Where Did Refactoring Come From?
I’ve not succeeded in pinning down the real birth of the term refactoring. Good programmers certainly have spent at least some time cleaning up their code. They do this because they have learned that clean code is easier to change than complex and messy code, and good programmers know that they rarely write clean code the first time around.
Refactoring goes beyond this. In this book I’m advocating refactoring as a key element in the whole process of software development. Two of the first people to recognize the importance of refactoring were Ward Cunningham and Kent Beck, who worked with Smalltalk from the 1980s onward. Smalltalk is an environment that even then was particularly hospitable to refactoring. It is a very dynamic environment that allows you quickly to write highly functional software. Smalltalk has a very short compile-link-execute cycle, which makes it easy to change things quickly. It is also object oriented and thus provides powerful tools for minimizing the impact of change behind well-defined interfaces. Ward and Kent worked hard at developing a software development process geared to working with this kind of environment. (Kent currently refers to this style as Extreme Programming.) They realized that refactoring was important in improving their productivity and ever since have been working with refactoring, applying it to serious software projects and refining the process.
Ward and Kent’s ideas have always been a strong influence on the Smalltalk community, and the notion of refactoring has become an important element in the Smalltalk culture. Another leading figure in the Smalltalk community is Ralph Johnson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is famous as one of the Gang of Four. One of Ralph’s biggest interests is in developing software frameworks. He explored how refactoring can help develop an efficient and flexible framework.
Bill Opdyke was one of Ralph’s doctoral students and is particularly interested in frameworks. He saw the potential value of refactoring and saw that it could be applied to much more than Smalltalk. His background was in telephone switch development, in which a great deal of complexity accrues over time, and changes are difficult to make. Bill’s doctoral research looked at refactoring from a tool builder’s perspective. Bill investigated the refactorings that would be useful for C++ framework development and researched the necessary semantics-preserving refactorings, how to prove they were semantics preserving, and how a tool could implement these ideas. Bill’s doctoral thesis is the most substantial work on refactoring to date.
I remember meeting Bill at the OOPSLA conference in 1992. We sat in a cafй and discussed some of the work I’d done in building a conceptual framework for healthcare. Bill told me about his research, and I remember thinking, “Interesting, but not really that important.” Boy was I wrong!
John Brant and Don Roberts have taken the tool ideas in refactoring much further to produce the Refactoring Browser, a refactoring tool for Smalltalk.
And me? I’d always been inclined to clean code, but I’d never considered it to be that important. Then I worked on a project with Kent and saw the way he used refactoring. I saw the difference it made in productivity and quality. That experience convinced me that refactoring was a very important technique. I was frustrated, however, because there was no book that I could give to a working programmer, and none of the experts above had any plans to write such a book. So, with their help, I did.
Optimizing a Payroll System
We had been developing Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation System for quite a while before we started to move it to GemStone. Naturally, when we did that, we found that the program wasn’t fast enough. We brought in Jim Haungs, a master GemSmith, to help us optimize the system.
After a little time with the team to learn how the system worked, Jim used GemStone’s ProfMonitor feature to write a profiling tool that plugged into our functional tests. The tool displayed the numbers of objects that were being created and where they were being created.
To our surprise, the biggest offender turned out to be the creation of strings. The biggest of the big was repeated creation of 12,000-byte strings. This was a particular problem because the string was so big that GemStone’s usual garbage-collection facilities wouldn’t deal with it. Because of the size, GemStone was paging the string to disk every time it was created. It turned out the strings were being built way down in our IO framework, and they were being built three at a time for every output record!
Our first fix was to cache a single 12,000-byte string, which solved most of the problem. Later, we changed the framework to write directly to a file stream, which eliminated the creation of even the one string.
Once the huge string was out of the way, Jim’s profiler found similar problems with some smaller strings: 800 bytes, 500 bytes, and so on. Converting these to use the file stream facility solved them as well.
With these techniques we steadily improved the performance of the system. During development it looked like it would take more than 1,000 hours to run the payroll. When we actually got ready to start, it took 40 hours. After a month we got it down to around 18; when we launched we were at 12. After a year of running and enhancing the system for a new group of employees, it was down to 9 hours.
Our biggest improvement was to run the program in multiple threads on a multiprocessor machine. The system wasn’t designed with threads in mind, but because it was so well factored, it took us only three days to run in multiple threads. Now the payroll takes a couple of hours to run.
Before Jim provided a tool that measured the system in actual operation, we had good ideas about what was wrong. But it was a long time before our good ideas were the ones that needed to be implemented. The real measurements pointed in a different direction and made a much bigger difference.
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