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  1. The R3 Process
  2. R3 in Action
  3. R3 and Iterative Development
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R3 and Iterative Development

Sometimes an ensemble will not work, no matter how hard you try to repair it, or just as likely, the repairs prove to be too expensive to justify. You can see from Figure 1 that the R3 process yields two results: a design (or, rather, the ensemble’s portion of a design), and the properties of that ensemble. If we assume that an ensemble cannot be repaired and there are no fallback positions, then there is only one thing left to do: reassess the original needs. In some cases, Mohammed must go to the mountain. But this involves us in another level of process iteration beyond that of R3. Thus, we assume to a large extent that R3 works within an iterative development process, and that it is, in effect, a small wheel within a larger wheel.

This should not be surprising, and I suspect that anyone who has read this far is already familiar with, if not comfortably experienced with, iterative software development processes. But be on guard: COTS software requires a form of process iteration that is unique to COTS, and is not to be found in the development of custom systems. To appreciate this dire warning we examine the currently popular Rational Unified Process (RUP), an iterative software development process championed by Rational Software. RUP is depicted in Figure 3. Please be aware that the discussion that follows is not a critique or criticism of RUP, but rather an elaboration of how a naïve interpretation of RUP can cause trouble in systems that are COTS-software intensive.

Figure 3: The Rational Unified Process

One of the key ideas in RUP is that an iterative development process is partitioned into four discrete phases: inception, elaboration, construction, and transition. This partitioning is quite useful because it answers one difficult question posed by iterative development: where are we going? Because each phase has its own milestones it is possible to focus each iteration in a constructive way. So, for example, the purpose of the inception phase is to produce the life-cycle objectives milestone, which describes the scope of a system, its business case, and how the most major risks were mitigated (among other things). The elaboration phase ends with a description of the system architecture and mitigation of second-tier risks.

Note, however, that in RUP the inception phase terminates with a definition of system scope, while the elaboration phase terminates with a definition of system architecture. But we know from our own experience that the selection of COTS software components and their assembly into ensembles—key architecture-defining activities in COTS-based systems—can greatly influence how we define the scope of a system. Indeed, in the R3 illustration we showed how an ensemble failure might require an adjustment of system requirements (i.e., system scope) in order to effect a repair.

When I mentioned that COTS requires a special form of iteration, this is what I was referring to. Put another way, decisions about system scope and component and ensemble selection are co-dependent: a designer must often make tentative decisions about system scope in light of what is thought to be known about COTS component capabilities, and then revisit those scope decisions as more is learned about the components. Conversely, component and ensemble selection decisions may be informed by system requirements, but those selection decisions may be revisited as more is learned about the requirements.

On the surface this co-dependence of component and ensemble selection decisions and system scope decisions seems to be a problem, because RUP allows no iteration among life-cycle phases—that is, elaboration begins with a defined system scope. However, the folks at Rational Software are smart, and the ideas underlying RUP are sufficiently sound and flexible to accommodate the development of systems that are COTS-software intensive. There are at least two ways to do this:

  1. You will observe that in Figure 3 the inception phase includes some design and implementation effort. This effort refers to risk-reduction prototyping as needed to scope the system and identify and mitigate the most serious risks. Given this, it might be useful to concentrate prototyping efforts in the inception phase to support component and ensemble selection decisions as a necessary adjunct to defining life-cycle objectives.

  2. Requirements and analysis work continues (and in fact accelerates) in the elaboration phase, even after the basic scope of the system has been defined. Given this, it may be possible to consider the life-cycle objectives as a flexible rather than rigid milestone. This would allow the discovery of COTS component capabilities and liabilities to change the scope of a system, even if the life-cycle objectives milestone has been satisfied.

Option 1 is fine for projects that do not use state-of-the-art COTS components. Projects that use cutting-edge components must make a conscious tradeoff between advanced capabilities and component stability. In these situations the designer may be required to manage multiple design contingencies (system scope and architecture) far into the development process. Option 2 is fine if the stakeholders are willing to be flexible about their requirements and can tolerate some degree of uncertainty about some very fundamental decisions—what the system will do and which COTS components will be used to do it.

The best solution may be to combine elements of both options. That is, do as much risk reduction as possible during system inception, where more stable COTS components are used, and then work with the stakeholders to manage their expectations about system capabilities that depend upon more cutting-edge but unstable components during system elaboration. In either case the iterative R3 process for obtaining component competence and proving the feasibility of component ensembles will be useful in identifying and resolving risks related to the use of COTS software.

I’ve mentioned several times that the designer may need to manage multiple design contingencies—specifically, contingencies that reflect ensemble repair options. This presents the designer with a variety of new challenges. What is the design of a system at any point in time if there are multiple contingencies being explored? How much should a project invest in the "just-in-time competency" attending the exploration of any particular contingency? And, at what point should this investment be terminated and a contingency foreclosed? I will take up these issues of "contingency management" in the next issue of The COTS Spot.

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