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

Monday, July 14, 2008

Architecture Design - How deep should it go?

In my last posting I introduced the Onion model for architecture design. Often it is very difficult to determine when architecture design stops and fine-grained design begins. Thus, I am going to illustrate some of my thoughts.

Before you start the most important precondition for architecture design is the availability of

  • the business goal of the software architecture
  • a subset of all requirements (15-30%), but make sure the most important ones are already available
  • a coarse-grained test strategy.

There are different recommendations for architecture design. First of all, I consider it essential to differentiate between strategic design and tactical design:

  • Strategic design is about all those requirements that have a systemic impact on the whole software architecture. Basically, these are the inner layers of the onion. All architecture decisions that do not only reveal a local impact on a component together contribute to architecture design.
  • Tactical design is simply about the rest: all decisions that show only local affects. Interestingly, variability issues often denote tactical design issues, even in product lines. Things like exchangeability of an algorithm only imply, we need to open our strategic architecture to support variation of the particular family of algorithms (a.k.a. strategies).

This definition comes close to what Grady Booch once meant by "software architecture is about the important things".

Another consideration consists of reducing the number of abstractions. This is what I call the Pyramid model:

  • the top of the pyramid is the system itself,
  • the middle layer represents all subsystems,
  • the bottom layer comprises all components the subsystems consist of

For architecture design we should only follow the pyramid model. All abstractions underneath the bottom layer of the pyramid are part of fine-grained design. Note, that it might be subject to your own definition how the system, subsystems, or components of the pyramid model map to the concrete abstractions in your domain. This might look different between an embedded system and an Enterprise SOA system where subsystems might become services.

All architecture decisions should be completely rooted in requirements and risks. All extra add-ons increase complexity and thus decrease simplicity and expressiveness. 

Don't be caught by the trap that architecture is only about problem domain and not about solution domain although you always should strive for keeping your architecture as independent from specific technical issues as possible (always try to defer all technology decisions to a later phase). "Hard" requirements such as "cycle time must not exceed 1 msec" or "use of SQL Server 2003 is mandatory" will be treated as first class requirements. And those requirements may also have systemic impact, thus contributing to strategic design.

In the documentation of your architecture follow a newsletter style. This implies, each artifact (system, subsystem, component) should be explained using a newspaper-like article. Architecture design is just that and no more.

In addition to architecture design you should:

  • specify design and architecture guidelines for all crosscutting concerns. This is best done before architecture design for all important systemic requirements. For other concerns you might create guidelines in parallel to architecture design.
  • create technology prototypes for all important risks. For example, if you need to guarantee 2000 transactions per second, make sure your middleware of choice really supports this requirement.
  • refine the test strategy you should have established after requirements engineering.

These rules of thumb are intentionally somewhat vague. Again, I'd like to refer to Grady Booch in this context: "there is no cookbook for software architecture".

Fortunately, there are some good practices to share.


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