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Quality Attributes

For any software system, requirements fall in the following two categories:

  • Functional requirements: These describe the business capabilities that the system must provide as well as its behavior at runtime.

  • Quality attribute (nonfunctional) requirements: These describe the quality attributes that the system must meet in delivering functional requirements.

Quality attributes can be viewed as the -ilities (e.g., scalability, usability, reliability, etc.) that a software system needs to provide. Although the term nonfunctional requirements has widespread use in corporate software departments, the increasingly common term used in the industry is quality attributes. This term more specifically addresses the concern of dealing with critical attributes of a software system.11

If a system does not meet any of its quality attribute requirements, it will not function as required. Experienced technologists can point to several examples of systems that fulfill all of their functional requirements but fail because of performance or scalability challenges. Waiting for a screen to update is probably one of the most frustrating user experiences you can think of. A security breach is not an incident that any technologist would want to deal with. These examples highlight why addressing quality attributes is so critical. Quality attributes are strongly associated with architecture perspectives, where a perspective is reusable architectural advice on how to achieve a quality property.12

Formal definition of quality attributes is pretty established in the standards world, although few practitioners are aware of them. For example, the product quality model defined in ISO/IEC 25010,13 part of the SQuaRe model, comprises the eight quality characteristics shown in Figure 2.5.

Figure 2.5

Figure 2.5 Product quality model

It is difficult to express quality attributes outside of a particular system context. For example, latency may be nice to have in a tax-filing application but disastrous for an autopilot. This makes it challenging to adopt such frameworks in their entirety, and defining a complete list of all quality attributes can be seen as an unnecessary academic exercise.

However, addressing the key quality attributes of your software system is one of the most important architectural considerations. The most important quality attributes need to be selected and prioritized. In practice, we can say that approximately 10 quality attribute scenarios are a manageable list for most software systems. This set is equivalent to what can be considered as architecturally significant scenarios. Architecturally significant implies that the scenarios have the most impact on the architecture of the software system. These are normally driven by the quality attribute requirements that are difficult to achieve (e.g., low latency, high scalability). In addition, these scenarios are the ones that impact how the fundamental components of the system are defined, implying that changing the structure of these components in the future will be a costly and difficult exercise.

Experienced software practitioners know that a given set of functional capabilities can often be implemented by several different architectures with varying quality attribute capabilities. You can say that architectural decisions are about trying to balance tradeoffs to find a good enough solution to meet your functional and quality attribute requirements.

Quality Attributes and Architectural Tactics

Functional requirements are usually well documented and carefully reviewed by the business stakeholders, whereas quality attributes are documented in a much briefer manner. They may be provided as a simple list that fits on a single page and are not usually as carefully scrutinized and tend to be truisms, such as “must be scalable” and “must be highly usable.”

However, our view is that quality attributes drive the architecture design. As stated by Bass, Clements, and Kazman, “Whether a system will be able to exhibit its desired (or required) quality attributes is substantially determined by its architecture.”14 We need to make architectural decisions to satisfy quality attributes, and those decisions often are compromises, because a decision made to better implement a given quality attribute may have a negative impact on the implementation of other quality attributes. Accurately understanding quality attribute requirements and tradeoffs is one of the most critical prerequisites to adequately architect a system. Architectural decisions are often targeted to find the least-worst option to balance the tradeoffs between competing quality attributes.

Architectural tactics are how we address quality attributes from an architectural perspective. An architectural tactic is a decision that affects the control of one or more quality attribute responses. Tactics are often documented in catalogs in order to promote reuse of this knowledge among architects. We refer to architectural tactics throughout the book, in particular in chapters 5 through 7, that focus on specific quality attributes.

Working with Quality Attributes

In the Continuous Architecture approach, our recommendation is to elicit and describe the quality attribute requirements that will be used to drive architectural decisions. But how do we describe quality attributes? A quality attribute name by itself does not provide sufficiently specific information. For example, what do we mean by configurability? Configurability could refer to a requirement to adapt a system to different infrastructures—or it could refer to a totally different requirement to change the business rules of a system. Attribute names such as “availability,” “security,” and “usability” can be just as ambiguous. Attempting to document quality attribute requirements using an unstructured approach is not satisfactory, as the vocabulary used to describe the quality attributes may vary a lot depending on the perspective of the author.

A problem in many modern systems is that the quality attributes cannot be accurately predicted. Applications can grow exponentially in term of users and transactions. On the flip side, we can overengineer the application for expected volumes that might never materialize. We need to apply principle 3, Delay design decisions until they are absolutely necessary, to avoid overengineering. At the same time, we need to implement effective feedback loops (discussed later in this chapter) and associated measurements so that we can react quickly to changes.

We recommend leveraging the utility tree technique from the architecture tradeoff analysis method, or ATAM.15 Documenting architecture scenarios that illustrate quality attribute requirements is a key aspect of this technique.

Building the Quality Attributes Utility Tree

We do not go into details of the ATAM utility tree, which is covered in our original book.16 The most important aspect is to clearly understand the following three attributes for each scenario:

  • Stimulus: This portion of the architecture scenario describes what a user or any external stimulus (e.g., temporal event, external or internal failure) of the system would do to initiate the architecture scenario.

  • Response: This portion of the architecture scenario describes how the system should be expected to respond to the stimulus.

  • Measurement: The final portion of the architecture scenario quantifies the response to the stimulus. The measurement does not have to be extremely precise. It can be a range as well. What is important is the ability to capture the end-user expectations and drive architectural decisions.

Another attribute you can include in defining the scenario is

  • Environment: The context in which the stimulus occurs, including the system’s state or any unusual conditions in effect. For example, is the scenario concerned with the response time under typical load or peak load?

Following is an example of a quality attribute scenario for scalability:

  • Scenario 1 Stimulus: The volume of issuances of import letters of credit (L/Cs) increases by 10 percent every 6 months after TFX is implemented.

  • Scenario 1 Response: TFX is able to cope with this volume increase. Response time and availability measurements do not change significantly.

  • Scenario 1 Measurement: The cost of operating TFX in the cloud does not increase by more than 10 percent for each volume increase. Average response time does not increase by more than 5 percent overall. Availability does not decrease by more than 2 percent. Refactoring the TFX architecture is not required.

As we evolve the case study throughout this book, we provide several more examples using the same technique.

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