A quest for software excellence...

Software Architecture for Developers

I have been enjoying an e-book called Software Architecture for Developers by Simon Brown that was very well worth the price. I also just finished watching the author’s presentation at the 2014 GOTO Conference. A very thought provoking presentation.

Here are a few things that I like very much from the book and presentation.

  • “The code is the single point of truth. It is the embodiment of the architecture.”
  • TDD does not replace architecture. Do TDD inside a set of boundaries and frameworks provided by the architecture. (see Why Most Unit Tests Are a Waste by James O Coplien.)
  • If the diagrams don't reflect the code, the diagrams are basically pointless. We're just deceiving ourselves.
  • Component testing is preferable over unit testing but unit tests and mocks for testing against async systems are still useful.
  • Layered architecture can lead to a big ball of mud because too much functionality is exposed for public use by other layers.
  • Component organization over layered is preferred. Components have limited public interfaces (aka ports) and may have layers within the component that are not improperly publicly accessible.
  • If a system has a very large number of unit tests, we may have an out of control layered architecture.
  • “If your software system is hard to work with, change it. This is entirely within your hands.”

C4: Context, Containers, Components, Classes

I especially like Brown’s use of what he calls C4. In essence, every software system can be broken down into a simple hierarchy:

  • Contexts (systems) made up of
    • Containers (web server, app server, database, browser, file system, etc.) which host
      • Components which expose one or more interfaces (sometimes referred to by others as ports) and contain
        • Classes which implement those interfaces and the layers behind them.

By creating architecture diagrams that follow this hierarchy, it is possible to create code that matches it. It is an architecture that developers can use directly. (Side note: I have often used a Visual Studio solution to lay out a project in similar terms directly in code. I have also gone down the layered road only to regret it later and end up pulling those layers apart and encapsulating them into a component-like approach to ensure that the responsibilities and behaviors exposed to the outside world are used properly and that the system remains well ordered.)

Here is my simplification of what the author already makes rather simple with respect to these constructs. I recommend you buy the book and get full details and example diagrams, but the ideas are what is most important.

  • Context Diagram - A context diagram answers what are we building, who is using it and how does it fit into our IT environment and business. It is important to note at a high level how users will interact with the system.
  • Container Diagram - In the container diagram, you define the shape of the software, high-level technology decisions, how responsibilities are grouped and separated, how each container communicates with other containers, and where the code lives for each container.
  • Component Diagram - The component diagrams answers what course grained building blocks of functionality are required, what are their responsibilities, and how will they interact with other components (interface and communication mechanisms such as sync, async, batched, etc.).
  • Class Diagram – Brown does not explicitly discuss this level, as far as I’ve read. I assume this is because it is rather intuitive to most architects and in part because the design at the class level is often better left to the implementation team. However, from my own perspective, the architect should consider defining the public interfaces and primary classes to name and separate key responsibilities into distinct code structures that will be intuitive for the implementation team to complete—naming conventions that separate what may be thought of as traditional layers and that the implementation team will understand is crucial here.

Some of what Brown proposes breaks with what others may consider traditional software architecture. I am excited about Brown’s challenging of the status quo, questioning our assumptions. I believe his ideas will help us narrow the model-code gap (see Just Enough Software Architecture by George Fairbanks—one I’ve just added to my Kindle collection for some fun future reading).

Measurable Non-Functional Quality Scenarios

Brown covers the importance of quality scenarios, but on this topic I prefer the more pedantic but measurable approach of Len Bass in Software Architecture in Practice. I believe his emphasis on defining metrics driven quality scenarios is well worth pursuing, especially to the point of implementing logging and monitoring systems that allow you to constantly measure non-functional quality and improve against those measures. Here’s the structure that Bass recommends:

  • Source – where does the input come from?
  • Stimulus – what is the input?
  • Artifact – what container and component are affected?
  • Environment – in what context does this occur?
  • Response – how and with what did the software respond?
  • Measure – how much time, how many clicks, how many errors, were proper notifications were sent?

Creating quality scenarios that developers understand and can incorporate into the software they are building is critical to long term success of the software. To paraphrase the quality gurus, if you can measure it, you can understand and improve it.

Most important, if your implementation team and your stake holders understand your architecture diagrams and documents, you are more likely to succeed. And if your code does not mirror your diagrams, no amount of code reviewing will tell you whether your architecture has been implemented. And that is Brown’s greatest point in my opinion.