WHAT IS SOFTWARE ARCHITECTURE - Software Architecture for Developers: Technical leadership by coding, coaching, collaboration, architecture sketching and just enough up front design (2014)

Software Architecture for Developers: Technical leadership by coding, coaching, collaboration, architecture sketching and just enough up front design (2014)


In this part of the book we’ll look at what software architecture is about, the difference between architecture and design, what it means for an architecture to be agile and why thinking about software architecture is important.

1 What is architecture?

The word “architecture” means many different things to many different people and there are many different definitions floating around the Internet. I’ve asked hundreds of people over the past few years what “architecture” means to them and a summary of their answers is as follows. In no particular order…

· Modules, connections, dependencies and interfaces

· The big picture

· The things that are expensive to change

· The things that are difficult to change

· Design with the bigger picture in mind

· Interfaces rather than implementation

· Aesthetics (e.g. as an art form, clean code)

· A conceptual model

· Satisfying non-functional requirements/quality attributes

· Everything has an “architecture”

· Ability to communicate (abstractions, language, vocabulary)

· A plan

· A degree of rigidity and solidity

· A blueprint

· Systems, subsystems, interactions and interfaces

· Governance

· The outcome of strategic decisions

· Necessary constraints

· Structure (components and interactions)

· Technical direction

· Strategy and vision

· Building blocks

· The process to achieve a goal

· Standards and guidelines

· The system as a whole

· Tools and methods

· A path from requirements to the end-product

· Guiding principles

· Technical leadership

· The relationship between the elements that make up the product

· Awareness of environmental constraints and restrictions

· Foundations

· An abstract view

· The decomposition of the problem into smaller implementable elements

· The skeleton/backbone of the product

No wonder it’s hard to find a single definition! Thankfully there are two common themes here … architecture as a noun and architecture as a verb, with both being applicable regardless of whether we’re talking about constructing a physical building or a software system.

As a noun

As a noun then, architecture can be summarised as being about structure. It’s about the decomposition of a product into a collection of components/modules and interactions. This needs to take into account the whole of the product, including the foundations and infrastructure services that deal with cross-cutting concerns such as power/water/air conditioning (for a building) or security/configuration/error handling (for a piece of software).

As a verb

As a verb, architecture (i.e. the process, architecting) is about understanding what you need to build, creating a vision for building it and making the appropriate design decisions. All of this needs to be based upon requirements because requirements drive architecture. Crucially, it’s also about communicating that vision and introducing technical leadership so that everybody involved with the construction of the product understands the vision and is able to contribute in a positive way to its success.

2 Types of architecture

There are many different types of architecture and architects within the IT industry alone. Here, in no particular order, is a list of those that people most commonly identify when asked…

· Infrastructure

· Security

· Technical

· Solution

· Network

· Data

· Hardware

· Enterprise

· Application

· System

· Integration

· IT

· Database

· Information

· Process

· Business

· Software

The unfortunate thing about this list is that some of the terms are easier to define than others, particularly those that refer to or depend upon each other for their definition. For example, what does “solution architecture” actually mean? For some organisations “solution architect” is simply a synonym for “software architect” whereas others have a specific role that focusses on designing an overall “solution” to a problem, but stopping before the level at which implementation details are discussed. Similarly, “technical architecture” is vague enough to refer to software, hardware or a combination of the two.

Interestingly, “software architecture” typically appears near the bottom of the list when I ask people to list the types of IT architecture they’ve come across. Perhaps this reflects the confusion that surrounds the term.

What do they all have in common?

What do all of these terms have in common then? Well, aside from suffixing each of the terms with “architecture” or “architect”, all of these types of architecture have structure and vision in common.

Take “infrastructure architecture” as an example and imagine that you need to create a network between two offices at different ends of the country. One option is to find the largest reel of network cable that you can and start heading from one office to the other in a straight line. Assuming that you had enough cable, this could potentially work, but in reality there are a number of environmental constraints and non-functional characteristics that you need to consider in order to actually deliver something that satisfies the original goal. This is where the process of architecting and having a vision to achieve the goal is important.

One single long piece of cable is an approach, but it’s not a very good one because of real-world constraints. For this reason, networks are typically much more complex and require a collection of components collaborating together in order to satisfy the goal. From an infrastructure perspective then, we can talk about structure in terms of the common components that you’d expect to see within this domain; things like routers, firewalls, packet shapers, switches, etc.

Regardless of whether you’re building a software system, a network or a database; a successful solution requires you to understand the problem and create a vision that can be communicated to everybody involved with the construction of the end-product. Architecture, regardless of the domain, is about structure and vision.

3 What is software architecture?

At first glance, “software architecture” seems like an easy thing to define. It’s about the architecture of a piece of software, right? Well, yes, but it’s about more than just software.

Application architecture

Application architecture is what we as software developers are probably most familiar with, especially if you think of an “application” as typically being written in a single technology (e.g. a Java web application, a desktop application on Windows, etc). It puts the application in focus and normally includes things such as decomposing the application into its constituent classes and components, making sure design patterns are used in the right way, building or using frameworks, etc. In essence, application architecture is inherently about the lower-level aspects of software design and is usually only concerned with a single technology stack (e.g. Java, Microsoft .NET, etc).

The building blocks are predominantly software based and include things like programming languages and constructs, libraries, frameworks, APIs, etc. It’s described in terms of classes, components, modules, functions, design patterns, etc. Application architecture is predominantly about software and the organisation of the code.

System architecture

I like to think of system architecture as one step up in scale from application architecture. If you look at most software systems, they’re actually composed of multiple applications across a number of different tiers and technologies. As an example, you might have a software system comprised of a .NET Silverlight client accessing web services on a Java EE middle-tier, which itself consumes data from an Oracle database. Each of these will have their own application architecture.

For the overall software system to function, thought needs to be put into bringing all of those separate applications together. In other words, you also have the overall structure of the end-to-end software system at a high-level. Additionally, most software systems don’t live in isolation, so system architecture also includes the concerns around interoperability and integration with other systems within the environment.

The building blocks are a mix of software and hardware, including things like programming languages and software frameworks through to servers and infrastructure. Compared to application architecture, system architecture is described in terms of higher levels of abstraction; from components and services through to sub-systems. Most definitions of system architecture include references to software and hardware. After all, you can’t have a successful software system without hardware, even if that hardware is virtualised somewhere out there on the cloud.

Software architecture

Unlike application and system architecture, which are relatively well understood, the term “software architecture” has many different meanings to many different people. Rather than getting tied up in the complexities and nuances of the many definitions of software architecture, I like to keep the definition as simple as possible. For me, software architecture is simply the combination of application and system architecture.

In other words, it’s anything and everything related to the significant elements of a software system; from the structure and foundations of the code through to the successful deployment of that code into a live environment. When we’re thinking about software development as software developers, most of our focus is placed on the code. Here, we’re thinking about things like object oriented principles, classes, interfaces, inversion of control, refactoring, automated unit testing, clean code and the countless other technical practices that help us build better software. If your team consists of people who are only thinking about this, then who is thinking about the other stuff?

· Cross-cutting concerns such as logging and exception handling.

· Security; including authentication, authorisation and confidentiality of sensitive data.

· Performance, scalability, availability and other quality attributes.

· Audit and other regulatory requirements.

· Real-world constraints of the environment.

· Interoperability/integration with other software systems.

· Operational, support and maintenance requirements.

· Consistency of structure and approach to solving problems/implementing features across the codebase.

· Evaluating that the foundations you’re building will allow you to deliver what you set out to deliver.

Sometimes you need to step back, away from the code and away from your development tools. This doesn’t mean that the lower-level detail isn’t important because working software is ultimately about delivering working code. No, the detail is equally as important, but the big picture is about having a holistic view across your software to ensure that your code is working toward your overall vision rather than against it.

Enterprise architecture - strategy rather than code

Enterprise architecture generally refers to the sort of work that happens centrally and across an organisation. It looks at how to organise and utilise people, process and technology to make an organisation work effectively and efficiently. In other words, it’s about how an enterprise is broken up into groups/departments, how business processes are layered on top and how technology underpins everything. This is in very stark contrast to software architecture because it doesn’t necessarily look at technology in any detail. Instead, enterprise architecture might look at how best to use technology across the organisation without actually getting into detail about how that technology works.

While some developers and software architects do see enterprise architecture as the next logical step up the career ladder, most probably don’t. The mindset required to undertake enterprise architecture is very different to software architecture, taking a very different view of technology and its application across an organisation. Enterprise architecture requires a higher level of abstraction. It’s about breadth rather than depth and strategy rather than code.

4 What is agile software architecture?

In my experience, people tend to use the word “agile” to refer to a couple of things. The first is when talking about agile approaches to software development; moving fast, embracing change, releasing often, getting feedback and so on. The second use of the word relates to the agile mindset and how people work together in agile environments. This is usually about team dynamics, systems thinking, psychology and other things you might associate with creating high performing teams.

Leaving the latter “fluffy stuff” aside, for me, labelling a software architecture as being “agile” means that it can react to change within its environment, adapting to the ever changing requirements that people throw at it. This isn’t necessarily the same as the software architecture that an agile team will create. Delivering software in an agile way doesn’t guarantee that the resulting software architecture will be agile. In fact, in my experience, the opposite typically happens because teams are more focussed on delivering functionality rather than looking after their architecture.

Understanding “agility”

To understand how much agility you need from your software architecture, it’s worth looking at what agility means. John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the US Air Force, came up with a concept that he called the OODA loop - Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In essence, this loop forms the basis for the decision making process. Imagine that you are a fighter pilot in a dogfight with an adversary. In order to outwit your opponent in this situation, you need to observe what’s happening, orient yourself (e.g. do some analysis), decide what to do and then act. In the heat of the battle, this loop needs to be executed as fast as possible to avoid being shot down by your opponent. Boyd then says that you can confuse and disorient your opponent if you can get inside their OODA loop, by which he means execute it faster than they can. If you’re more agile than your opponent, you’re the one that will come out on top.

In a paper titled “What Lessons Can the Agile Community Learn from A Maverick Fighter Pilot?”, Steve Adolph, from the University of British Columbia, takes Boyd’s concept and applies it to software development. The conclusion drawn is that agility is relative and time-based. If your software team can’t deliver software and keep pace with changes in the environment, your team is not agile. If you’re working in a large, slow moving organisation that rarely changes, you can probably take months to deliver software and still be considered “agile” by the organisation. In a lean startup, that’s likely to not be the case.

A good architecture enables agility

The driver for having this discussion is that a good software architecture enables agility. Although Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is seen as a dirty term within some organisations due to over-complex, bloated and bodged implementations, there’s a growing trend of software systems being made up of tiny micro-services, where each service only does one thing but does that thing very well. A micro-service may typically be less than one hundred lines of code. If change is needed, services can be rewritten from scratch, potentially in a different programming language. This style of architecture provides agility in a number of ways. Small, loosely coupled components/services can be built, modified and tested in isolation, or even ripped out and replaced depending on how requirements change. This style of architecture also lends itself well to a very flexible and adaptable deployment model, since new components/services can be added and scaled if needed.

However, nothing in life is ever free. Building a software system like this takes time, effort and discipline. Many people don’t need this level of adaptability and agility either, which is why you see so many teams building software systems that are much more monolithic in nature, where everything is bundled together and deployed as a single unit. Although simpler to build, this style of architecture usually takes more effort to adapt in the face of changing requirements because functionality is often interwoven across the codebase.

Different software architectures provide differing levels of agility

Different software architectures provide differing levels of agility

In my view, both architectural styles have their advantages and disadvantages, with the decision to build a monolithic system vs one composed of micro-systems coming back to the trade-offs that you are willing to make. As with all things in the IT industry, there’s a middle ground between these extremes. With pragmatism in mind, you can always opt to build a software system that consists of a number of small well-defined components yet is still deployed as a single unit. This potentially allows you to migrate to a micro-service architecture more easily at a later date.

How much agility to do you need?

Understanding the speed at which your organisation or business changes is important because it can help you decide upon the style of architecture to adopt; whether that’s a monolithic architecture, a micro-services architecture or something in between. You need to understand the trade-offs and make your choices accordingly. You don’t get agility for free.

5 Architecture vs design

If architecture is about structure and vision, then what’s design about? If you’re creating a solution to solve a problem, isn’t this just design? And if this is the case, what’s the difference between design and architecture?

Making a distinction

Grady Booch has a well cited definition of the difference between architecture and design that really helps to answer this question. In On Design, he says that

As a noun, design is the named (although sometimes unnameable) structure or behavior of an system whose presence resolves or contributes to the resolution of a force or forces on that system. A design thus represents one point in a potential decision space.

If you think about any problem that you’ve needed to solve, there are probably a hundred and one ways in which you could have solved it. Take your current software project for example. There are probably a number of different technologies, deployment platforms and design approaches that are also viable options for achieving the same goal. In designing your software system though, your team chose just one of the many points in the potential decision space.

Grady then goes on to say that…

All architecture is design but not all design is architecture.

This makes sense because creating a solution is essentially a design exercise. However, for some reason, there’s a distinction being made about not all design being “architecture”, which he clarifies with the following statement.

Architecture represents the significant design decisions that shape a system, where significance is measured by cost of change.

Essentially, he’s saying that the significant decisions are “architecture” and that everything else is “design”. In the real world, the distinction between architecture and design isn’t as clear-cut, but this definition does provide us with a basis to think about what might be significant (i.e. “architectural”) in our own software systems. For example, this could include:

· The shape of the system (e.g. client-server, web-based, native mobile client, distributed, asynchronous, etc)

· The structure of the software system (e.g. components, layers, interactions, etc)

· The choice of technologies (i.e. programming language, deployment platform, etc)

· The choice of frameworks (e.g. web MVC framework, persistence/ORM framework, etc)

· The choice of design approach/patterns (e.g. the approach to performance, scalability, availability, etc)

The architectural decisions are those that you can’t reverse without some degree of effort. Or, put simply, they’re the things that you’d find hard to refactor an afternoon.

Understanding significance

It’s often worth taking a step back and considering what’s significant with your own software system. For example, many teams use a relational database, the choice of which might be deemed as significant. In order to reduce the amount of rework required in the event of a change in database technology, many teams use an object-relational mapping (ORM) framework such as Hibernate or Entity Framework. Introducing this additional ORM layer allows the database access to be decoupled from other parts of the code and, in theory, the database can be switched out independently without a large amount of effort.

This decision to introduce additional layers is a classic technique for decoupling distinct parts of a software system; promoting looser coupling, higher cohesion and a better separation of concerns. Additionally, with the ORM in place, the choice of database can probably be switched in an afternoon, so from this perspective it may no longer be deemed as architecturally significant.

However, while the database may no longer be considered a significant decision, the choice to decouple through the introduction of an additional layer should be. If you’re wondering why, have a think about how long it would take you to swap out your current ORM or web MVC framework and replace it with another. Of course, you could add another layer over the top of your chosen ORM to further isolate your business logic and provide the ability to easily swap out your ORM but, again, you’ve made another significant decision. You’ve introduced additional layering, complexity and cost.

Although you can’t necessarily make “significant decisions” disappear entirely, you can use a number of different tactics such as architectural layering to change what those significant decisions are. Part of the process of architecting a software system is about understanding what is significant and why.

6 Is software architecture important?

Software architecture then, is it important? The agile and software craftsmanship movements are helping to push up the quality of the software systems that we build, which is excellent. Together they are helping us to write better software that better meets the needs of the business while carefully managing time and budgetary constraints. But there’s still more we can do because even a small amount of software architecture can help prevent many of the problems that projects face. Successful software projects aren’t just about good code and sometimes you need to step away from the code for a few moments to see the bigger picture.

A lack of software architecture causes problems

Since software architecture is about structure and vision, you could say that it exists anyway. And I agree, it does. Having said that, it’s easy to see how not thinking about software architecture (and the “bigger picture”) can lead to a number of common problems that software teams face on a regular basis. Ask yourself the following questions:

· Does your software system have a well defined structure?

· Is everybody on the team implementing features in a consistent way?

· Is there a consistent level of quality across the codebase?

· Is there a shared vision for how the software will be built across the team?

· Does everybody on the team have the necessary amount of technical guidance?

· Is there an appropriate amount of technical leadership?

It is possible to successfully deliver a software project by answering “no” to some of these questions, but it does require a very good team and a lot of luck. If nobody thinks about software architecture, the end result is something that typically looks like a big ball of mud. Sure, it has a structure but it’s not one that you’d want to work with! Other side effects could include the software system being too slow, insecure, fragile, unstable, hard to deploy, hard to maintain, hard to change, hard to extend, etc. I’m sure you’ve never seen or worked on software projects like this, right? No, me neither. ;-)

Since software architecture is inherent in every software system, why don’t we simply acknowledge this and place some focus on it?

The benefits of software architecture

What benefits can thinking about software architecture provide then? In summary:

· A clear vision and roadmap for the team to follow, regardless of whether that vision is owned by a single person or collectively by the whole team.

· Technical leadership and better coordination.

· A stimulus to talk to people in order to answer questions relating to significant decisions, non-functional requirements, constraints and other cross-cutting concerns.

· A framework for identifying and mitigating risk.

· Consistency of approach and standards, leading to a well structured codebase.

· A set of firm foundations for the product being built.

· A structure with which to communicate the solution at different levels of abstraction to different audiences.

Does every software project need software architecture?

Rather than use the typical consulting answer of “it depends”, I’m instead going to say that the answer is undoubtedly “yes”, with the caveat that every software project should look at a number of factors in order to assess how much software architecture thinking is necessary. These include the size of the project/product, the complexity of the project/product, the size of the team and the experience of the team. The answer to how much is “just enough” will be explored throughout the rest of this book.

7 Questions

1. Do you know what “architecture” is all about? Does the rest of your team? What about the rest of your organisation?

2. There are a number of different types of architecture within the IT domain. What do they all have in common?

3. Do you and your team have a standard definition of what “software architecture” means? Could you easily explain it to new members of the team? Is this definition common across your organisation?

4. What does it mean if you describe a software architecture as being “agile”? How do you design for “agility”?

5. Can you make a list of the architectural decisions on your current software project? Is it obvious why they were deemed as significant?

6. If you step back from the code, what sort of things are included in your software system’s “big picture”?

7. What does the technical career path look like in your organisation? Is enterprise architecture the right path for you?

8. Is software architecture important? Why and what are the benefits? Is there enough software architecture on your software project? Is there too much?