Beautiful Architectures

All of the preceding methods help to evaluate whether an architecture is “good enough”—that is, whether it is likely to guide the developer and testers to produce a system that will satisfy the functional and quality concerns of the system’s stakeholders. There are many good architectures in systems that we use every day.

But what about architectures that are more than good enough? What if there were a “Software Architecture Hall of Fame”? Which architectures would line the walls of that gallery? The idea is not as far-fetched as you might think—in the field of software product lines, just such a Hall of Fame exists.[3] The criteria for induction into the Software Product Line Hall of Fame include commercial success, influence on other product line architectures (others have “borrowed, copied, or stolen” from the architecture), and sufficient documentation that others can understand the architecture “without resorting to hearsay.”

What criteria would we add to these for nominees for a more general “Architecture Hall of Fame,” or perhaps a “Gallery of Beautiful Architectures”?

First, we should recognize that this is a gallery of software systems, not art, and our systems are built to be used. So, perhaps we should begin by looking at the Utility of the architecture: it should be used every day by many people.

But before an architecture can be used, it must be built, and so we should look at the Buildability of the architecture. We would look for architectures with a well-defined Uses Structure that would support incremental construction, so that at each iteration of construction we would have a useful, testable system. We would also look for architectures that have well-defined module interfaces and that are inherently testable, so that the construction progress is transparent and visible.

Next, we want architectures that demonstrate Persistence—that is, architectures that have stood the test of time. We work in an era when the technical environment is changing at an ever-increasing rate. A beautiful architecture should anticipate the need for change, and allow expected changes to be made easily and efficiently. We want to find architectures that have avoided the “aging horizon” (Klein 2005) beyond which maintenance becomes prohibitively expensive.

Finally, we would want to include architectures that have features that delight the developers and testers who use the architecture and build it and maintain it, as well as the users of the system(s) built from it. Why delight developers? It makes their job easier and is more likely to result in a high-quality system. Why delight testers? They are the ones who have to attempt to emulate what the users will do as part of the testing process. If they are delighted, it is likely that the users will be, too. Think of the chef who is unhappy with his culinary creations. His customers, who consume those creations, are likely to be unhappy, too.

Different systems and application domains offer opportunities for architectures to exhibit specific delightful features, but Conceptual Integrity is a feature that cuts across all domains and that always delights. A consistent architecture is easier and faster to learn, and once you know a little, you can begin to predict the rest. Without the need to remember and handle special cases, code is cleaner and test sets are smaller. A consistent architecture does not offer two (or more) ways to do the same thing, forcing the user to waste time choosing. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said of good design, “Less is more,” and Albert Einstein might say that beautiful architectures are as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Given these criteria, we propose some initial candidates for our “Gallery of Beautiful Architectures.”

The first entry is the architecture for the A-7E Onboard Flight Processor (OFP), developed at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the late 1970s, and described in Bass, Clements, and Kazman (2003). Although this particular system never went into production, it meets every other criterion for inclusion. This architecture has had tremendous influence on the practice of software architecture by demonstrating in a real-world system the separation of a design-time Information Hiding Module and Uses structures from the runtime Process Structures. It showed that information hiding could be used as a primary decomposition principle for a complex system. Since the U.S. government funded and developed the architecture, all project documentation is available in the public domain.[4] The architecture had a well-defined Uses structure that facilitated incremental construction of the system. Finally, the Information Hiding Module structure provided clear and consistent criteria for decomposing the system, resulting in strong Conceptual Integrity. As an exemplar of embedded system software architecture, the A-7E OFP certainly belongs in our gallery.

Another architecture that we would want to include in our gallery is the software architecture for the Lucent 5ESS telephone switch (Carney et al. 1985). The 5ESS has been a global commercial success, providing core telephone network switching for networks in countries around the world. It has set the standard for performance and availability, with each unit capable of handling over one million call connections per hour with less than 10 seconds of unplanned downtime per year (Alcatel-Lucent 1999). The architecture’s unifying concepts, such as the “half call model” for managing telephone connections, have become standard patterns in the domains of telephony and network protocols (Hanmer 2001). In addition to keeping the number of call types that must be handled to 2n, where n is the number of call protocols, the half call pattern links the operating system concept of process to the telephony concept of call type, thereby providing a simple design rule and introducing a beautiful Conceptual Integrity. A development team of up to 3,000 people has evolved and enhanced the system over the past 25 years. Based on success, persistence, and influence, the 5ESS architecture is a fine addition to our gallery.

Another system to consider for inclusion in our Gallery of Beautiful Architectures is the architecture of the World Wide Web (WWW), created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, and described in Bass, Clements, and Kazman (2003). The WWW has certainly been commercially successful, transforming the way that people use the Internet. The architecture has remained intact, even as new applications are created and new capabilities introduced. The overall simplicity of the architecture contributes to its Conceptual Integrity, but decisions such as using a single library for both clients and servers and creating a layered architecture to separate concerns have ensured that the integrity of the architecture remains intact. The persistence of the core WWW architecture and its ability to continue to support new extensions and features certainly qualify it for inclusion in our gallery.

Our last example is the Unix system, which exhibits conceptual integrity, is widely used, and has had great influence. The pipe and filters design is a lovely abstraction that permits rapid construction of new applications.

We have gone to considerable length to describe architectures, the role of architects, and considerations that go into creating architectures, and we have offered several brief examples of beautiful architectures. We invite you now to read more detailed examples from accomplished architects in the following chapters as they describe the beautiful architectures that they have created and used.

[4] See, for example, Chapters 6, 15, and 16 in Hoffman and Weiss (2000), or conduct a search for “A-7E” in the NRL Digital Archives (

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