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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Understanding software architecture

While creating software architecture is a  very creative activity which I really enjoy, analyzing existing software systems is much harder and happening frequently.

There are several reasons for this observation:

  • Often, the designed and the implemented architecture differ dramatically. In these cases, the documents are nothing than fairy tales.
  • In some cases, I am encountering a kind of documentation hell. The information surely can be found somewhere, but it is almost impossible to figure out what could be the right document. I am here to find not to search.
  • Another “highlight” are insufficient abstraction levels in the documentation. No one can read end even less persons can understand an architecture document that covers 1000 pages. Likewise, the other extreme isn’t helpful. For example, I once received a software architecture document consisting of one page filled with UML diagrams. 
  • What I really dislike are documents that only show the WHAT but not the WHY. However, I definitely need to know the rationale of all those decisions. All design pears that pop up from the void of the universe are worthless to all those mediocre reviewers who must understand them.

So how you could approach such an endeavor.

  • Firstly, get an idea about the domain, the development organization and the business, that is, the ecosystem, in which the software system lives.
  • Get an overview of the coarse grained architecture, from the user view and the developer view. I prefer strategic architecture design documents, guidelines, programming conventions, presentation slides, and even marketing material for this purpose.
  • Get a knowledge about the tools and technologies of the solution domains that have been used.
  • Interview some designers and developers in order to understand the implemented architecture (and the designed architecture) as well as its weaknesses and strengths. The more documents additionally capture the design essence the better. Both information sources will provide you with a good idea about the architecture.
  • Use architecture analysis tools to understand the internal quality of the systems (and also its pain points).
  • Try to change or implement yourself in the codebase of the system to stay close to the ground and thus to reality.
  • At the end, you should yourself be able to explain the architecture to other persons.

Basically, what you need to do to understand an existing software system is similar to conducting the first phases of an architecture review.

Don’t be shy and ask any questions that come to your mind. Often, these Q&A settings help architects figure out potential problems in their design, and help you understand the architecture. So, it can lead to a Win-Win situation.


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