The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Complexity as a weapon

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 11/16/98

For years I've lamented the growing perceived and actual complexity
of things.

The engine compartment and the dashboard of my 1998 Dodge
Caravan are a far cry from the ones in my 1917 American LaFrance
and in the late-1970s van I once owned. In spite of this, operating the
Caravan is actually easier than operating the LaFrance or the Ford.

The operation is simple in spite of the underlying complexity. That
does not mean the underlying complexity is not a worry. I used to be
able to repair the engine on the Ford, but did not even bother to get
the owner's manuals for the Caravan.

Sometimes there seems to be no reason for the complexity. One of
the most common and frustrating examples of this is setting the time
on a VCR. It seems vendors go to great lengths to ensure that VCRs
will blink 12:00 whenever they are powered up.

In the past, I've assigned blame for such complexity to interface
design engineers who have no human factors training. But there may
be more to the complexity than that.

Two weeks ago someone at Microsoft leaked an internal document
discussing strategies that the company could use to counteract the
push by some organizations and companies toward an open source
software (OSS) model of software development. An annotated
version of the memo has now been posted on the World Wide Web
under the somewhat pejorative name "The Halloween Document."
Most of the document discusses assertions that Microsoft could make
to blunt the appeal of the open source process used by many Internet
developers, including Netscape. But a small section of the document
refers to the danger that simple systems represent.

The memo says, "OSS projects have been able to gain a foothold in
many server applications because of the wide utility of highly
commoditized, simple protocols. By extending these protocols and
developing new protocols, we can deny OSS projects entry into the

This is scary, not because it is a Microsoft person saying this, but
because it could explain all too much of what we are now seeing in
the standards development world. Many of the standards proposals
are far more complex than problems would seem to require.

Once upon a time, simplicity was a design goal for IETF protocols,
best expressed in RFC 1958, "Architectural Principles of the
Internet." It says, "Keep it simple. When in doubt during design,
choose the simplest solution."

We now seem to have purposeful complexity, designed to make it
difficult for small organizations and individuals to implement
protocols. This is not good.

David Isenberg, the author of The Stupid Network, the other day
asked me, "How many IETF working groups are trying to make the
'Net simpler?" The only working group I could point to was the one
for Differentiated Services. It's time to get simplicity back as a
design goal.

Disclaimer: Harvard's organization is anything but simple, so the
above must be my own thoughts.