API, ABI and backwards compatibility are a hard necessity

Recently, I was reading a thread on LKML on a proposal to change the behavior of the open system call when confronted with unknown flags. The thread is worth a read as the topic of augmenting things that exist probably by accident to be “better” is always interesting, as is the definition of “better”.

Keeping API and/or ABI compatibility is something that isn’t a new problem, and it’s one that people are pretty good at sometimes messing up.

This problem does not go away just because “we have cloud now”. In any distributed system, in order to upgrade it (or “be agile” as the kids are calling it), you by definition are going to have either downtime or at least two versions running concurrently. Thus, you have to have your interfaces/RPCs/APIs/ABIs/protocols/whatever cope with changes.

You cannot instantly upgrade the world, it happens gradually. You also have to design for at least three concurrent versions running. One is the original, the second is your upgrade, your third is the urgent fix because the upgrade is quite broken in some new way you only discover in production.

So, the way you do this? Never ever EVER design for N-1 compatibility only. Design for going back a long way, much longer than you officially support. You want to have a design and programming culture of backwards compatibility to ensure you can both do new and exciting things and experiment off to the side.

It’s worth going and rereading Rusty’s API levels posts from 2008:

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