Chapter 1. What Is Architecture?

John Klein

David Weiss


Builders, musicians, writers, computer designers, network designers, and software developers all use the term architecture, as do others (ever hear of a food architect?), yet each produces different results. A building is very different from a symphony, but both have architectures. Further, all architects talk about beauty in their work and its results. A building architect might say that a building should provide an environment suitable for working or living, and that it should be beautiful to behold; a musician that the music should be playable, with a discernible theme, and that it should be beautiful to the ear; a software architect that the system should be friendly and responsive to the user, maintainable, free of critical errors, easy to install, reliable, that it should communicate in standard ways with other systems, and that it, too, should be beautiful.

This book provides you with detailed examples of beautiful architectures drawn from the fields of computerized systems, a relatively young discipline. Because we are young, we have fewer examples to emulate than fields such as building, music, or writing, and therefore we need them even more. This book intends to help fill that need.

Before you proceed to the examples, we would like you to consider what an architecture is and what the attributes of a beautiful architecture might be. As you will see from the different definitions of architecture in this chapter, each discipline has its own definition, so we will first explore what is common among architectures in different disciplines and what problems one tries to solve with an architecture. Particularly, an architecture can help assure that the system satisfies the concerns of its stakeholders, and it can help deal with the complexity of conceiving, planning, building, and maintaining the system.

We then proceed to a definition of architecture and show how we can apply that definition to software architecture, since software is central to many of the later examples. Key to the definition is that an architecture consists of a set of structures designed to let the architects, builders, and other stakeholders see how their concerns are satisfied.

We end this chapter with a discussion of the attributes of beautiful architectures and cite a few examples. Central to beauty is conceptual integrity—that is, a set of abstractions and the rules for using them throughout the system as simply as possible.

In our discussion we will use “architecture” as a noun to denote a set of artifacts, including documentation such as blueprints and building specifications that describe the object to be built, wherein the object is viewed as a set of structures. The term is also used by some as a verb to describe the process of creating the artifacts, including the resulting work. As Jim Waldo and others have pointed out, however, there is no process that you can learn that guarantees you will produce a good system architecture, let alone a beautiful one (Waldo 2006), so we will focus more on artifacts than process.

Architecture: “The art or science of building; esp. the art or practice of designing and building edifices for human use, taking both aesthetic and practical factors into account.”

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth Edition, 2002

In all disciplines, architecture provides a means for solving a common problem: assuring that a building, or bridge, or composition, or book, or computer, or network, or system has certain properties and behaviors when it has been built. Put another way, the architecture is both a plan for the system so that the result can have the desired properties and a description of the built system. Wikipedia says: “According to the earliest surviving work on the subject, Vitruvius’ ‘On Architecture,’ good building should have Beauty (Venustas), Firmness (Firmitas), and Utility (Utilitas); architecture can be said to be a balance and coordination among these three elements, with no one overpowering the others.”

We speak of the “architecture” of a symphony, and call architecture, in its turn, “frozen music.”

Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music

A good system architecture exhibits conceptual integrity; that is, it comes equipped with a set of design rules that aid in reducing complexity and that can be used as guidance in detailed design and in system verification. Design rules may incorporate certain abstractions that are always used in the same way, such as virtual devices. The rules may be represented as a pattern, such as pipes and filters. In the best case there are verifiable rules, such as “any virtual device of the same type may replace any other virtual device of the same type in the event of device failure,” or “all processes contending for the same resource must have the same scheduling priority.”

A contemporary architect might say that the object or system under construction must have the following characteristics.

  • It has the functionality required by the customer.

  • It is safely buildable on the required schedule.

  • It performs adequately.

  • It is reliable.

  • It is usable and safe to use.

  • It is secure.

  • It is affordable.

  • It conforms to legal standards.

  • It will outlast its predecessors and its competitors.

The architecture of a computer system we define as the minimal set of properties that determine what programs will run and what results they will produce.

Gerrit Blaauw & Frederick Brooks, Computer Architecture

We’ve never seen a complex system that perfectly satisfies all of the preceding characteristics. Architecture is a game of trade-offs—a decision that improves one of these characteristics often diminishes another. The architect must determine what is sufficient to satisfy, by discovering the important concerns for a particular system and the conditions for satisfying them sufficiently.

Common among the notions of architecture is the idea of structures, each defined by components of various sorts and their relations: how they fit together, invoke each other, communicate, synchronize, and otherwise interact. Components could be support beams or internal rooms in a building, individual instruments or melodies in a symphony, book chapters or characters in a story, CPUs and memory chips in a computer, layers in a communications stack or processors connected to a network, cooperating sequential processes, objects, collections of compile-time macros, or build-time scripts. Each discipline has its own sets of components and its own relationships among them.

In wider use, the term “architecture” always means “unchanging deep structure.”

Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

In the face of increasing complexity of systems and their interactions, both internally and with each other, an architecture comprising a set of structures provides the primary means for dealing with complexity in order to ensure that the resulting system has the required properties. Structures provide ways to understand the system as sets of interacting components.

Each structure is intended to help the architect understand how to satisfy particular concerns, such as changeability or performance. The job of demonstrating that particular concerns are satisfied may fall to others, but the architect must be able to demonstrate that all concerns have been met.

Network architecture: the communication equipment, protocols, and transmission links that constitute a network, and the methods by which they are arranged.

The Role of Architect

When buildings are designed, constructed, or renovated, we designate key designers as “architects” and give them a broad range of responsibilities. An architect prepares initial sketches of the building, showing both external appearance and internal layout, and discusses these sketches with clients until all concerned have agreed that what is shown is what they want. The sketches are abstractions: they focus attention on the pertinent details of a particular aspect of the building, omitting other concerns.

After the clients and architects agree on these abstractions, the architects prepare, or supervise the preparation of, much more detailed drawings, as well as associated textual specifications. These drawings and specifications describe many “nitty-gritty” details of a building, such as plumbing, siding materials, window glazing, and electrical wiring.

On rare occasions, an architect simply hands the detailed plans to a builder who completes the project in accordance with the plans. For more important projects, the architect remains involved, regularly inspects the work, and may propose changes or accept suggestions for change from both the builder and customer. When the architect supervises the project, it is not considered complete until he certifies that it is in substantial compliance with the plans and specifications.

We employ an architect to assure that the design (1) meets the needs of the client, including the characteristics previously noted; (2) has conceptual integrity by using the same design rules throughout; and (3) meets legal and safety requirements. An important part of the architect’s role is to ensure that the design concepts are consistently realized during the implementation. Sometimes the architect also acts as a mediator between builder and client. There is often some disagreement about which decisions are in the realm of the architect and which are left to others, but it is always clear that the architect makes the major decisions, including all that can affect the usability, safety, and maintainability of the structure.

The Role of the Software Architect

Software development projects need people who play the same role for software construction that traditional architects play when buildings are constructed or renovated. For software systems, however, it has never been clear exactly which decisions are the purview of the architect and which can be left to the implementers. The definition of what an architect does in a software project is more difficult than the analogous definition for building architects because of three factors: lack of tradition, the intangible nature of the product, and the complexity of the system. (See Grinter [1999] for a portrayal of how a software architect carries out her role within a large software development organization.)

In particular:

  • Building architects can look back at thousands of years of history to see what architects have done in the past; they can visit and study buildings that have been standing for hundreds, and sometimes a thousand years or more, and that are still in use. In software we have only a few decades of history and our designs are often not public. Furthermore, building architects have and use standards for describing the drawings and specifications that the architects produce, allowing present architects to take advantage of the recorded history of architecture.

  • Buildings are physical products; there is a clear distinction between the plans produced by the architects and the building produced by the workers.

On major software projects, there are often many architects. Some architects are quite specialized in disciplines, such as databases and networks, and usually work as part of a team, but for now we will write as if there were only one.

What Constitutes a Software Architecture?

It is a mistake to think of “an architecture” as if it were a simple entity that could be described by a single document or drawing. Architects must make many design decisions. To be useful, these decisions must be documented so that they can be reviewed, discussed, modified, and approved, and then serve to constrain subsequent decision making and construction. For software systems, these design decisions are behavioral and structural.

External behavioral descriptions show how the product will interface with its users, other systems, and external devices, and should take the form of requirements. Structural descriptions show how the product is divided into parts and the relations between those parts. Internal behavioral descriptions are needed to describe the interfaces between components. Structural descriptions often show several distinct views of the same part because it is impossible to put all the information in one drawing or document in a meaningful way. A component in one view may be a part of a component in another.

Software architectures are often presented as layered hierarchies that tend to commingle several different structures in one diagram. In the 1970s Parnas pointed out that the term “hierarchy” had become a buzzword, and then precisely defined the term and gave several different examples of structures used for different purposes in the design of different systems (Parnas 1974). Describing the structures of an architecture as a set of views, each of which addresses different concerns, is now accepted as a standard architecture practice (Clements et al. 2003; IEEE 2000). We will use the word “architecture” to refer to a set of annotated diagrams and functional descriptions that specify the structures used to design and construct a system. In the software development community there are many different forms used, and proposed, for such diagrams and descriptions. See Hoffman and Weiss (2000, chaps. 14 and 16) for some examples.

The software architecture of a program or computing system is the structure or structures of the system, which comprise software elements, the externally visible properties of those elements, and the relationships among them.

“Externally visible” properties are those assumptions other elements can make of an element, such as its provided services, performance characteristics, fault handling, shared resource usage, and so on.

Len Bass, Paul Clements, and Rick Kazman, Software Architecture in Practice, Second Edition

Architecture Versus Design

Architecture is a part of the design of the system; it highlights some details by abstracting away from others. Architecture is thus a subset of design. A developer focused on implementing a component of the system may not be very aware of how all the components fit together, but rather is primarily concerned with the design and development of a small number of component(s), including the architectural constraints that they must obey and the rules they can use. As such, the developer is working on a different aspect of the system design than the architect.

If architecture is concerned with the relationships among components and the externally visible properties of system components, then design will additionally be concerned with the internal structure of those components. For example, if one set of components consists of information-hiding modules, then the externally visible properties form the interfaces to those components, and the internal structure is concerned with the data structures and flow of control within a module (Hoffman and Weiss 2000, chaps. 7 and 16).

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