Friday, July 25, 2008

Software Architecture "methodology"

As a software architect, buzzwords and the buzz itself comes at you in various guises. Sometimes it's the business itself that heard about company X employing methodology Y and they want to do the same. Most of the times it's a hotshot from company Z that wants to change the world and do things radically different, promising totally different flexibility and capabilities.

I'm a bit tired of all these words. The only thing that counts are activities, as they produce the output that can really be used, and revolving around that output are only a number of factors. No single methodology will ever succeed in setting up a dynamic company. It's the people themselves, how they interact and communicate, the level of politics, the culture and how quickly the development team picks up new technologies that are really worthwhile.

Architecture methodologies are basically all about the same thing... guidelines about how to execute the development activities and a registration of the foreseen limitations and recommendations for that team.

The latest thing is of course SOA. It's often thought of as a new methodology, but it's actually just a different perspective on your organization. It cannot be called an architecture though. It does force systems and data to be organized a certain way, but it does not dictate how. So, SOA is a direction that a company decides to take, which might make sense, but it isn't anything else than that.

I see EAI architectures at the core of architecture, influenced by SOA, whereas SOA is the organization of the infrastructure into a set of services. It's as if SOA is basically a aggregation of resources to make it an artificial and digital interface that other organizations can use. So, SOA is more like a vertical whereas EAI definitions are mostly describing the trees of the "what-otherwise-would-be" forest of resources. EAI defines the guidelines in getting the resources set up, SOA defines what to expose. EAI is driven by the output of SOA and SOA is limited by the level of organization in EAI.

Once you think about it, the only thing that changes are the levels of connectivity and the level of digitalization. Organizations in the 60's were already capable of exchanging information, it just mostly traveled on paper. Currently, the velocity and size of information has grown so much that paper processing is just not an option any more. That is why the complexity of security and interpretation is now being born by digital systems, whereas this previously was interpreted and verified by human beings.

So, although SOA makes it really interesting for companies, it's far from a silver bullet, although pulling off a successful infrastructure of that kind will very likely make you more flexible. The problem is however that in every architecture, a number of assumptions are always baked in. Sometimes, when businesses significantly change, the architecture can't change along with it, thereby requiring large investments to bring about that change. Every business and organization has a "heart" to it where data is kept or basic business processing is done. If the business changes direction, then that's where the most changes need to take effect, impacting all other services that depend on it.

As a methodology for architecture I quite like TOGAF. If you've read the book, you'll understand the role of an architect better and the place such a person takes in the organization. Within each organization, the politics are different though and thereby the expectations. It's always a challenge to find your right place and produce those results that make people happy. Sometimes you need to make some noise in order to wake up the masses.

As discussed in earlier posts, I strongly believe that taking more time for a design prevents a lot of troubles at a later stage. Troubles at a later stage are times more expensive than resolving that in the correct stage. Remember that if you're a project/program manager or director. You can't take shortcuts in IT. The taxman always rings the doorbell later on and will ring it more than once along different projects.

The latter statement basically means that a single shortcut taken now to get things done will eventually require interest payments later down the line that far exceed the initial amount and from my experience, this can be multiples of that. I've worked in a project that should have taken about 250,000 EUR or so to develop. It crossed the million by a good couple of thousands.

Further reading:

Project Dune was released yesterday and I intend to re-evaluate software engineering from the ground up, first as a set of activities and practices rather than thinking of it as a process only. In another sense, it's as if the texts assume that people basically deliver good work, but as if each activity isn't always followed and each activity isn't bound to the next phase. I don't really believe that. I think that too many engineers are insufficiently aware of the impact of not executing certain activities or not following a certain best practice. The problem is mostly to do with pride, wanting to be creative and differentiating, or over-estimating their own set of skills (especially against fellow engineers in the same team). Better yet, it's difficult to come up with an experienced team of engineers that beyond knowing their profession, also know how to work together and get things done without introducing new unknown technologies (for the sake of curiosity and learning something new).

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