Algorithms are now commodities

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

When I first started writing software, developers had to implement most of the algorithms they used; yes, hardware vendors provided libraries, but the culture was one of self-reliance (except for maths functions, which were technical and complicated).

Developers read Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, it was the reliable source for step-by-step algorithms. I vividly remember seeing a library copy of one volume, where somebody had carefully hand-written, in very tiny letters, an update to one algorithm, and glued it to the page over the previous text.

Algorithms were important because computers were not yet fast enough to solve common problems at an acceptable rate; developers knew the time taken to execute common instructions and instruction timings were a topic of social chit-chat amongst developers (along with the number of registers available on a given cpu). Memory capacity was often measured in kilobytes, every byte counted.

This was the age of the algorithm.

Open source commoditized algorithms, and computers got a lot faster with memory measured in megabytes and then gigabytes.

When it comes to algorithm implementation, developers are now spoilt for choice; why waste time implementing the ‘low’ level stuff when there were plenty of other problems waiting to be implemented.

Algorithms are now like the bolts in a bridge: very important, but nobody talks about them. Today developers talk about story points, features, business logic, etc. Given a well-defined problem, many are now likely to search for an existing package, rather than write code from scratch (I certainly work this way).

New algorithms are still being invented, and researchers continue to look for improvements to existing algorithms. This is a niche activity.

There are companies where algorithms are not commodities. Google operates on a scale where what appears to others as small improvements, can save the company millions (purely because a small percentage of a huge amount can be a lot). Some company’s core competency may include an algorithmic component (whose non-commodity nature gives the company its edge over the competition), with the non-core competency treating algorithms as a commodity.

Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming played an important role in making viable algorithms generally available; while the volumes are frequently cited, I suspect they are rarely read (I have not taken any of my three volumes off the shelf, to read, for years).

A few years ago, I suddenly realised that I was working on a book about software engineering that not only did not contain an algorithms chapter, and the 103 uses of the word algorithm all refer to it as a concept.

Today, we are in the age of the ecosystem.

Algorithms have not yet completed their journey to obscurity, which has to wait until people can tell computers what they want and not be concerned about the implementation details (or genetic algorithm programming gets a lot better).