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5.6: Learn from the Past

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    Intent Obtain insights into the design by comparing subsequent versions of the system.


    How can you discover why the system is designed the way it is? How can you learn which parts of the system are stable and which parts aren’t?

    This problem is difficult because:

    • The lessons learned during a development process are rarely recorded in documentation. Furthermore, the developers’ perceptions and memory of design decisions tend to warp over time. Therefore, you can only rely on source code and must reconstruct the learning process from there.

    • The system is large and has been released in successive versions,and therefore you have a large quantity of source code to analyze. Text comparison tools (such as Unix diff) will not scale up for the sizes you’re dealing with.

    • Even if you have a tool to identify the changes between two subsequent releases, most of the changes will concern adding new functionality. For the reconstruction of the learning process and how this consolidated into the class design, you’re main interest lies in what happened with the old functionality.

    Yet, solving this problem is feasible because:

    • You have a good understanding of the system’s structure (for example obtained via Initial Understanding), so you’re able to focus on appropriate subsystems.

    • You have access to the subsequent releases of the system, so you can reconstruct the changes by comparing the source code of the versions.

    • You have the means to examine what happened with individual source code entities. For instance, you have a metrics tool at your disposal, which allows you to quantify the size of entities in the source-code and use these numbers as a basis for comparison. As an alternative, you have a configuration management system that can provide you with information about particular changes to source-code entities.

    • You have enough expertise with refactorings in the implementation language being used, so you are able to recognize refactorings from their effects on source-code. Moreover, once you know which refactorings have been applied, you can use this expertise to make an educated guess at the underlying design rationale.

    • You have a source-code browser that allows you to query which methods invoke a given operation (even for polymorphic operations), so you can find out dependencies between classes and investigate how they are affected by the refactorings.


    Use the metrics or configuration management tool to find entities where functionality has been removed, because such entities are a sign of a consolidating design. Also, look for entities which change often as these may point you to an unstable part of the design.


    Your goal is to get a feeling for how and why the system has evolved to its current state. In particular, you want to understand which parts of the system have been heavily refactored, which parts have become stable, and which parts are hot spots of activity.

    Portions of the software system that have been heavily extended are simply a sign of growth, not of evolution of the design. On the other hand, portions where software has been removed are signs that the design of the system has been altered. By understanding how it has been altered, you can obtain insights into the stability of the design.

    Unstable design. If you detect repeated growth and refactoring in the same portion of the system, that should be a sign that the design is unstable. It may indicate opportunities to redesign that portion of the system to better accommodate the kinds of changes and extensions that habitually take place.

    Mature and stable design. A mature subsystem will exhibit some growth and refactoring, followed by a period of stability. Early versions of the subsystem will show growth followed by refactoring, followed by a period in which only new classes and subclasses are added. As the hierarchy stabilizes, classes near the top of the hierarchy will exhibit only moderate growth, but little refactoring.



    • Concentrates on important design artifacts, because the changes point you to those places where the design is expanding or consolidating and this in turn provides insight into the underlying design rationale.

    • Provides an unbiased view of the system, because you do not have to formulate assumptions about what to expect in the software (in contrast to top-down techniques like Speculate about Design).


    • Requires considerable experience, in the sense that the reverse engineer must be well aware of how the refactorings interact with the coding idioms in the particular implementation language.

    • Considerable tool support is required, especially (a) a metrics tool or a configuration management system; (b) a code browsers that is able to trace back polymorphic method invocations.


    • Imprecise for many changes, because when too many changes have been applied on the same piece of code, it becomes difficult to reconstruct the change process.
    • Sensitive to renaming, if one identifies classes and methods via their name.1 Then rename operations will show up as removals and additions which makes interpreting the data more difficult.


    Many object-oriented systems came into being via a combination of iterative and incremental development (see [Boo94] [GR95] [JGJ97] [Ree96]). That is, the original development team recognized their lack of problem domain expertise and therefore invested in a learning process where each learning phase resulted in a new system release. It is worthwhile to reconstruct that learning process because it will help you to understand the rationale embodied in the system design.

    One way to reconstruct the learning process is to recover its primitive steps. In object-oriented parlance, these steps are called refactorings and consequently this pattern tells you how to recover refactorings like they have been applied in the past. The technique itself compares two subsequent releases of the source code identifying entities that decrease in size, because that’s the typical symptom of functionality that has been moved elsewhere.

    Known Uses

    We ran an experiment on three medium-sized systems implemented in Smalltalk. As reported in [DDN00], these case studies suggest that some simple heuristics can support the reverse engineering process by focusing attention on parts of the system where functionality has been removed. This way, we could for instance detect where a class had been split or where methods have been moved to a sibling class. Of course these refactorings must be examined in further detail to guess the intent behind the refactoring. This is never easy but in our experience has proven worthwhile. In one particular case for instance, we discovered several classes where methods had been moved to sibling classes. Closer examination revealed that the reengineer was moving these methods to break circular dependencies and was in fact introducing a layer.

    Other researchers also report on examining changes to support the reverse engineering process. For instance, Ball et al. annotate code views with colors showing code age [BE96]. On the other hand, Jazayeri et al. use a three-dimensional visual representation for examining a system’s software release history [JGR99]. The same people have also investigated which change requests affect which software modules to detect logical dependencies between software modules [GHJ98].

    What Next

    Now that you discovered some stable parts in the design, you will probably want to reuse them. In that case take some precautions: first document the interfaces of that part (see Look for the Contracts) and then write the corresponding test cases (see Test the Interface, Not the Implementation).

    On the other hand, the unstable parts of the design should probably be dismissed. Nevertheless, if the unstable part seems crucial for your reengineering project, then you must seek which change requests caused the instability. In that case, Chat with the Maintainers or even Interview During Demo and based on this knowledge decide how to restructure that part so that it is better suited for the kind of change requests that come in.


    1. Note that some configuration management systems keep track of renaming operations which will of course alleviate the problem.

    This page titled 5.6: Learn from the Past is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Serge Demeyer, Stéphane Ducasse, Oscar Nierstrasz.

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