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4.3. Quality Attribute Considerations

Just as a system’s functions do not stand on their own without due consideration of other quality attributes, neither do quality attributes stand on their own; they pertain to the functions of the system. If a functional requirement is “When the user presses the green button, the Options dialog appears,” a performance QA annotation might describe how quickly the dialog will appear; an availability QA annotation might describe how often this function will fail, and how quickly it will be repaired; a usability QA annotation might describe how easy it is to learn this function.

Quality attributes have been of interest to the software community at least since the 1970s. There are a variety of published taxonomies and definitions, and many of them have their own research and practitioner communities. From an architect’s perspective, there are three problems with previous discussions of system quality attributes:

  1. The definitions provided for an attribute are not testable. It is meaningless to say that a system will be “modifiable.” Every system may be modifiable with respect to one set of changes and not modifiable with respect to another. The other quality attributes are similar in this regard: a system may be robust with respect to some faults and brittle with respect to others. And so forth.
  2. Discussion often focuses on which quality a particular concern belongs to. Is a system failure due to a denial-of-service attack an aspect of availability, an aspect of performance, an aspect of security, or an aspect of usability? All four attribute communities would claim ownership of a system failure due to a denial-of-service attack. All are, to some extent, correct. But this doesn’t help us, as architects, understand and create architectural solutions to manage the attributes of concern.
  3. Each attribute community has developed its own vocabulary. The performance community has “events” arriving at a system, the security community has “attacks” arriving at a system, the availability community has “failures” of a system, and the usability community has “user input.” All of these may actually refer to the same occurrence, but they are described using different terms.

A solution to the first two of these problems (untestable definitions and overlapping concerns) is to use quality attribute scenarios as a means of characterizing quality attributes (see the next section). A solution to the third problem is to provide a discussion of each attribute—concentrating on its underlying concerns—to illustrate the concepts that are fundamental to that attribute community.

There are two categories of quality attributes on which we focus. The first is those that describe some property of the system at runtime, such as availability, performance, or usability. The second is those that describe some property of the development of the system, such as modifiability or testability.

Within complex systems, quality attributes can never be achieved in isolation. The achievement of any one will have an effect, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, on the achievement of others. For example, almost every quality attribute negatively affects performance. Take portability. The main technique for achieving portable software is to isolate system dependencies, which introduces overhead into the system’s execution, typically as process or procedure boundaries, and this hurts performance. Determining the design that satisfies all of the quality attribute requirements is partially a matter of making the appropriate tradeoffs; we discuss design in Chapter 17. Our purpose here is to provide the context for discussing each quality attribute. In particular, we focus on how quality attributes can be specified, what architectural decisions will enable the achievement of particular quality attributes, and what questions about quality attributes will enable the architect to make the correct design decisions.

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