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The What

Various research groups and individual contributors to the field of software engineering have interpreted software architecture, and each of them has a different viewpoint of how best to represent the architecture of a software system. Not one of these interpretations or viewpoints is wrong; rather, each has its own merits. The definition given by Bass, Clements, and Kazman (2012) captures the essential concept of what a software architecture should entail:

  • The software architecture of a program or computing system is the structure or structures of the system, which comprise software components, the externally visible properties of those components, and the relationships between them.

Now what does this definition imply?

The definition focuses on the fact that software architecture is comprised of coarse-grained constructs (a.k.a. software components) that can be considered building blocks of the architecture. Let’s call them architecture building blocks (ABB). Each such software component, or ABB (I use the terms interchangeably from here on), has certain externally visible properties that it announces to the rest of the ABBs. The internal details of how each software component is designed and implemented should not be of any concern to the rest of the system. Software components exist as black boxes—that is, internal details are not exposed—exposing only certain properties that they exhibit and that the rest of the software components can leverage to collectively realize the capabilities that the system is expected to deliver. Software architecture not only identifies the ABBs at the optimum level of granularity but also characterizes them according to the properties they exhibit and the set of capabilities they support. Capturing the essential tenets of the software architecture, which is defined by the ABBs and their properties and capabilities, is critical; therefore, it is essential to formalize the ways it is captured such that it makes it simple, clear, and easy to comprehend and communicate.

Architecture as it relates to software engineering is about decomposing or partitioning a single system into a set of parts that can be constructed modularly, iteratively, incrementally, and independently. These individual parts have, as mentioned previously, explicit relationships between them that, when weaved or collated together, form the system—that is, the application’s software architecture.

Some confusion exists’ around the difference between architecture and design. As Bass, Clements, and Kazman (2012) pointed out, all architectures are designs, but not all designs are architectures. Some design patterns that foster flexibility, extensibility, and establishment of boundary conditions for the system to meet are often considered architectural in nature, and that is okay. More concretely, whereas architecture considers an ABB as a black box, design deals with the configuration, customization, and the internal workings of a software component—that is, the ABB. The architecture confines a software component to its external properties. Design is usually much more relaxed, since it has many more options regarding how to adhere to the external properties of the component; it considers various alternatives of how the internal details of the component may be implemented.

It is interesting to observe that software architecture can be used recursively, as illustrated in Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.1 Illustrative example of recursive component dependencies.

Referring to Figure 2.1, consider a software component (C1 representing a Classroom) that is a part of a system’s software architecture. The software architect shares this software component (among others), along with its properties, functional and nonfunctional capabilities, and its relationships to other software components, to the system designer—the collection of ABBs along with their interrelationships and externally visible properties represents an architecture blueprint. The designer, after analyzing the software component (C1), decides that it may be broken down into some finer-grained components (C11 representing a Table object, C12 representing a Chair object, and C13 representing a Blackboard object), each of which provides some reusable functionality that would be used to implement the properties mandated for C1. The designer details C11, C12, C13, and their interfaces. The designer may consider C11, C12, and C13 as architectural constructs, with explicitly defined interfaces and relationships, for the software component C1. Then C11, C12, and C13 may need to be further elaborated and designed to address their internal implementations. Hence, architecture principles can be used recursively as follows: divide a large complex system into small constituent parts and then focus on each part for further elaboration.

Architecture, as mentioned previously, confines the system to using the ABBs that collectively meet the behavioral and quality goals. It is imperative that the architecture of any system under consideration needs to be well understood by its stakeholders: those who use it for downstream design and implementation and those who fund the architecture to be defined, maintained, and enhanced. And although this chapter looks more closely at this issue later on, it is important to highlight the importance of communication: architecture is a vehicle of communicating the IT System with the stakeholder community.

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