If you love reading, you have probably come across books that are difficult to follow. Instead of capturing you with an exciting story, such books cause your mind to wander and you need to expend additional effort to grasp the author’s message.
In addition to literature, this situation also occurs in programming. It is especially relevant for large projects where many developers are involved. When specialists are replaced, the new developers need to understand the code written by their predecessors. If it is rather confusing, they often call it spaghetti code.
In this article, we’ll identify the meaning of spaghetti code, explain the reasons for its appearance, and how to fix it.
Pasta-theory antipatterns: why do they happen?
First of all, let’s make it clear that not every bad code is spaghetti code, and the pasta-related name didn’t appear just randomly. To define spaghetti code, think of messy, poorly structured code. Imagine that you are trying to pick up one spaghetti piece from the plate. Most likely, it will eventually break, and the spaghetti ball will remain tangled.
The same thing happens with the code. When it is poorly or zero structured, it’s challenging to determine which piece of code drives a particular software part. Moreover, making changes may lead to global errors and crash the program altogether. Remember the domino effect. If you push one figure, the whole system collapses.
But why does pasta coding take place, and what leads to so-called spaghetti programming? We’ll list the main reasons below.
Vague project requirements. Unclear project requirements and a blurry understanding of the final result lead to poorly developed software architecture. As a result, developers write complicated, hard-to-read code and create low-quality products.
No programming project plan. Software development requires detailed planning. Before starting work, you need to define development stages and pick up technologies in use. The plan will derive from the nature of your project. For example, the plan for a weather forecast website development may look like this:
- Develop POC (proof of concept): integrate with a weather API (application programming interface) provider and display the weather forecast for a specific location
- Implement MVP (minimum viable product): allow a user to check the weather forecast for a selected location for three days
- Post MVP
- Check if chosen cloud technologies allow easy scalability and provide strong security. Ensure the growing number of users will not cause app downtime or result in huge charges from the cloud provider.
- Add user registration/authentication to remember user location choice and adjust other settings.
- Allow users to check the forecast for different time intervals.
- Implement a mobile app or make the website responsive.
No timely infrastructure & dependencies updates. Programming languages and development technologies are changing over time. Therefore, it is essential to consider these factors and optimize existing systems to keep them well-structured and updated according to the new requirements and trends.
Long-lasting project. While the project duration is not a direct reason for spaghetti architecture, the fact that different people work on it is. To avoid misunderstanding, it is important to write self-documented code, maintain a consistent style, and leave comments. Senior developers may also conduct code reviews of less experienced colleagues to immediately eliminate errors and shorten extended code expressions.
Lack of experience. Spaghetti code often occurs when novice specialists are working on a product. They may use too complicated code constructions or outdated techniques like, for example, the “break” operator, which leads to heavy and hard-to-follow code.
Poor development process. If an error occurs in the program, the developers try to fix it promptly under the pressure of tight deadlines. Unfortunately, this often happens without creating any plan or building logical connections, which may result in duplicated code and conflicts in the data processing. So, if any hotfixes were made, the code structure should allow developers to get back to the issue and replace timely repair with proper long-lasting solutions.
Spaghetti code, lasagna code, ravioli code, and pizza code: what’s the difference?
There are many dishes in the poor quality code menu, and you should be aware of them so that issues can be fixed in a timely manner and buggy software can be avoided. Let’s review these ‘dishes’ in more detail.
As mentioned earlier, spaghetti code in a product is defined as unstructured, complicated code that is difficult to read and understand. It usually appears in large projects where many developers are involved, or in projects where junior programmers work. Spaghetti code may become a severe obstacle to the smooth development of a project. Interpreting the code can take a vast amount of time and resources. Moreover, it creates software vulnerabilities that provide a fertile environment for hacker attacks.
You can see a spaghetti code example below:
Ironically, lasagna code arose in an attempt to avoid spaghetti code. Unfortunately, this layered code creates more problems than spaghetti code. It was believed that a layered structure would help eliminate the mess typical for spaghetti. However, the excessive number of abstract layers, and complex relations between them, complicate the code, making it impossible to edit one layer without affecting others.
To avoid lasagna code, developers should apply abstractions wisely, not overdoing their use. An example of overuse would be abstracting away an element which is used by just one other element which is, in turn, used by another element.
Ravioli code resulted from the goal to create well-structured classes that are easy to read and edit. Unfortunately, while the idea is good in itself, its misinterpretation led to the opposite effect. As a result, developers faced code which is too granular, consisting of many independent components. To understand how to fix an error at the junction of these components, they need to break through the inter-component interfaces and determine the effect of making changes.
Ravioli code can be avoided by reducing the abstraction. Having too many autonomous components can dramatically increase the call stack of the codebase by making the continued maintainability rather challenging. Therefore, an experienced developer must find a balance between code structuring and uniformity.
Pizza code is another antipattern, usually meaning flat architecture with insufficient structuring. In the pizza code, all the components work at the same level. As a rule, they are not interrelated, although this does not mean changes in one component will not result in changes in another.
When external developers read the pizza code, the main problem is figuring out the responsibilities of each class. The best solution here is to add structuring. Imagine cutting your pizza into pieces to make it easier to eat. Do the same with your code.
How to fix the spaghetti code?
Spaghetti code is the opposite of clean, readable code. Everyone understands this, and most likely, everyone wants to create beautiful code, but not everyone succeeds. The reasons are different — from lack of knowledge to a poor work ethic.
Anyhow, if you come across spaghetti code, you need to fix the predecessor’s mistakes and make further software maintenance achievable. Of course, the simplest way is to write everything from scratch, but it does not always work this way. At Erbis, we’ve dealt with legacy projects, and here is what we suggest doing to clean up the spaghetti code:
- Run exploratory unit testing. This testing will help you understand the given system and discover the usability of specific pieces of source code.
- Establish a unit testing culture. This will allow you to immediately check the correctness of individual modules of the source code and fix errors in time.
- Implement a code review practice. It is much easier to discover bad code symptoms when someone else is looking at your code.
- Create a consistent coding style. For example, if your predecessor uses tabs along with spaces, pick one approach and stick to your choice.
- Regularly review architecture. Make sure to check and update architecture according to discovered requirements on an ongoing basis.
- Structure your code. Divide functionality into modules. It will make it easier to solve problems in code and allow the whole team to work on the same codebase.
- Write self-documented code. Give classes, methods, and properties meaningful names, and comment on the pieces of code that are not clear enough.
- Commit regularly. This is necessary to roll back changes if glitches are found in the software operation.
The spaghetti code in outsourcing: how to build maintainable software
Spaghetti code in outsourcing is becoming more common, probably due to the snowballing number of outsourcing firms, some of which are not truly professional. To avoid low-quality code and weak, vulnerable software, you must be careful when choosing a provider.
Reputation, portfolio, and client feedback will help you navigate at the beginning of your search. If a company seems reputable after the initial survey, you can book a meeting with their manager. While talking, ask about cooperation models, contract terms, and communication methods. You can even order a discovery phase and receive a detailed development plan for your project. After studying the document, you can make a final decision on the possibility of further cooperation.