Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What the hell is Software Architecture

Since the Nineties many definitions of software architecture have been proposed, most of them being very vague. Eventually, the common denominator of these definitions suggests that software architecture denotes a set of cooperating components. In my opinion, this view is rather simplistic. Most entities in the universe follow the same definition which makes the definition useless from an engineering perspective.

Instead of providing yet another definition of software architecture we should think about its properties.

(i) Software Architecture is both a process and a thing: the process of architecting comprises a sequence of strategic decisions, while the thing is the result of this process. The goal of software architecture is to create the backbone for implementing the specification. Note, that we do not assume a specific software development paradigm here such as Lean or Agile Development.

Remark 1: Strategic decisions refer to requirements and additional forces that affect the whole architecture and result in design artifacts that are tightly coupled with the rest of the architecture which makes them difficult and expensive to change. Examples include mandatory functional properties of the system, operational qualities such as performance or security, infrastructures for modifiability such as a Plug-in Architecture, constraints caused by the system context such as hardware prerequisites.

Remark 2: All architecture design decisions must be driven by the specification and the business goals. Put briefly: No decision without a (good) reason.

(ii) Architecture design spans the whole lifecycle of a system not just its creation. It starts with initial planning and requirements engineering and ends when the system(s) built upon this architecture reach their end. Between these various points in time it covers creation, maintenance and evolution.

(iii) In a naive sense every software-intensive system reveals a software architecture, even if it has been created in a complete unsystematic or unintentional way, i.e., using ad-hoc decisions. What we need is systematic architecture design driven by well defined and prioritized architecturally-relevant requirements as well as risks. Sometimes, some or even all parts of an existing system with an unknown or partially known software architecture need to be (re-)used. In this case software archeology methods are required to help extract the hidden software architecture and make it explicit.

(iv) There are two kinds of architecture quality, external quality and internal quality. While the former one defines the externally visible behavior as demanded by quality attributes, the latter defines the habitability of architectural artifacts (such as simplicity or expressiveness) by developers, testers, etc.

Remark: a consequence of habitability is the limitation of software architecture design to a small number of hierarchical entities such as system, subsystem, components. This entities should follow the Single-Responsibility Principle. Accordingly, the responsibility of fine design and implementation is to refine and extend these abstractions to provide executable artifacts.

(v) For architecture as a process a consistent set of guidelines and tools shall guide the architecture design in order to ensure high quality and business alignment. Without such guidelines the architecture will be overloaded with multiple styles, idioms, patterns, concepts, technologies, paradigms, conventions, all of which reduces internal quality.

Remark: One major challenge is taming inherent complexity while avoiding accidental complexity. The latter one can be caused by using the wrong solutions, applying the right solutions incorrectly.

(vi) Software architecture as a thing is a means for communicating design decisions to other stakeholders. Thus, all decisions must be made explicit in a comprehensive way. The various constituents of the architecture shall be provided to readers in adequate ways depending on their roles and goals and their responsibilities and expectations. For this purpose, software architecture documentation must offer a consistent and complete set of architectural views.

Remark 1: Since software architecture is a thing and a process, its documentation includes the sequence of design decisions and their rationale which relates architecture views and process and which enables requirements and decision traceability.

Remark 2: Software architecture creates a base for design & implementation. It defines an initial (walking) skeleton for deriving the code base. This is why habitability is of foremost importance.

(vii) A software architecture is not an island but embedded into a context. Thus, it is important to strictly separate the architecture from its environment, while at the same time considering and defining the interfaces and interactions between both. Otherwise, it won't be possible to come up with an appropriate software architecture. A context view and use case views are examples that help address these aspects.

(viii) Software architecture must cover both problem domain and solution domain. For this reason, a Multi-Tier design is not an architecture. To avoid monolithic designs both domains should be hierarchically structured into subdomains and their relationsships. The organization of software architecture activities shall be driven by the aforementioned subdomains, not by the line organization. With other words, mind Conways law!

(ix) Software architecture is not necessarily constrained to a single system. It might also define the base for a set of systems within a specific problem domain. In such reuse contexts a Commonality/Variability analysis is required to define a common base architecture which will be modified for a particular implementation context before fine design and implementation start.
Examples: product lines, ecosystems, platforms/infrastructures, libraries.

Remark: This is what reference architecture and product-line architectures are about.

(x) Architecture design must follow a test-driven approach and communicated in such a way that the architecture can be tested. Testing provides relevant information to the architects such as revealing quality issues or design flaws. It includes quantitative and qualitative architecture reviews.

I can't resist. Let me conclude this posting with yet another definition of software architecture:

Software Architecture
is a process, i.e., a sequence of intentional strategic design decisions which map specification and business goals to architecture design.
is a thing, i.e., a set of views that address different stakeholders and are the results of the architecture process.

The main challenge for software architects is: there are different ways to design a good software architecture, but there are infinite ways to create a bad one.

Addendum July, 17th

Some may wonder why software architecture should be considered a process as well.

It is insufficient to obtain some architecture views, i.e. the What. In addition we might need information how the architecture has been created and why it is as it is, i.e. the How and the Why. This is not essential for some stakeholders such as users, but it provides relevant information to developers, customer service, and testers.

One notable example is the detection of design flaws. When we encounter a flaw in our system, we'd like to know when the design flaw has entered the "crime scene" and what other decisions depend on this flawed decision. This gives us traceability and the possibility to rollback in a systematic way. Likewise, process knowledge is important for architecture reviews.