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If it ain't broke...

wooden_bridge compressed.jpgby Harry Sutton, Master Technologist, HP Converged Systems & Solutions 

 

A number of years ago while on a consulting project at The Sanger Centre near Cambridge, England, I took this photograph of a beautiful wooden bridge that reaches across a portion of the river Cam in Cambridge. I have since used this photograph in my consulting projects, accompanied by the following story:

 

The bridge was designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton, the first holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (a position currently occupied by Stephen Hawking.) It was unique in that it was designed and constructed without the use of any mechanical fasteners - it was held together by counterbalance, much the same way a stone arch is centered by a capstone.

 

Early in the 20th century, a physics professor at the University set his students the task of determining how this engineering feat had been accomplished, and in the course of their studies, they disassembled the bridge only to find, to their dismay, that they were unable to reassemble it correctly. As a result, the current structure has nuts, bolts, and other mechanical fasteners in place to hold it together.

 

The lesson I convey to my Fortune 100 / Fortune 500 senior IT staff audiences is simply this: if you don’t fully understand a complex system, how can you maintain it properly? And the obvious corollary is: if it ain’t broke…..

And now the coda to this wonderfully symmetrical little tale: the story is apocryphal. Not only was it not designed by Newton, who died twenty-two years before the first bridge was built, there was no mechanical magic associated with its construction. It has been rebuilt, twice, most recently in 1905, lending credence to that aspect of the story above. (If you’re really interested, have a look at this site.)

 

But there are still a couple of lessons to be gleaned from this experience.

 

First, don’t believe everything you hear, no matter how credible or attractive the story (or how closely it suits your personal ideology.) Verify your data, and don’t be reluctant to drop a beautiful theory in the face of a potentially much less attractive fact. I’ve always loved that Newton story, and I was taken aback when I discovered it was false. But I learned a lesson.

 

Second, and more important, don’t reject the valid message buried in the fantasy. You can’t properly maintain a complex system unless you fully understand it. Access to source code is a prerequisite to fully understanding complex IT systems (although I grant that most IT shops, even the largest, don’t extend their understanding to this level.) Systems that are built on published standards are easier to build and maintain - at least from the perspective of getting access to all pertinent information - than those based on proprietary single-vendor solutions.

 

But at the end of the day, it’s the function, not the form, that’s important. This is a beautiful bridge, regardless of who built it, and it has served its purpose through the centuries. If you - or your customers - have a solution that works for them, whether it’s open source or not, the first prerequisite to being able to properly maintain it is to understand it as completely as you can before you start changing things.

 

If it ain’t broke……

 

 

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