New Myths

4 September 2009

Why Are You Optimizing?

In a design discussion today, I came across the need to interject one of those architectural bugaboos that seem to often come into question: is there such a thing as over optimization?  Most people would hear that question and immediately respond “Of course!”  Yet many architects engage in the very sort of navel-gazing that comes from the merest possibility of engaging in the design challenges presented by over optimization.  Why?  Because its fun.  This type of design presents a fundamental challenge that technology-minded people fundamentally adore.

And to be honest, this sort of exercise serves a purpose.  First, it helps to keep technical skills sharp.  Many architects allow their technical/design skills to atrophy – the detail-oriented and often highly technical nature of this type of design is ideal for honing or refreshing an architect’s skills.  In addition, this sort of activity can often reveal new details or aspects of an architecture that escape notice during more traditional analysis.

All of that said, over optimization can be a very real problem if allowed to proceed beyond a reasonable point.  Other than draining resources from more productive endeavors, over optimization can actually result in damage to the integrity of the architecture.  Over specialization of any component of an architecture can result in processing issues within the larger architecture.  A useful rule of thumb is to ask a very basic question: what are we getting from this optimization?  Is the benefit commensurate with the cost/effort of the optimization?  Admittedly, these are subjective questions, but that’s where the experience of the architect comes into play.  The important thing is that, regardless of the personal benefits of this type of activity, the appropriate trade-offs of this activity are being appropriately examined and balanced.

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