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

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Requirements traceability – The Holy Grail

It often occurs that I am supposed to review an architecture document – that’s one important part of my job. After having read the document, I always try to summarize what I just read. And in many cases, this proves to be rather difficult. One of the reasons is that the subsequent parts of the document seem to be only loosely connected such as graphical models popping up without textual explanation or architectural & technical decisions appearing without any hint what the design rationale could be. However, a reader who is dependent on rumors, insider knowledge, and vague assumptions will see the hodgepodge of syntax but never fully understand the semantics behind this syntax. If the reader is a tester, requirements engineer, fellow architect, or developer such situations need to be considered harmful. Yes I can see the answer is 42, but was the question respectively problem that lead to this result?

The big secret is requirements traceability. Each and every architectural decision must be strongly derived from forces (i.e., requirements and risks). This also helps to keep the architecture simple, expressive and balanced, because this way we can get rid of all these design pearls smart developers and architects typically invent.

From the forces elicitated at the beginning of a project architects derive architecturally relevant requirements. This includes requirements clarification and priorization. Remember: Garbage-in-Garbage-out. If the initial assumptions are wrong, the resulting implementation can under no circumstances meet the expectations.  Of course, we do not expect requirements to be fully available at project startup. We have become extraordinary agile wizards, anyway, and can also handle requirements dropping in. Needless to say, we can not gurantee the same perfect software & system architecture we would have come up with if all these requirements had been fully available from day 1.

As we already got those long-term experience, we are using the onion model.

  • For all use cases (part of user requirements) we are deriving a black box view of our system. From this descriptions we also obtain actors and required/provided interfaces. As we see, this step is driven by requirements.
  • The domain model is another force. It is a means to understand typical entities in the underlying domain as well as their relationships and interactions. They will turn the black-box view into a white box view. Now you can start to map the use cases to sequence diagrams which is also requirements driven. All of a sudden the domain-specific subsystems, components, interactions, interfaces are disclosed refining our external model. Eric Evans is an excellent source how to deal with such domain-driven design.
  • So far we have focused on the domain entities. It is time to add infrastructural requirements such as communication, persistence and concurrency infrastructures as well as operational requirements such as performance, safety, availability. This we do by starting with the highest priorities- that’s why priorization is so essential – and ending with the lowest priorities. Each architecture decision is strongly rooted in requirements.
  • The same is done with the mandatory developmental requirements like modifiability, maintainability and then with the optional developmental requirements.

All these decisions are depicted in diagrams, but also explained in the textual descriptions.

What are the benefits of such an approach:

  • We get requirements traceability: Firstly, we know which requirements lead to which architectural decisions, thus also obtaining a mechanism to check whether we have already covered all the necessary requirements in our design. Secondly, we know which effects an architectural change such as a refactoring will have on requirements, thus preventing or at least lowering the risk of accidental complexity. Thirdly, all decisions are made explicit. Implicit parts lurk like invisble ghosts deep in the guts of the architecture hurting us when we are least prepared.
  • We are driven by priorities. If we miss our milestones, we skip the less important requirements instead of the really important things.
  • Readers of our documents will not only understand the “what” but also the “why” making it much easier to get their buy-in. This is what we call design rationale.
  • If we additionally come up with leading guidelines and principles for cross-cutting concerns in the beginning we will increase internal qualities such as symmetry, orthogonality, simplicity.

The journey is the reward in software architecture. Don’t tell readers about the target to aim for, but also about the way how you get there. On each junction, explain why you prefer one over the other road.

Writing of such documents can be such a fun. And reading them even more. For example, read Dave Cutler’s book about the creation of Windows NT.

A architecture document shall contain guidelines and design rationale, but no labyrinths.


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