

Software is said to have an attribute known as complexity; what is complexity? Many definitions have been proposed, and it’s not unusual for people to use multiple definitions in a discussion. The widely used measures of software complexity all involve counting various attributes of the source code contained within individual functions/methods (e.g., McCabe cyclomatic complexity, and Halstead); they are all highly correlated with lines of code. For the purpose of this post, the technical details of a definition are glossed over.

Complexity is often given as the reason that software is difficult to understand; difficult in the sense that lots of effort is required to figure out what is going on. Other causes of complexity, such as the domain problem being solved, or the design of the system, usually go unmentioned.

The fact that complexity, as a cause of requiring more effort to understand, has economic benefits is rarely mentioned, e.g., the effort needed to actively use a codebase is a barrier to entry which allows those already familiar with the code to charge higher prices or increases the demand for training courses.

One technique for reducing the complexity of a system is to redesign/rework its implementation, from a system/major component perspective; known as refactoring in the software world.

What benefit is expected to be obtained by investing in refactoring? The expected benefit of investing in redesign/rework is that a reduction in the complexity of a system will reduce the subsequent costs incurred, when adding new features/functionality.

What conditions need to be met to make it worthwhile making an investment, I, to reduce the complexity, C, of a software system?

Let’s assume that complexity increases the cost of adding a feature by some multiple (greater than one). The total cost of adding n features is:

K=C_1*F_1+C_2*F_2 ...+C_n*F_n

where: C_i is the system complexity when feature i is added, and F_i is the cost of adding this feature if no complexity is present.

C_2=C_B+C_1, C_3=C_B+C_1+C_2, … C_n=C_B+sum{i=1}{n}{C_i}

where: C_B is the base complexity before adding any new features.

Let’s assume that an investment, I, is made to reduce the complexity from C_b+C_N (with C_N=sum{i=1}{n}{C_i}) to C_B+C_N-C_R, where C_R is the reduction in the complexity achieved. The minimum condition for this investment to be worthwhile is that:

I+K_{r2} < K_{r1} or I < K_{r1}-K_{r2}

where: K_{r2} is the total cost of adding new features to the source code after the investment, and K_{r1} is the total cost of adding the same new features to the source code as it existed immediately prior to the investment.

Resetting the feature count back to 1, we have:

K_{r1}=(C_B+C_N+C_1)*F_1+(C_B+C_N+C_2)*F_2+...+(C_B+C_N+C_m)*F_m
and
K_{r2}=(C_B+C_N-C_R+C_1)*F_1+(C_B+C_N-C_R+C_2)*F_2+...+(C_B+C_N-C_R+C_m)*F_m

and the above condition becomes:

I < ((C_B+C_N+C_1)-(C_B+C_N-C_R+C_1))*F_1+...+((C_B+C_N+C_m)-(C_B+C_N-C_R+C_m))*F_m

I < C_R*F_1 ...+C_R*F_m

I < C_R*sum{i=1}{m}{F_i}

The decision on whether to invest in refactoring boils down to estimating the reduction in complexity likely to be achieved (as measured by effort), and the expected cost of future additions to the system.

Software systems eventually stop being used. If it looks like the software will continue to be used for years to come (software that is actively used will have users who want new features), it may be cost-effective to refactor the code to returning it to a less complex state; rinse and repeat for as long as it appears cost-effective.

Investing in software that is unlikely to be modified again is a waste of money (unless the code is intended to be admired in a book or course notes).