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Architectural Drivers

There are many different opinions and preferences when it comes to how we should deal with software architecture. My personal preference is to try not to make things more complex than they should be, while striving to maintain enough flexibility to be able to deal with future changes in both functional and non-functional requirements in a way that hopefully doesn't require extensive effort. I've always thought of good architecture essentially being something that enables developers to keep implementing new features over time at a similar cost than what it took to implement features in the early stages of development. Thus I prefer to try to find a balance between simplicity of the codebase, and making sure that the architecture scales nicely (from a code quality point of view) as the application grows in functionality. I also like to make sure that we can scale out (from a performance/throughput point of view) relatively easily if that need to scale comes up. These are just my general preferences though, and aren't always relevant to every project or suitable for every situation. I'm now in the 10th year of my career and have seen a variety of architectural styles in the wild, and of course I've read and heard about many more since the subject has always interested me a lot. I've learned that it's important to keep architectural drivers of a project in mind when thinking about what kind of architecture is suitable for a certain project or situation. Those drivers are often more important than whatever your personal preferences are. I've come up with a list of drivers that I think should influence the architecture used by teams or organizations.

Simplicity/Complexity of the application

A common mistake is to decide to use a fashionable architectural style in a project that doesn't really have enough complexity to warrant the use of said architectural style. For instance, there's no reason whatsoever to go the DDD route if your application is mostly a forms-over-data CRUD app. You won't really get any benefit from it, and you'll only increase the total cost of the required development effort. On the other hand, an application which will feature a lot of behavior in a complex domain will certainly benefit from using a DDD approach versus a data-driven approach that implements the behavior in a more procedural, transaction-script based approach. Be honest to your customer/employer and yourself and make an objective decision based on the simplicity or the complexity of the required solution that you're being paid to build. Don't let enthusiasm for a fashionable architectural style influence your decision.

Expected lifetime of the application

Some applications live for years and years, and some are only temporary solutions that will be phased out a year or two after having been put in production. Of course, some of those temporary solutions end up being used much longer than what was originally expected due to a variety of reasons but that certainly isn't always a given. Unless you're familiar enough with how things typically go at your client or your company to predict these things, your best bet is to just go with the initially expected lifetime of the application. Does a temporary solution require the best possible architecture out there, and the resulting impact that would have on the cost to build it? I'd say it most often doesn't. In these cases, there's nothing wrong with going for the approach that is simply good enough for what is required. Striving for perfection is expensive, and generally not worth it for short-term solutions. Conversely, if the solution is expected to last a long time, a solid architecture becomes more important and is worth the extra investment to (try to) get it right if that makes it possible to keep the costs of long-term development under control.

Strategic importance of the application

Some applications are meant to improve the core business of a company, while others play a more supportive role in something that isn't actually part of the company's core business. Some applications generate revenue (directly or by improving efficiency of revenue-generating activities) while others are meant to reduce costs, typically administrative in nature. Cost reduction is important, but it's not quite as important as revenue generation and that's a factor that should be taken under consideration. A strategically important application almost always warrants putting in the effort to come up with a good architecture because it's highly likely that the application will have to evolve in whichever direction the business evolves. That's not to say that the same kind of effort wouldn't be important for cost-reducing applications. But it just might be less important than you'd like to think it is. Again, good architecture increases the cost of the project, and the return on that investment in the big picture of the company should not be ignored.

Skill-level/discipline of team

Good code and good architecture requires skill and discipline. A strong team is capable of letting good architecture grow organically and keep it at a high quality level. For a mediocre team, letting it grow organically is too often a recipe for disaster. Ideally, we'd always be working with strong teams but as we all know, that simply isn't always possible. For mediocre teams, it often makes sense to put architecture in place that is more restrictive in nature and where everyone knows how the code should be structured in advance. The downside is that this typically reduces flexibility and individual creativity, and often introduces more ceremony and indirection than what many of us would ideally like to see. But it's likely that those downsides are offset by having everyone on the same page and taking some possibly difficult decisions away from people who might not be strong enough to make the right decisions. I know that sounds harsh, but that's a reality that many of us have to deal with.

Conformity/Continuity

A lot of IT departments or software development companies prefer to use the same architecture and frameworks/libraries for most (or even all) of their projects because it makes it easier to have people work on multiple projects. In this situation, it's easier to move people between projects or have them do maintenance work on a project they weren't initially involved in. While this often prevents going with the most suitable approach for every project, it does introduce a few benefits that are hard to argue with. People will need less time to get familiar with a code base. In-house training and sharing of knowledge get easier. Bringing in new people (especially for temporary assignments) also gets somewhat easier because you have a baseline of required skills/knowledge that should go a long way within the organization. A huge downside however, is that it creates an environment that will quickly frustrate creative developers. Also, when new strong developers are brought in, they could quickly tune out once they realize they got there too 'late' to have any influence on how projects are developed. The interesting part about this driver is that it is influenced by the skill-level-discipline driver, while simultaneously influencing it towards the future.

Non-functional requirements

This is the last driver on the list, but it is certainly not the least important. Obviously, architecture is greatly influenced by some important non-functional requirements. There are many factors that can have a profound influence on what the most suitable architecture of a system could be, and it's important to think about those as quickly as possible. Do you need to respond in real time? Do you need to support mobile devices? Will there be connectivity issues? Will you need to scale massively? What are the auditing requirements? Are you dependent on third-party services? Do you need to minimize resource consumption? What kind of accessibility do you have to keep into account? The list goes on and on and many of these issues can end up becoming huge problems if you don't think about them ahead of time. Of course, you can't think of everything in advance, and many non-functional requirements can be introduced during the lifetime of the application instead of being known in advance. But the more you know in advance, the better you can prepare your software for them from the beginning.

Conclusion

There is a virtually endless variety of architectural choices and styles that can influence how you develop software. And unfortunately, there's a lot of dogma surrounding it as well. I hope this post made it clear that there is no definitive 'right' or 'wrong' when it comes to architecture, and that (as pretty much everything else in this business) it all really depends :)

I'm sure you can think of more architectural drivers, and I'd love to hear about any that you think I've forgotten.

Written by Davy Brion, published on 2012-02-26 18:10:50
Categories: architecture

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