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2.6 Architecture Design Decisions

As we said at the beginning of this chapter, design is the process of making decisions. But the act of making a decision is a process, not a moment in time. Experienced architects, when faced with a design challenge, typically entertain a set of “candidate” decisions (as shown in Figure 2.1); from this set, they choose a best candidate and instantiate that. They might select this “best” candidate based on experience, constraints, or some form of analysis such as prototyping or simulation. The reality is that an architect will often make a choice and “ride the horse until it drops”—that is, commit to a decision and revisit it only if it appears to be compromising the success of the project. These decisions have serious consequences!

Recall that, in the early stages of design, decisions focus on the biggest, most critical choices that will have substantial downstream consequences: reference architectures, major technologies (such as frameworks), and patterns. Reference architectures, deployment patterns, and other kinds of patterns have been widely discussed—there are many books, websites, and conferences devoted to the creation and validation of patterns and pattern languages. Nevertheless, the output of these activities is always a set of documented patterns. Interpreting the patterns from a pattern catalog is a critical part of the selection activity for an architect. Each candidate pattern must be chosen and its instantiation must be analyzed. For example, if you chose the Layers pattern from Figure 2.4, you would still have many decisions to make: how many layers there will be, how strict the layering will be, which specific services will be placed into each layer, what the interfaces between these functions will be, and so forth. If you chose the Load-Balanced Cluster deployment pattern from Figure 2.7, you would have to decide how many servers will be balanced, how many load balancers you will use, where these servers and load balancers will physically reside, which kinds of networks will connect these servers, which form of encryption you will use on those network connections, which form of health monitoring the load balancers will employ, and so forth. These decisions are important and will affect the success of the instantiated pattern, so they need to be analyzed. In addition, the quality of the implementation of these decisions will affect the success of the pattern. As we like to quip, the architecture giveth and the implementation taketh away.

Furthermore, the many catalogs and web pages that present design concepts use different conventions and notations. The focus of our book is on the design method and how it can be used with these external sources. For this reason we just take examples from outside sources and show them here as they were originally presented. This book is not intended to be another design patterns catalog—we want to alert you to the presence of these catalogs and show how they can be an incredibly useful resource for an architect, but they must be interpreted and used with care! In fact, one of your many jobs as an architect is to understand and interpret these catalogs, with their different notations and conventions. This is the reality that you will have to deal with.

Finally, once a design decision has been made, you should think about how you will document it. You could, of course, do no documentation. This is, in fact, what is most common in practice. Architectural concepts are often vague and conveyed informally, in “tribal knowledge”: personal communications, emails, naming conventions, and so forth. Alternatively, you could create and maintain full, formal documentation, as is done for some projects with demanding quality attribute requirements, such as safety-critical or high-security systems. If you are designing flight-control software, you will probably end up at this end of the spectrum. In between these endpoints is a broad set of possibilities, and in this space we see less formal (and less costly) forms of architecture documentation, such as sketches (as we will discuss in Section 3.7).

The decision of what, when, and how to document should be risk based. You should ask yourself: What is the risk of not documenting this decision? Could it be misinterpreted and undermined by future developers? Could it contribute to near-term or long-term problems in the system? For example, if the rationale for layering is not carefully documented, the layering will inevitably break down, losing coherence and tending toward increased coupling. Over time, this trend will increase the system’s technical debt, making it harder to find and fix bugs or add new features. To take another example, if the rationale for allocation of a critical resource is not documented, that resource might become an unintended contention area, resulting in bottlenecks and failures.

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