Who Needs Architects? – Navigating the Fractals

Vasco da Gama

In my last post, “Microservice Principles and Enterprise IT Architecture”, I mentioned how Ruth Malan frequently notes that design is fractal. In other words, “…a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale”. Software systems can generally be decomposed into sub-systems, components, classes and methods, all the way down into individual lines of code. Concerns that apply to the more granular levels (cohesion/focus, separation of concerns, managing dependencies, etc.) also apply as the level of abstraction increases.

It is important to note that software systems do not exist in a vacuum, but are themselves components of solutions, possibly of a system of systems, and definitely of an enterprise’s IT architecture. Those same concerns that apply to the hierarchy of structures within a given system also apply to the hierarchy of structures to which the system belongs. To quote Ruth again:

Russell Ackoff urged that to design a system, it must be seen in the context of the larger system of which it is part. Any system functions in a larger system (various larger systems, for that matter), and the boundaries of the system — its interaction surfaces and the capabilities it offers — are design negotiations. That is, they entail making decisions with trade-off spaces, with implications and consequences for the system and its containing system of systems. We must architect across the boundaries, not just up to the boundaries. If we don’t, we naively accept some conception of the system boundary and the consequent constraints both on the system and on its containing systems (of systems) will become clear later. But by then much of the cast will have set. Relationships and expectations, dependencies and interdependencies will create inertia. Costs of change will be higher, perhaps too high.

Ruth illustrates this relationship using this diagram:

System Context illustration, Ruth Malan

Couple this macro-illustration with the graphic breakdown of application structure from Savita Pahuja’s “Relation of Agility and Modularity”, and it should be obvious that architecture (in the form of structure and relationships) is present at all levels of abstraction.

System Granularity illustration

This fractal nature confirms what Savita states: “Agility can only be realized when the underlying entity – the organization or the software product, has structural modularity”. In other words, if you can’t break it down, replace or re-configure it, your ability to change is constrained. Moreover, modularity at one level of abstraction can be defeated by a lack of modularity at a higher level of abstraction.

While this shows that it’s turtles “architecture all the way down”, what does that say about the need for architectural design?

I’ve long been skeptical of the idea that a coherent design can reliably “emerge” from a disparate group of people doing “the simplest thing that can possibly work”. Darwinian evolution is a story set in blind alleys carpeted in the corpses of failures. With millions of years and an unlimited budget, you might develop something in this manner, but lacking that, you need to cheat (i.e. design intentionally).

Alistair Cockburn has recently posted about just that, mixing intentional design with Test Driven Development (TDD) in pursuit of better results (which he felt he got). Kevin Rutherford’s “TDD for teams” related how Cockburn’s efforts seemed to spur some counter posts to defend TDD from the assault of up-front thinking. It appears that some feel that thinking throughout coding is antithetical to spending anything more than a trivial amount of time on thought before coding. Rutherford notes:

So now we have 5 different design approaches to one toy kata from 4 developers, all in the space of one weekend. (And there are probably more that I haven’t heard about.) Of course, it would have been weird if they had all produced identical designs. We are all different, and that’s definitely a good thing. But I worry that this can cause problems for teams doing TDD.

Rutherford then, in my opinion, captures the essence of the problem:

If a team is to produce software that exhibits internal consistency and is understandable by all of its developers, then somehow these individual differences must be surrendered or homogenized in some way. Somehow the team must create designs — and a design style — that everyone agrees on.

As one travels up the hierarchy, one layer’s internal consistency is predicated on the consistency of the external interfaces of the layer below. Traditionally, that consistency has been the realm of architects. Success or failure in achieving that consistency, in my opinion, is determined by the appropriateness of the influence exercised. An attempt to micromanage via Big Design Up Front (BDUF) will likely fail due to the information deficits inherent in trying to control far beyond the extent of your comprehension. Abstraction exists to allow for broader understanding at lower resolution. By the same token, I would question the logic of relying on luck to maintain consistency between a system and its ecosystem. A balance is necessary to well match the system to the context it will inhabit.

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