Vivek Haldar

When to do a rewrite

Spolsky’s famous screed against rewriting from scratch is now canonical. All the same, there are valid reasons to do a rewrite:

  • Your understanding of the domain, or the domain itself, has changed drastically in the process of building the first version.
  • The scale for which you built the initial system has grown by more than an order of magnitude. The right design for millions of users is very different than that for thousands.
  • Newer languages and runtimes make the product much better along some dimension: deliver better performance, be more maintainable etc.
  • You have accumulated so much technical debt that starting from scratch is easier than untangling the mess you have. This is often the most misleading reason, because engineers always prefer a system they wrote from scratch to inheriting one which works just fine. But even so, it does happen.

None of the above takes away from what Spolsky wrote. A rewrite is still a risky endeavor, even if one or more of the above conditions hold true, and should always be approached with caution and humility.

His argument was much stronger in the era of software that was shrink-wrapped to PCs, because the slow rate of change of the surrounding environment made many of the above reasons inapplicable.

But server-side software that powers online services is always in a constant state of flux. There is rarely any concept of “done”. The product might look more or less the same from the outside, while the backend code constantly churns to deal with growing scale, new stacks, and other services it depends on.