Algorithms are now commodities

When I first started writing software, developers had to implement most of the algorithms they used; yes, hardware vendors provided libraries, but the culture was one of self-reliance (except for maths functions, which were technical and complicated).

Developers read Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, it was the reliable source for step-by-step algorithms. I vividly remember seeing a library copy of one volume, where somebody had carefully hand-written, in very tiny letters, an update to one algorithm, and glued it to the page over the previous text.

Algorithms were important because computers were not yet fast enough to solve common problems at an acceptable rate; developers knew the time taken to execute common instructions and instruction timings were a topic of social chit-chat amongst developers (along with the number of registers available on a given cpu). Memory capacity was often measured in kilobytes, every byte counted.

This was the age of the algorithm.

Open source commoditized algorithms, and computers got a lot faster with memory measured in megabytes and then gigabytes.

When it comes to algorithm implementation, developers are now spoilt for choice; why waste time implementing the ‘low’ level stuff when there were plenty of other problems waiting to be implemented.

Algorithms are now like the bolts in a bridge: very important, but nobody talks about them. Today developers talk about story points, features, business logic, etc. Given a well-defined problem, many are now likely to search for an existing package, rather than write code from scratch (I certainly work this way).

New algorithms are still being invented, and researchers continue to look for improvements to existing algorithms. This is a niche activity.

There are companies where algorithms are not commodities. Google operates on a scale where what appears to others as small improvements, can save the company millions (purely because a small percentage of a huge amount can be a lot). Some company’s core competency may include an algorithmic component (whose non-commodity nature gives the company its edge over the competition), with the non-core competency treating algorithms as a commodity.

Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming played an important role in making viable algorithms generally available; while the volumes are frequently cited, I suspect they are rarely read (I have not taken any of my three volumes off the shelf, to read, for years).

A few years ago, I suddenly realised that I was working on a book about software engineering that not only did not contain an algorithms chapter, and the 103 uses of the word algorithm all refer to it as a concept.

Today, we are in the age of the ecosystem.

Algorithms have not yet completed their journey to obscurity, which has to wait until people can tell computers what they want and not be concerned about the implementation details (or genetic algorithm programming gets a lot better).

The age of the Algorithm is long gone

I date the age of the Algorithm from roughly the 1960s to the late 1980s.

During the age of the Algorithms, developers spent a lot of time figuring out the best algorithm to use and writing code to implement algorithms.

Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP) was the book that everybody consulted to find an algorithm to solve their current problem (wafer thin paper, containing tiny handwritten corrections and updates, was glued into the library copies of TAOCP held by my undergraduate university; updates to Knuth was news).

Two developments caused the decline of the age of the Algorithm (and the rise of the age of the Ecosystem and the age of the Platform; topics for future posts).

  • The rise of Open Source (it was not called this for a while), meant it became less and less necessary to spend lots of time dealing with algorithms; an implementation of something that was good enough, was available. TAOCP is something that developers suggest other people read, while they search for a package that does something close enough to what they want.
  • Software systems kept getting larger, driving down the percentage of time developers spent working on algorithms (the bulk of the code in commercially viable systems deals with error handling and the user interface). Algorithms are still essential (like the bolts holding a bridge together), but don’t take up a lot of developer time.

Algorithms are still being invented and some developers spend most of their working with algorithms, but peak Algorithm is long gone.

Perhaps academic researchers in software engineering would do more relevant work if they did not spend so much time studying algorithms. But, as several researchers have told me, algorithms is what people in their own and other departments think computing related research is all about. They remain shackled to the past.