Mechanism versus Policy

Another principle that helps architectural coherence, along with keeping things small and well structured, is that of separating mechanism from policy. By putting the mechanism in the operating system and leaving the policy to user processes, the system itself can be left unmodified, even if there is a need to change policy. Even if the policy module has to be kept in the kernel, it should be isolated from the mechanism, if possible, so that changes in the policy module do not affect the mechanism module.

To make the split between policy and mechanism clearer, let us consider two real-world examples. As a first example, consider a large company that has a payroll department, which is in charge of paying the employees’ salaries. It has computers, software, blank checks, agreements with banks, and more mechanism for actually paying out the salaries. However, the policy—determining who gets paid how much—is completely separate and is decided by management. The payroll department just does what it is told to do.

As the second example, consider a restaurant. It has the mechanism for serving diners, including tables, plates, waiters, a kitchen full of equipment, agreements with credit card companies, and so on. The policy is set by the chef, namely, what is on the menu. If the chef decides that tofu is out and big steaks are in, this new policy can be handled by the existing mechanism.

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