Issue: Vol. 15, No. 4, July/August 1998 | PDF

Why You Should Use Routines, Routinely

As an undergraduate computer science student, I thought that the main reason to create new routines instead of leaving all the code in one big routine was to avoid duplicate code. That is one good reason to create a routine, but hardly makes a complete list. The following sections describe many additional reasons to create routines.

Reducing complexity

The single most important reason to create a routine is to reduce a program’s complexity. Create a routine to hide information so that you won’t need to think about it. Sure, you need to think about it when you write the routine. But after it’s written, you should be able to forget the details and use the routine without any knowledge of its internal workings. Other reasons to create routines—minimizing code size, improving maintainability, and improving correctness—are good reasons, but without the abstractive power of routines, complex programs would be intellectually impossible to manage.

Avoiding duplicate code

Undoubtedly the most popular reason for creating a routine is to avoid duplicate code. Similar code in two routines is a warning sign. David Parnas says that if you use copy and paste while you’re coding, you’re probably committing a design error. Instead of copying code, move it into its own routine. Future modifications will be easier because you will need to modify the code in only one location. The code will be more reliable because you will have only one place in which to be sure that the code is correct.

Limiting effects of changes

Isolate areas that are likely to change so that effects of changes are limited to a single routine or, at most, a few routines. Create your designs so that the areas that are most likely to change are the easiest to change. Areas likely to change include hardware dependencies, input/output formats, complex data structures, and business rules.

Hiding sequences

Hide the order in which events happen to be processed. If the program typically gets data from the user then gets auxiliary data from a file, neither the routine that gets the user data nor the routine that gets the file data should depend on the other routine’s being performed first. Design the system so that either could be performed first, then create a routine to hide the information about which happens to be performed first.

Improving performance

Having code in one place, inside a single routine, means that a single optimization benefits all the code that calls that routine. It makes it practical to recode the routine with a more efficient algorithm or a faster, more difficult language, like assembler.

Hiding data structures

Hide data-structure implementation details so that most of the program doesn’t need to worry about the messy details of manipulating computer-science data structures, but can deal with the data in terms of how it’s used in the problem domain. Routines that hide implementation details provide a valuable level of abstraction that reduce a program’s complexity. They centralize data structure operations in one place and reduce the chance of errors in working with that data structure. They make it possible to change the data structure without changing most of the program.

When hiding a data structure, refer to it independently of the media its stored on. If you have an insurance rates table that’s so big that it’s always stored on disk, you might be tempted to refer to it as a “rate file.” When you refer to it as a file, however, you’re exposing more information about the data than you need to. If you ever change the program so that the table is in memory instead of on disk, the code that refers to it as a file will be incorrect, misleading, and confusing. Try, instead, to make names of access routines independent of how the data is stored, and refer to the abstract data type, insurance rates table, instead.

Hiding global data

If you need to use global data, at least hide its implementation details. Working with global data through access routines provides several benefits. You can change the structure of the data without changing your program, and you can monitor accesses to the data. The discipline of using access routines also encourages you to think clearly about whether the data is really global; it might be more accurate to treat it as local to a class, module, or routine.

Promoting code reuse

Code put into modular routines can be reused in other programs more easily than the same code spread across a large routine.

Planning for a family of programs

If you expect a program to be modified, isolate the parts you expect to change within their own routines. You can then modify the routines without affecting the rest of the program, or you can put the changes into completely new routines instead. For example, several years ago I managed a team that created a family of programs used by our clients to sell insurance. We had to tailor each program to each specific client’s insurance rates, report format, underwriting rules, and so on. But many parts of the programs were similar: data-input routines that took in information about our clients’ customers, routines that stored and retrieved information in a customer database, routines that computed total rates for a group, and so on. The team modularized the program so that each part that varied from client to client was put into its own module. The initial programming for the whole system took several months, but, after that was done, whenever we got a new client we merely wrote a handful of new modules and dropped them into the rest of the code. A few days’ work, and voila! Custom software!

Improving readability

Putting a section of code into a well-named routine is one of the best ways to document its function. Instead of reading a series of statements like this:

if ( Node <> NULL ) then
   while ( Node.Next <> NULL ) do
      Node = Node.Next
   LeafName = Node.Name
   LeafName = ''

You can read a statement like

LeafName = GetLeafName( Node )

The new routine is so short that all it needs for documentation is a good name. Using a function call instead of eight lines of code makes the routine that originally contained the code less complex and automatically documents it.

You can use the same technique to document complicated boolean tests. Move the code that performs the test into its own function, out of the main flow of the code; choose an understandable function name; and the result will be that both the main flow of the code and the boolean test will be clearer than when the test is in the main flow of the code.

Improving portability

Isolate use of nonportable operations to explicitly identify and isolate future portability work. Nonportable operations include use nonstandard language features, hardware dependencies, operating system dependencies, and so on.

Isolating use of nonstandard language functions

Most languages contain handy, nonstandard extensions. Using them is a double-edged sword: they’re useful, but they might not be available when you move to different hardware, a new vendor’s implementation of the same language, or even a new version of the language from your current vendor. If you use nonstandard extensions, build routines of your own that act as gateways to those extensions. Then, you can replace the vendor’s nonstandard routines with custom written routines of your own if needed.

Isolating complex operations

Complex operations include complicated algorithms, communications protocols, tricky boolean tests, and operations on complex data—all of which are prone to errors. When an error is detected, having the code to which it applies contained within a single routine makes the error easier to diagnose and fix than if parts of the complex operation were spread throughout the program.

The Greatest Invention in Computer Science

Aside from the invention of the computer, the routine is arguably the single greatest invention in computer science. It makes programs easier to read and understand. It makes them smaller (imagine how much larger your code would be if you had to repeat the code for every call to a routine instead of invoking the routine). And it makes them faster (imagine how hard it would be to make performance improvements in similar code used in a dozen places rather than making all the performance improvements in one routine). In large part, routines are what make modern programming possible.

Editor: Steve McConnell, Construx Software  |  More articles