Architecture in Context – Part 1

By Charlie Alfred and Gene Hughson

It’s a common occurrence on online forums to see someone ask what architectural style is the right one. Likewise, it’s common to see a reply of “it depends” because “context is king”. Many will nod sagely at this; of course it is, context is king. But, what is context? Specifically, what do we mean by the term “context” in terms of software and solution architecture?

At a high level, context defines the problem environment for which a solution is intended to provide value. That definition, however, is far too superficial to suffice, because only the most trivial of systems will have a single context. Refining our definition, we can state that a context is a grouping of stakeholders sharing similar goals, priorities, and perceptions. In practice, unless you’re dealing with a system that you are developing yourself for your sole use, you will be dealing with multiple contexts, and they are likely to overlap like the Olympic logo. If you are puzzled by this statement, consider silverware. We need knives, forks and spoons and we have different types of each of them.

Identifying contexts and understanding how they interrelate gives definition to the architecture of the problem, which is a necessary prerequisite to designing the architecture of a solution (note the use of “a solution” instead of “the solution” – it’s intentional). This involves considerable work to identify the goals, priorities, and perceptions in that the natural tendency is for a stakeholder to ask for what they think will solve their problem rather than enumerate their problems (which is the point of the apocryphal “faster horses” quote frequently attributed to Henry Ford). Nonetheless, breaking out those raw needs is crucial to success.

Where you have multiple contexts, chances are the goals, priorities, and perceptions diverge rather than complement. Take, for example, a pickup truck. One context may be those who haul bulky and/or heavy goods daily. Another context may be made up of those who frequently tow trailers. A third context might be those who haul or tow from time to time, but mainly use the truck for transportation. The value of any given feature of the truck: miles per gallon of fuel, size of the bed, whether or not the bed is covered, quality of the sound system, torque, etc. will vary based on the context we’re considering. Additionally, external forces (such as the laws of physics) will come into play and complicate making design decisions. For example, long, open truck beds maximize hauling capacity, but will also harm fuel efficiency.

Another complicating factor is the presence of peripheral stakeholders, those whose contexts will affect the direct stakeholders. In the sense of our pickup truck example, we can consider mechanics as an example of this. Trucks that have more room in the engine compartment are easier (therefore cheaper) to service but will suffer in terms of fuel efficiency due to increased size and weight. In the IT realm, development and support teams would fall into this category. Although their contexts would not be primary drivers, ignoring them could well impose a cost on the direct stakeholders in terms of turnaround time for enhancements and fixes.

Examples of multi-context software systems can be found many places. The more generic a system, the more contexts it will have. Commodity office software (word processors, spreadsheets, etc.) are a prime example. Consider Microsoft Excel, which is a simple row/column tabulator, a statistical analysis tool, a database client, and, with its macro language, is an application development platform. Stretching to cover this many needs turns the Excel User Experience into a game of Twister. Platforms, such as Android are another example. Highly configurable applications like Salesforce.com (which has arguably crossed the line between product and platform) span multiple contexts as well. In the enterprise IT space, first SOA and now microservice architectures are nothing if not an attempt to address the plethora of contexts in play via separation of concerns.

A holistic consideration of the contexts at hand is an important success factor when evolving a system iteratively and incrementally. Without that consideration, decisions can be made that are conducive to one context but antagonistic to another. Deferring the reconciliation of the two contextual conflicts until later may result in considerable architectural refactoring. This refactoring will involve time and expense at a minimum, and if time is constrained, the likelihood of incurring technical debt is high. Each additional conflict that is blundered into due to the lack of up front consideration increases the risk to the system. This is not to endorse a detailed Big Design Up Front (BDUF), but a recognition that problem awareness and problem avoidance is cheaper than rework. If the context has been identified, then it’s YAGNI – not “You Ain’t Gonna Need It” but “You Are Gonna Need It”.

The next post will in this series will address concrete practices to integrate multiple contexts into a unified architecture of the problem that can serve as the foundation for a coherent architecture of a solution.

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14 thoughts on “Architecture in Context – Part 1

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