Leaky Abstractions Are Just Bad Abstractions


# Introduction

In 2002 Joel Spolsky argued that “All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky”. As a result, there have been numerous programmers who have used this as an excuse to throw away numerous abstractions in favor of lower-level alternatives. The original argument though is a straw man and the perpetuation of it is actively harmful to the industry.

# The Straw Men Cometh

Joel’s examples and the numerous other examples I’ve seen subsequently by proponents all fall into the same categorical error, namely: ascribing an expectation or requirement on an abstraction or model that was never there to begin with. To counter some of the specific claims:

  1. TCP never specified that it would guarantee successful delivery of all data in all situations, nor did it guarantee a speed for delivery. It is very clear in what it means with the terms “reliable” as well as the rules about when and how a 0. connection will timeout and be closed: https://tools.ietf.org/html/std7#section-2.6 . Oversimplifying this by assuming guaranteed transmission and speed is simply incorrect. Recall L Peter Deutsch’s Fallacies of distributed computing:
    • The network is reliable;
    • Latency is zero;
    • Bandwidth is infinite;
    • The network is secure;
    • Topology doesn’t change;
    • There is one administrator;
    • Transport cost is zero;
    • The network is homogeneous.
  2. Iteration strategy over a two-dimensional array + Page Faults: There is no programming language in common use today that makes a guarantee about such iteration performance. Assuming one is not the fault of the language that didn’t specify one. The abstractions did not fail nor leak in these cases either.
  3. Complaints about SQL performance: Again, the same problem as #2. Running two semantically equivalent queries will give you the same result, but there was no performance guarantee. Assuming one is again not the fault of the abstraction but with the expectation
  4. And so on and so on…

# Expectations Meet Reality

Expectations of reality and reality itself are two different things. If an abstraction does not explicitly make claims about some aspect of interest it does not mean that it has leaked or failed, it’s simply the wrong one for what you’re concerned with. Build a better abstraction or use one which claims to fulfill your requirements (and can demonstrate it).

# The Appropriate Abstraction

The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise Edsger Dijkstra

The goal is to hide unnecessary details allowing one to focus on those relevant to your domain. If you create an abstraction that excludes a necessary detail then you’ve created a “leaky abstraction” in the spirit of what Spolsky claims (even though his examples are debatable).

An example of the right level of abstraction can be thought of by analogy with a geographic map. A map is an abstraction of the territory it represents. If the physical map of the United States was the same size as the country it would be practically useless. We scale these maps down to human size and as a result we necessarily leave out details. Scaling alone can still leave an excessive amount of information though. If one wished to navigate roads they don’t care about all of the details between those roads. Keeping that information would be distracting and make it more time consuming to identify more relevant information, so this is discarded as well. If something interacts with the roads (like railroad crossings), then these may also be included in whole or in part where they intersect. What you’re looking for in a geographic map is an optimal level of utility and simplicity.



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