Software Architecture should be forged in Fire, not Carved in Ice

(Picture by Jason Bolonski)

I've seen a number of corporate environments that carve software architectures out of ice.Why ice? Because an ice architecture sure looks great: sparkling, pristine, perfect even. This approach often feels right, esp. in cost conscious, slower moving organizations. You know how it goes: spend the bulk of your time in design, figure things out properly, measure twice (or thrice), cut once, and then you're set. Sadly once carved, often the only thing left to do with such an architecture is freeze it, lest it melt. And a frozen architecture is rarely useful.

The problem is that you're never set. Needs keep changing and if your architecture can't evolve with them, you've (best case) got a working but unmaintainable and unevolvable app, or (worst case) something that becomes unusable, even by the people who need the application the most and who are willing to put up with its flaws.

The architecture you want is not one carved in ice. Rather, you want something you've not only heated and beaten into shape to serve your current purpose, but also a design that you can reforge in to something new as needs dictate. So how do you achieve this?

Understand your problem space & key challenges
I'm not advocating no design, I'm advocating just enough design. Knowing how far to go is both art and science. Two things that will help is a good understanding of the problem space and the main obstacles you'll face. If you're building a social app you need to have at least broad designs for your sharing / trust model for users, how you will distribute data and scale, what security choices to make, etc. If you don't have strong expertise in house, hire someone who does, even as a part time consultant. It will be money well spent.

Rapid Iteration
Focus on speed. Not at the expense of quality but at the expense of features. Build your Minimum Viable Product, get it live, get it used, and iterate. The only way to really learn what works and what doesn't is to let your users at your app. The faster your iteration the more you can adapt (reforge) to changing needs. This is one of the reasons that agile development has become the de facto development approach in the past decade. Continuous deployment and delivery are other, welcome, instances of this trend.

Less is more
Build what you need and improve when needed. This goes hand in hand with rapid iteration and goes against the "what if" architecture. "What if I want to go live in other countries? Oh better internationalize", "What if we need to support suppliers as well as customers? Good point, better code them in". "What if I need to scale to hundreds of millions of users?" The list goes on and the longer you let it go the slower you'll be, not just in development but in maintenance and new feature additions.

This doesn't mean making uneducated decisions. If you think there's a good chance you'll need to go international in future, leverage a framework that supports it. But don't build it internationalization (i18n) until you're ready to use it. I'd argue that the cost to support i18n - testing multiple languages across the app, different formats & interfaces, new & altered business logic, etc. - is not worth saddling your dev team with against the day when you finally need the feature.

Ultimately, the fewer lines of code the better. To paraphrase Dijkstra: it's not lines of code produced, it's lines of code spent!. So spend wisely.

Test Driven / Refactoring
If there was one software engineering practice I'd enforce, this is it. A comprehensive and robust set of tests gives you the confidence to make radical structural changes to your application and still have a working product at the end of process. I've seen business leaders question the value of putting in effort here. Understandably they're concerned that all the time spent coding tests could have been better spent coding new features.

A counter-argument to this is to remind the business folks that, once tests are written, all the downstream QA is not only free but extremely rapid. That's when you can reassign developers to new areas confident in the knowledge that you'll detect breaks long before they ever reach end users. As your codebase grows these tests will be a godsend to help avoid spending all your time on maintenance.

"Less is more" is your friend here too: focus on DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself). The DRYer your code, the less of it you have, so the fewer tests you'll need and the easier it will be to reforge.

The most fundamental and so the most important. The culture of an organization is represented by people's shared values, goals, and behavior. Whether implicit or explicit, culture is the bedrock on which all else rests. The more individuals align with the culture, the more effective the team. This buy-in means that a successful culture cannot be dictated (typically by management), it must be nurtured.

Culture will obviously vary by company but these common values will support all the principles listed above:
  • Continuous improvement: Continually striving to make things better, to achieve ever higher quality, and redefine goals as necessary 
  • Trust: Despite the best laid plans, failures happen. When they do, an organization needs to display enough trust in individuals and team to allow them to fix the problem, learn from the experience, and come out stronger
  • Collaboration: In my experience, tech and business are often in push-pull. Tech rarely gets the necessary time or resources, and business rarely gets all its desired features. The principles above drive long term value. If the culture prizes collaboration, openess, and sustained value, then neither group will want to sacrifice the short term for the long term

Update (2011.2.3): Great article on the importance of culture from Wealthfront.


    What about...?
    What about separation of concerns, SOA, AOP, and more? All of these have their place and can certainly improve your application and architecture. Design patterns, if properly used, can make your software design more flexible and reduce the amount of refactoring needed to add new features. Still, these practices are should haves, not must haves. They can make good architecture great, but on their own won't keep it great in the long run.

    Ultimately the key to building great software is great people. Finding them, building the right culture together, and continuously evolving the organization and its processes. Over the years, new software engineering practices will come to light but these principles will evolve much more slowly.