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Non-Functional Requirements for the Software Architect

Countless failed software development projects have been kicked off with non-functional requirements delivered to the implementation team with little to no detail. Here are a few of the worst but most common examples:

  • Security – The software must be secure.
  • Performance – The software must be fast.
  • Usability – The software must be easy to use.

Most software professionals have been taught that non-functional requirements are important, but many projects skip over them in order to get to functional use cases and writing code. The result can be profound, leaving the implementation team without sufficient input to make critical design decisions that will be very costly to change when the non-functional requirement is later clarified.

What Every Non-Functional Requirement Needs

For every non-functional requirement, the software architect should assure that the following questions have been adequately answered.

  • To whom is this quality important?
    • Users and integrators
    • Management team
    • Implementation team
    • Operations team
  • Who will assure this quality is met?
    • Implementation team
    • Operations team
    • Management team
  • How will this quality be met?
    • Cross cutting constraints in software
    • System and network constraints
    • Log analysis and oversight
  • How will we know this quality is met?
    • Scenarios with measures
    • Monitoring and review
    • Acceptable tolerance percentiles

The items below each question are not meant to be an exhaustive list but simply to give you an idea of what may be involved in answering those questions.

Classification of Non-Functional Software Quality Requirements

Clarifying and prioritizing non-functional software quality requirements may be easier when you classify them into one of four groups by answering two questions: operational or non-operation, and internal or external. The following table is anything but exhaustive but it will give you the general idea.

Quality Classification Internal External
Operational Latency
Capacity
Fault tolerance
Performance
Security
Availability
Non-Operational Maintainability
Portability
Testability
Correctness
Usability
Accessibility

 
Business stakeholders are generally more interested in and will support efforts to meet external qualities. Implementation and IT teams sometimes have to work a little more to garner support for time and effort and expense for internal qualities.

It is often easier to build into an implementation the cross cutting concerns to measure operational qualities. Collecting performance, reliability and security metrics from executing code is always possible with well planned constraints early on in the development effort. If these qualities are defined later, the refactoring process can be challenging.

For non-operational qualities, other systems such as those used to manage support issues and ongoing development efforts are often helpful in measuring the cost of change to the system or whether usability goals are being met. Sometimes time series log analysis can be utilized to extract measures for non-operational qualities, especially those most important to external parties.

Use an Agile Approach to Non-Functional Requirements

However you choose to collect and document non-functional software quality requirements, you should continue to improve and tweak them throughout the development process just as you would with functional requirements, grooming your backlog and prioritizing based on ongoing feedback from stakeholders, users and developers.