Sunday, November 06, 2005

Good API Design

Joshua Bloch gave a great talk on "How To Design a Good API and Why it Matters" at the SDForum Java SIG last Tuesday. This kind of system design topic can be difficult because it can come across as apple pie unless it comes from someone who really knows what they are talking about. Joshua knows what he is talking about.

I found myself nodding along with Joshua's dictums. Here is one that particularly stuck in my mind. "An API is like a little language. Names should be self explanatory and be consistent, using the right part of speech. Aim for symmetry." I have written in the past about the connection between language design and APIs. The only problem is that while good API design is hard, good language design is even harder.

This dictum struck home because I recently made a mistake in a little API where I used the wrong words for a function. Unfortunately the problem was compounded because that word should have been used for another function that was missing, and that would have completed the symmetry of the API. When we renamed the errant function we could create the missing function and complete the API. Sorting out this little problem took a surprising amount of time.

My touchstone on this topic has been Butler Lampson's paper on "Hints for Computer System Design". A good part of that paper is concerned with interface design, and I have used Lampson's advice on interfaces with great success in the past. In fact, looking at this paper and my notes, Joshua echoes a surprising amount of Lampson's advice.

The Hints paper is more than 20 years old and since it was written we have moved from building computer systems to living in a networked world where APIs are our point of contact with the universe. Currently Joshua's words on API design are only available as a presentation. I hope that he writes it up as a paper or book so that everyone can have the full story.

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