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Architectural Design

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2.2 Design in Software Architecture

Architectural design for software systems is no different than design in general: It involves making decisions, working with available skills and materials, to satisfy requirements and constraints. In architectural design, we make decisions to transform our design purpose, requirements, constraints, and architectural concerns—what we call the architectural drivers—into structures, as shown in Figure 2.1. These structures are then used to guide the project. They guide analysis and construction, and serve as the foundation for educating a new project member. They also guide cost and schedule estimation, team formation, risk analysis and mitigation, and, of course, implementation.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.1 Overview of the architecture design activity (Architect image © Brett Lamb | Dreamstime.com)

Architectural design is, therefore, a key step to achieving your product and project goals. Some of these goals are technical (e.g., achieving low and predictable latency in a video game or an e-commerce website), and some are nontechnical (e.g., keeping the workforce employed, entering a new market, meeting a deadline). The decisions that you, as an architect, make will have implications for the achievement of these goals and may, in some cases, be in conflict. The choice of a particular reference architecture (e.g., the Rich Client Application) may provide a good foundation for achieving your latency goals and will keep your workforce employed because they are already familiar with that reference architecture and its supporting technology stack. But this choice may not help you enter a new market—mobile games, for example.

In general, when designing, a change in some structure to achieve one quality attribute will have negative effects on other quality attributes. These tradeoffs are a fact of life for every practicing architect in every domain. We will see this over and over again in the examples and case studies provided in this book. Thus the architect’s job is not one of finding an optimal solution, but rather one of satisficing—searching through a potentially large space of design alternatives and decisions until an acceptable solution is found.

2.2.1 Architectural Design

Grady Booch has said, “All architecture is design, but not all design is architecture”. What makes a decision “architectural”? A decision is architectural if it has non-local consequences and those consequences matter to the achievement of an architectural driver. No decision is, therefore, inherently architectural or non-architectural. The choice of a buffering strategy within a single element may have little effect on the rest of the system, in which case it is an implementation detail that is of no concern to anyone except the implementer or maintainer of that element. In contrast, the buffering strategy may have enormous implications for performance (if the buffering affects the achievement of latency or throughput or jitter goals) or availability (if the buffers might not be large enough and information gets lost) or modifiability (if we wish to flexibly change the buffering strategy in different deployments or contexts). The choice of a buffering strategy, like most design choices, is neither inherently architectural nor inherently non-architectural. Instead, this distinction is completely dependent on the current and anticipated architectural drivers.

2.2.2 Element Interaction Design

Architectural design generally results in the identification of only a subset of the elements that are part of the system’s structure. This is to be expected because, during initial architectural design, the architect will focus on the primary functionality of the system. What makes a use case primary? A combination of business importance, risk, and complexity considerations feed into this designation. Of course, to your users, everything is urgent and top priority. More realistically, a small number of use cases provide the most fundamental business value or represent the greatest risk (if they are done wrong), so these are deemed primary.

Every system has many more use cases, beyond the primary ones, that need to be satisfied. The elements that support these nonprimary use cases and their interfaces are identified as part of what we call element interaction design. This level of design usually follows architectural design. The location and relationships of these elements, however, are constrained by the decisions that were made during architectural design. These elements can be units of work (i.e., modules) assigned to an individual or to a team, so this level of design is important for defining not only how nonprimary functionality is allocated, but also for planning purposes (e.g., team formation and communication, budgeting, outsourcing, release planning, unit and integration test planning).

Depending on the scale and complexity of the system, the architect should be involved in element interaction design, either directly or in an auditing role. This involvement ensures that the system’s important quality attributes are not compromised—for example, if the elements are not defined, located, and connected correctly. It will also help the architect spot opportunities for generalization.

2.2.3 Element Internals Design

A third level of design follows element interaction design, which we call element internals design. In this level of design, which is usually conducted as part of the element development activities, the internals of the elements identified in the previous design level are established, so as to satisfy the element’s interface.

Architectural decisions can and do occur at the three levels of design. Moreover, during architectural design, the architect may need to delve as deeply as element internals design to achieve a particular architectural driver. An example of this is the selection of a buffering strategy that was previously discussed. In this sense, architectural design can involve considerable detail, which explains why we do not like to think about it in terms of “high-level design” or “detailed design” (see the sidebar “Detailed Design?”).

Architectural design precedes element interaction design, which precedes element internals design. This is logically necessary: One cannot design an element’s internals until the elements themselves have been defined, and one cannot reason about interaction until several elements and some patterns of interactions among them have been defined. But as projects grow and evolve, there is, in practice, considerable iteration between these activities.

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