The second system effect

The second system effect is the observation by Fred Brookes that states that following the success of a system, the architect is doomed to have a failure in his next one, where they will put in all the features and what not that were left out in the first one. Because now they know how to do it.

I was reminded of this directly while reading Looking Back at Postgres, where Joseph M. Hellerstein makes exactly that observation:

The highest-order lesson I draw comes from the fact that that Postgres defied Fred Brooks’ “Second System Effect”. Brooks argued that designers often follow up on a successful first system with a second system that fails due to being overburdened with features and ideas. Postgres was Stonebraker’s second system, and it was certainly chock full of features and ideas. Yet the system succeeded in prototyping many of the ideas, while delivering a software infrastructure that carried a number of the ideas to a successful conclusion.

Mike Stonebraker‘s first system was Ingres. He worked on both Ingres and Postgres while at Berkeley. He later moved to MIT to continue doing interesting database related stuff. Here is what Hellerstein writes at the end of the paper:

Another lesson is that a broad focus—“one size fits many”—can be a winning approach for both research and practice. To coin some names, “MIT Stonebraker” made a lot of noise in the database world in the early 2000s that “one size doesn’t fit all.” Under this banner he launched a flotilla of influential projects and startups, but none took on the scope of Postgres. It seems that “Berkeley Stonebraker” defies the later wisdom of “MIT Stonebraker,” and I have no issue with that. Of course there’s wisdom in the “one size doesn’t fit all” motto (it’s always possible to find modest markets for custom designs!), but the success of “Berkeley Stonebraker’s” signature system—well beyond its original intents—demonstrates that a broad majority of database problems can be solved well with a good general-purpose architecture. Moreover, the design of that architecture is a technical challenge and accomplishment in its own right. In the end—as in most science and engineering debates— there isn’t only one good way to do things. Both Stonebrakers have lessons to teach us. But at base, I’m still a fan of the broader agenda that “Berkeley Stonebraker” embraced.

And then it hit me: Postgres defies Brookes’s law, because it is not a second system. The second system is “MIT Stonebraker”.

And now I hope the database gods show mercy on me. At least I am a fan of “Berkeley Stonebraker” too.

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