A Toolbox of Software Architecture Review Techniques - Wrap Up

Wrap-up: Full presentation and slide-deck

Seeing JavaZone 2016 just around the corner, I realise I never got around to finishing off this blog series. Although I finished putting all the information together, I simply never got around to finishing the blog posts. But I did put it all together for a few workshops and conferences both last year and earlier this year.

The presentation was captured at last years JavaZone and the slide-deck is on Slideshare.

A Toolbox of Software Architecture Review Techniques from JavaZone on Vimeo.

A Toolbox of Software Architecture Review Techniques - Pt 3

Part 3: Evaluation Criteria - "Is it good enough FOR WHAT"

(This is the third post in the series on architecture review techniques. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t done so already)
Evaluation criteria - you should definitely have some
Seriously. That’s not just a throwaway line to kick off a blog post. You’ve probably also been in situations where someone has asked you, «Can you check out this architecture and tell me if its ok?». Sure, you can usually come up with some feedback based on experience, but mostly you want to reply with, «Can I tell you if it’s ok FOR WHAT? What's important for you? Is it security, performance, maintainability....?». You need to work on your evaluation criteria if you want to deliver a useful architecture review.

There are plenty of techniques for capturing evaluation criteria. Such as:
  • experience
  • scenarios
  • checklists
  • design principles
  • architecture smells
  • anti-patterns
  • metrics
We'll go through the most common ones and you can google around for the rest which are useful to have in your toolbox.

This post is a bit long but working with evaluation criteria can be the most important part of a review, so I think it's worth it. As an additional benefit, working with quality attributes, which are the basis for evaluation criteria, is a tool that will give you testable design criteria that you can use to drive an architecture design process and not just review an architecture.

But first a word on experience. You can come a long way by relying solely on experience to perform the review - especially if you actually have both the technical and domain experience that you think you do. But you will get more out of an architecture review if you take a the time to systematically work through your evaluation criteria first.

tl;dr summary:
  • determine which qualities (or quality attributes) are most important for the system to deliver - eg: performance, maintainability, usability, etc
  • use checklists, generic requirements and technical requirements for criteria that are relevant across solutions and projects
  • elicit verifiable scenarios that operationalise the generic requirements and to exemplify qualities that are specific to your solution
  • relying on experience can work if you have deep domain knowledge in addition to software architecture expertise.

System Qualities

«...The architecture is the primary carrier of system qualities, such as performance, modifiability, and security, none of which can be achieved without a unifying architectural vision. Architecture is an artifact for early analysis to make sure that the design approach will yield an acceptable system. Architecture holds the key to postdeployment system understanding, maintenance, and mining efforts…»
SEI definition
Evaluation criteria start with the system qualities. Typically these have been called non-functional requirements but more and more people are using the term “quality attributes” and “quality requirements” instead. Ideally, whoever wants the system reviewed would have a list of system qualities that they want the solution to achieve - but very few people have them at a level that can be used for a review. Often there is a document somewhere in the organisation called "Non functional requirements (NFR)" that lists a mix generic design goals, developer guidelines and specific test criteria and constraints that are applicable across all projects. For example, the following are taken from some real non-functional requirements documents:
  • “The solution must be flexible enough to evolve as the business requires”
  • “Response times for customer-facing webapps must be < 2secs for 95% of all requests”
  • “Always use the prescribed logging package and not System.out…”
Evaluation criteria should be verifiable and these generic non-functional requirements documents usually require some form of operationalising to get evaluation criteria that are useable. For instance, what does “flexible enough” mean in the context of the system you are evaluating? Other qualities such as “peak number of concurrent users” will also be specific to that system.

In addition there can be solution-specific quality attributes that are important for your system, and these need to be verified with their own quality requirements that are probably not mentioned in the generic list of NFRs. Consider a boring document archive system that you need to have for compliance reasons. It is most likely a long-lived, non-innovative solution where sustainability is a very important quality attribute - that is, how can the system be maintained over a 10+ year period. Sustainability is a quality attribute that is not usually mentioned in a common set of requirements but it could be quite important to some specific solutions.

Extracting the total set of requirements for the qualities that you want your system to have, involves both the identification of those requirements that are solution-specific and the operationalisation of those generic common requirements within the context of the system under review.

An important step in an architecture review is to elicit these criteria and one of the most useful results from an architecture review can simply be to get architects and product owners more proactive in eliciting, refining, maintaining, and testing these qualities in the design evolution of the solution.

Identifying and prioritising system qualities

Start by determining which qualities are relevant for your system. There are many sets of -illities you can use, but it can be useful to ones that are provided in the ISO 25010 software quality model standard and then customise them as needed for your particular project.

ISO25010 model

As an example of customisation, perhaps the Usability aspects aren’t relevant for your back-end project; or you need to extend the refinements for Security to include Authentication, Defense-in-depth, etc; or you need an additional quality which isn’t depicted in the model - for instance issues around DevOps or legal Compliance. Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive list of system qualities that you can use to customise the above list.

You might identify the important qualities and refinements simply from the business drivers and scope of the review or perhaps you will need to evolve the tree as part of scenario workshops, which I’ll describe later in this blog.

Most of these qualities are well understood, except perhaps those under “functional suitability”. You may assume that all these are covered under testing. However, I once worked on a project to automate the processing of social security applications. It was only in a scenario workshop with case-handlers that we learned the importance and consequence of ensuring that the system was completely correct with respect to the relevant legislation. For instance, if the case was sent to an appeals court then the govt agency needed to show exactly how the automatic processing occurred. This required two changes: a) extensions to the domain model to record far more information about rule execution so that processing could be recreated at a later date; and b) a change from user stories and acceptance criteria for functionality directly connected to legal compliance to a more detailed technique - RuleSpeak - that removed ambiguity and interpretation by developers.

The SEI uses a Quality Utility Tree, which can be cumbersome to use in practice, but you can represent them in multiple different ways. For instance my colleague Mario uses an impact map, and here’s some other examples from Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz blog series on system qualities:
There are two purpose for this structured set of quality attributes:
  1. To get you thinking about the evaluation criteria you need use in an evaluation. Even if you are going to evaluate based on experience, it’s useful to work through all qualities that are important for the solution owner in order to minimise the chance that you overlook something important.
  2. Have a representation of system quality that you can discuss with product owners, domain experts, etc who will help identify, prioritise, and refine testable evaluation criteria. It's not often these stakeholders consider issues beyond functional user stories and a visual representation can help drive workshops to elicit evaluation criteria. It also helps get them to take more ownership of these quality issues - especially when they have to vote on priority and there are tradeoffs that need to be made.

Evaluation criteria based on system qualities

Once you have the important quality attributes for the solution then you can exemplify them with testable evaluation criteria. These usually takes the form of:
  • scenarios or
  • checklists
Before getting to those it’s worth mentioning that the most popular type of evaluation criteria is experience - i.e., no explicit evaluation criteria. If you have enough experience with both software architecture and the particular problem domain, then in effect, you have scenarios and checklists as tacit knowledge.


Scenarios are the most often recommended approach for capturing evaluation criteria. For each quality attribute you work with relevant stakeholders in the project to capture specific, quantified scenarios that you can use as acceptance test cases for the architecture. For instance, you can see example scenarios in a quality utility tree in following image.

These scenarios need to be verifiable. One technique is to use SMART scenarios - specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound. Another format is to specify Context, Stimulus, and Response from the system. These scenarios are like acceptance test cases for the architecture and the Context, Stimulus, Response format is very similar to the Given, When, Then format used in BDD/Specification By Example that you may be already familiar with.
  • Given (Context) normal conditions
  • When (Stimulus) a write operation on an entity occurs
  • Then the (Response) from the system should be less than 500 milliseconds.
It can be difficult to get stakeholders to specify evaluation criteria in this detailed format - especially if they have little experience with quality attributes. If that is the case then it's best to get them to start with simple, specific examples rather than trying for detailed, quantified, specifications of the requirements they want. In this sense you can think of scenarios as user stories. An example requirement that is the used to start a more detailed discussion with the domain experts rather than a perfect specification. You can use an iterative process to make them more detailed in subsequent workshops. As an example, flexibility/maintainability is always a tough quality to give testable criteria for. Crystal-ball gazing can be error-prone and throw up examples that may never occur, but stakeholders will likely have many examples of things that have been difficult to change in the past and will have domain knowledge of things that will likely change in the future - knowledge that IT people will usually not have themselves. Its important to make these criteria explicit and it may take a series of workshops with stakeholders to get the important, testable quality attribute scenarios out in the open.

A useful tool for generating, refining, and prioritising these scenarios is the Quality Attribute Workshop. The workshop gathers relevant stakeholders and works through the following steps:
  • identify the important qualities attributes and refinements (the architecture drivers)
  • brainstorming of scenarios with broad selection of stakeholders. At this stage those scenarios can be quite high level and as simple as a bit of prose on some post-it notes.
  • scenarios are then grouped together as appropriate and prioritised using voting from those present
  • the highest priority scenarios are then refined using the “Context, Stimulus, Response” format and quantified.
  • finally, those scenarios are classified for (Benefit, Difficulty to Realise) using a High, Middle, and Low rating.
The result is a tree or table such the one in the previous diagram. There is also a more lightweight workshop format you can use - the mini quality attribute workshop. (presentation slides and video)

These techniques for generating scenarios are especially helpful when running an architecture review in an domain in which you are not an expert - for example if you are called in as an external reviewer. Additionally, they can be useful when one of the objectives is to improve understanding of the system drivers to a larger group.

It may not always be useful, or necessary, to spend time generating scenarios. Creating scenarios with stakeholders is time consuming and it can be challenging to get them refined and quantified. An IEEE Software article from 2008 includes a debate between Tom Gilb and Alistair Cockburn on the relative merits of quantifying these scenarios and the return on investment for the amount of work you put in. Unfortunately, the debate is behind the IEEE paywall, but you can read Alistair’s thoughts from his website and Tom’s writings on the benefits of requirements quantification are well detailed. Additionally, you may not have time to run these workshops within the time constraints of the review, or perhaps the scope of the review doesn’t require detailed scenarios. But being able to elicit and detail evaluation criteria using scenarios is a useful technique to have.


Checklists are probably the most used technique in practice for capturing evaluation criteria. Whilst scenarios are good for capturing project and domain specific evaluation criteria, checklists are good for capturing the technical architecture issue that exist across multiple projects. For example, I have a checklist that deals solely with integration architecture that I use on most projects.

There’s not much to say about using checklists. Simply create and maintain checklists for the quality issues that exist across all projects and use them in your reviews. The answers to this question on stackexchange provide a great collection of checklists. For instance, this one from Code Complete:

Additionally, TOGAF recommends the whole architecture review process be designed around checklists.

TOGAF review process with checklists

The TOGAF architecture compliance review process is not as detailed as the ones I’ll get to in later posts, but the TOGAF guide provides a useful set of checklists for areas such as:
  • Hardware and Operating System Checklist
  • Software Services and Middleware Checklist
  • Applications Checklists
  • Information Management Checklists
  • Security Checklist
  • System Management Checklist
  • System Engineering/Overall Architecture Checklists
  • System Engineering/Methods & Tools Checklist

Other sources for checklists include:
I’m sure there are plenty more out there, but these should be a good starting point for developing your own.


In this post of the blog series we’ve looked at evaluation criteria which are one of the most important parts of the Review Inputs (remember Review Inputs from the SARA report that we looked at in the last post?)

Let’s wrap it up with a rewording of the original tl;dr summary:
  • determine which qualities (or quality attributes) are most important for the system to deliver - eg: performance, maintainability, and usability. These are the architecture drivers.
  • use checklists, generic requirements and technical requirements/constraints for criteria that are relevant across solutions and projects.
  • elicit verifiable scenarios that operationalise the generic requirements and to exemplify qualities that are specific to your solution.
  • use workshops with stakeholders (where appropriate) to both make use of their extensive domain knowledge and to get them to take ownership of system quality in addition to functional user stories.
  • relying on experience can work if you have deep domain knowledge in addition to software architecture expertise.

The next post in the series will move on to next major area in architecture reviews - Methods and Techniques.

Thanks to @marioaparicio for comments on a draft of this article.

A Toolbox of Software Architecture Review Techniques - Pt 2

Part 2: Building on our collective experience

The first article in this series looked at the simplest thing that could be useful when doing architecture reviews. This one looks at how you structure a more systematic review using the collected experience of our industry.

Standing on each other’s shoulders rather than each other’s toes

Previously I lamented the fact that we’ve been both using techniques for architecture reviews for 30+ years - so why are we still not making use of them effectively? Wouldn’t it be great if someone collected all that experience and made it easy to use in practice? Well, they have - it’s called the Software Architecture Review and Assessment (SARA) report. Here we’ll look closer at how to use it to design a structured architecture review.

Back in 1999 a working group got together to collect industrial experience and research techniques for performing architecture reviews. There were many participants from multiple organisations and they presented the SARA report at the ICSE in 2002. (Obbink2002, [pdf]) If you plan on running an architecture review, or currently do them regularly, you should grab a copy and make use of it.

A digression: Apart from ICSE, there are some other conferences you should check out. For instance the «Working International Conference on Software Architecture (WICSA)» - (and the ECSA, and SATURN conferences). There are more conferences that discuss useful techniques for software architects than just the QCon and GOTO series.

The SARA report provides:
concrete, practical, experience-based guidance on how to conduct architectural reviews. This includes guidelines on:
  • what steps to follow,
  • what questions to ask,
  • what information to collect and document,
  • what documentation templates to use, and
  • tips on how to manage the social, managerial, and technical issues that arise when reviewing an artifact as important and complicated as a software architecture.
There are additional articles that collect experience with architecture reviews and provide an overall structure. I’ll include those as well in this article, but the main focus will be how to structure an architecture review using the SARA report.

Designing a Structured Architecture Review

The report structures the knowledge about architecture reviews into the following parts:

  • Review Inputs
  • Review Outcomes
  • Review Workflow
  • Methods and Techniques
  • Pragmatics and People Issues

These parts are a good starting point for planning your review.

The report then finishes with case studies to exemplify each aspect. This article will primarily focus on the inputs and outputs and we’ll come back to the others in later posts.

It begins by defining concepts and how they hang together. Nothing fancy, but an important place to start (figure 4-1).

The most important concepts are what the report terms the ASRs and ASDs:
The purpose of an architecture review is to understand the impact of every architecturally significant decision (ASD) on every architecturally significant requirement (ASR).
This sounds perfectly reasonable and straightforward to do. The problem is - as the report notes - that it’s often very difficult because the architecturally significant requirements are often hard to identify, the architecturally significant decisions are often not documented, and the way the decisions interrelate is often not easily understood. A significant part of the review process is often teasing these out.


The inputs include:
  • Objectives
  • Scope
  • Architecture description and artefacts
  • Evaluation Criteria
Obviously you’re going to need artefacts that describe the architecture, but the first input you need to consider are the objectives for the review. Why you are doing the review and who you are doing it for will drive the rest of the inputs and outcomes that you need to identify.

There are (at least) two starting points for running a review:

  1. It’s a one-off review that has been requested by particular stakeholders in the project.
  2. It’s one of a series of regularly scheduled reviews as part of the project lifecycle.


From this starting point you then identify what you want to get out of the review. The report lists the following examples:

  • Certifying conformance to some standard:
    • For example: Does the architecture fulfill the constraints and requirements of the relevant standards?
  • Assessing the quality of the architecture (the most common objective):
    • Does the architecture fit to the problem or mission statement?
    • Can specific qualities (e.g., scalability, performance, etc.) be architecturally controlled?
    • Etc.
  • Identifying opportunities for improvement:
    • Which design decisions should be revised in order to improve the architecture?
  • Improving communication between stakeholders.

Other objectives can include reviewing the portfolio of a newly acquired company to determine functional overlap and to determine if it’s worthwhile investing further in an existing, long-lived system compared to purchasing/building something based on more recent design/technology.


Once you have the objectives, then you need to set the scope of the review. There are many aspects to consider and you need to agree on both what’s in and what’s out of scope for the review. This is especially important if it’s a one-off review and you are an external reviewer. Scope creep is just a damaging for reviews as it is for software development - especially in situations where stakeholders may see the review as a means for pushing their own agenda. Examples of scope include:

  • Is it the whole system or just some of the major components?
  • Is it a system of systems?
  • Are you including all the stakeholders or just a selection?
  • Will you consider all the evaluation criteria, or just focusing on some of them?

The answers to these questions will often be affected by the time available, stakeholder availability, concerns of whomever has commissioned the review and if it’s a one-off review or part of a regular series of reviews.

Evaluation criteria

With the objectives and scope you can then move on to evaluation criteria - the requirements and other inputs that you want to throw against the architecture to see how it stands up. We’ll dig into these in the next article but they include:

  • Quality requirements
    • Scenario-based and experience-based
  • Check lists
  • Application of architecture patterns
  • Relevant standards, regulations and legislation
  • Architecture smells

Evaluation criteria can also include more than these traditional requirements. For instance, a useful input is a high level problem statement. It might be the world's greatest architecture, but if its not actually solving the right problem then its not much good. Similarly, you might have a Business Motivation Model or Impact Map - which gives you the same content but with more hipster packaging - that traces the business strategy down to specific tactical goals for the system.

Architecture description

Finally we get to the input where most people start - the architecture description itself. Often some (or all) of this documentation won't exist. It may be part of the initial stage of a review to work with the relevant team members to create the architecture views needed. As a starting point you could use a common set of views. For instance, the Kruchten 4+1 view model is good starting point. More recently I’ve also seen people using Simon Brown’s C4 model.

4+1 ModelC4 Model
Logical ViewSystem Context diagram
Development ViewContainer diagram
Process ViewComponent diagrams
Physical ViewClass diagrams
+1 for scenarios that instantiate the views for particular use cases...

These are great places to start. However for doing effective reviews you should have a good understanding of which architecture views you need. These will be affected by the objectives for the review, the quality requirements that are architecturally significant, and the point in the project lifecycle that you’re running the review. You need to identify the architecture views that allow you to apply the evaluation criteria to meet your objectives. For instance, the C4 doesn’t have behaviour views, so if you need to evaluate anything to do with timing and concurrency then you will need to provide an additional view. Rozanski and Woods have captured a many in their book on Views and Viewpoints for Software Architecture - and many are on their book website.

You may have additional architecture artefacts than just the architecture description. There may be proof-of-concepts, feasibility studies, or if it’s part of an agile project you may have a walking skeleton solution. For reviews of existing systems you’ll (hopefully) have the code.


That’s quite a lot on inputs - though there is more in the SARA report that is worth exploring. Now let’s look at the collective experience with outcomes.

The main tangible output - usually some kind of report - will depend on the objectives and the type of review you are performing. The SARA report provides a suggested structure for the report which you can use as a starting point and tailor appropriately.

Note that a review that is part of regular planned review activities and performed by people within the organisation/project will be less formal than if you are an external reviewer who is performing a one-off review for a particular stakeholder. The later will have greater need for documentation and justification for the outcomes.

The primary outcome is a list of risks, opportunities and recommendations concerning how the design deals with the prioritised evaluation criteria. But before we get into those there are also intangible outcomes that should not be ignored. One of the most useful outcomes from a review is simply the improved understanding about the planned architecture - especially for those who are not central in the design team. Additionally, a review team may not identify significant risks but the simple process of having the relevant team members explain the design will help share knowledge - and the act of doing this can often help the architects find and plug holes in their own understanding.

The first outcome most people think of are the risks, or issues, with the design. A useful approach is to identify both the risk and any relevant tradeoff that the stakeholders need to consider. For example, a design for a mobile app could recommend a native app over a html5 solution. The architecture review may document the extra cost and resources for supporting multiple platforms for this decision. But often what the stakeholders need is to understand the tradeoff so that they can prioritise the correct qualities. For instance, for a mobile game the user experience may be prioritised over the cost of supporting multiple platforms. For a relatively simple data entry app, the tradeoff might be prioritised the other way.

Risks don’t have to be solely about design. The review can identify issues such as:

  • business plan
  • process issues
  • requirements analysis
  • applied standards and technologies
  • design and implementation
  • test and monitoring
  • human resource issues

Be sure to also document strengths of the architecture under review and also the aspects that could not be reviewed. For instance, because the review:

  • lacked documentation
  • lacked access to particular people
  • was too early in the project to consider them in detail.

Finally,you should include recommendations and an action plan. Identifying weaknesses is one thing but stakeholders want suggestions for how to deal with them. Those recommendations don’t need to be a list of things that must be done. They can be an opening for discussions with the architecture team.

Review Workflow

Organise your review into the following phases:

  • review inception
  • the review itself
  • post review

The first phase results in the agreement on the review scope, cost, duration, participants, etc. The second phase is the ..., iterative process of discovering, capturing and comparing ASRs and the architecture description. The last phase concentrates on summarizing and communicating the finding, as well as improving the review techniques and methods

Methods and Techniques

The report provides an inventory of methods and techniques and I’ll go into them in subsequent articles. These will discuss:

  • Should you use scenario-based or experience-based method?
  • How will you identify those scenarios?
  • Do you need a full ATAM (Architecture Tradeoff Analysis Method) or should you use a lightweight variant?
  • Do you need quality-specific techniques such as Rate Monotonic Analysis to analyse issues with real-time systems?
  • etc.

Pragmatics and People issues

The report finishes with a section on Pragmatics and People issues. These are extremely important but I think this blog post has covered enough.


It’s not uncommon in our industry to bump into a grey-haired software architect, mention some new solution or technique, and watch them roll their eyes and ramble on about how it’s just a rehash of something they’d used or read about decades before. And it’s true, many things that we treat as new in software architecture have been solved before - it’s just that those solutions are unnecessarily hard to find.

Techniques for software architecture reviews are one of those areas and this article has described how to structure a more systematic software architecture review based on many years of collective experience. Go and download the SARA report and build on the experience of others.

Thanks to Pär for reviewing a draft of this article.

A Toolbox of Software Architecture Review Techniques - Pt 1

Part 1: The problem with many architecture reviews and the simplest thing you can do to make them better

I was at the Software Architect conference in London back in October and saw Rob Smallshire (@robsmallshire) give a talk on Conducting an Architecture Review. Rather than presenting techniques for reviewing an architecture, he instead focussed on things that go on around a review that you need to get right in order to be successful - such as how to get stakeholders involved, how to get the right buy in, how to set expectations with the project owner, and how to the right people to participate and what they should contribute. It was a good talk, you should check out the video in the link.

Chatting with people in the break it was clear that whilst lots of people do some kind of architecture / design review in their work, they aren’t very familiar with established techniques and methodologies for performing them. There was actually an industry study (Babar2009 [pdf]) a few years ago which showed that most organisations use home-grown, informal, ad-hoc techniques. And of the approximately 40% that claim to use a structured approach very few have heard of or use any established technique - despite how long they have existed and been successfully used.

So this is a short blog series about architecture review techniques - the ones that exist, the differences between them, and how to choose between them based on your context. In this first post I’ll start with the simplest technique that can help and then get into more detail later on.

Overview Stuff

Let’s start with a simple overview. Like many topics in software architecture, Grady Booch has provided a short and too the point description that explains how to perform an architecture review (Booch2010):

  • Identify the forces on the system.
  • Grok the system’s essential architecture.
  • Generate scenarios that exercise the relevant forces against the architecture.
  • Throw the essential architecture against those scenarios, then evaluate how they land relative to the relevant forces.
  • Wash, rines, repeat.

A short digression: This reference (Booch2010) is to an IEEE Software article. Although IEEE SW is an excellent source of information, it is behind a paywall and therefore it may as well not exist for the vast majority of software architects that I know. Luckily they provide a free podcast where Grady Booch reads the article for you. For all the references mentioned in these blog posts I’ll try to also link a publicly accessible sources for further reading (podcast index, mp3).

That list of steps is everything you need in a nutshell. Pretty much all other sources of information are just an elaboration of one or more of those steps in varying degrees of formality.

Let’s begin with a very basic technique, look at the structure for more detailed reviews, and different aspects concerning context that help you find which parts of a detailed review structure that are necessary for you.

Q: What’s the simplest thing I could do that would be useful?
A: Active Design Reviews

Active Design Reviews (Parnas1985 [pdf]) is one of the original discussions on the topic - and its still excellent. There are some older sources (e.g., Fagan1999 [pdf]) but this description from Parnas in the 1980s is a great place to start. The wording may read a little old fashioned in places - e.g., “...a description of the modules access programs…” - but the principles are just as applicable now as they were back then.

Parnas' article begins with a description of how ad-hoc "design reviews" are performed in practice and why this makes it difficult to for the review to produce a useful result. I’m going to repeat them here because even though these design review anti-patterns were described back in the 80s I still see them practiced today on large-scale projects with budgets in the order of 50-100M euros.

Here’s the sequence of events Parnas describes in an ad-hoc review:

  1. A massive quantity of highly detailed design documentation is delivered to the reviewers three to four weeks before the review.
  2. The designated reviewers, many of them administrators who are not trained in software development, read as much of the documentation as is possible in the time allowed. Often this is very little.
  3. During the review, a tutorial presentation of the design is given by the design team; during this presentation, the reviewers ask any questions they feel may help them to understand the design better.
  4. After the design tutorial, a round-table discussion of the design is held. The result is a list of suggestions for the designers.

And here are the consequences. Again, this is pretty much verbatim because Parnas captured it so well 30+ years ago
  1. The reviewers are swamped with information, much of which is not necessary to understand the design… decisions are hidden in a mass of implementation details.
  2. Most reviewers are not familiar with all of the goals of the design and the constraints placed on it.
  3. All reviewers may try to look at all of the documentation, with no part of the design receiving a concentrated examination.
  4. Reviewers who have a vague idea of their responsibilities or the design goals, or who feel intimidated by the review process, can avoid potential embarrassment by saying nothing.
  5. Detailed discussions of specific design issues become hard to pursue in a large all-encompassing design review meeting
  6. People who are mainly interested in learning the status of the project, or who are interested in learning about the purpose of the system may turn the review into a tutorial.
  7. Reviewers are often asked to examine issues beyond their competence.
  8. There is no systematic review procedure and no prepared set of questions to be asked about the design.
  9. As a result of unstated assumptions, subtle design errors may be implicit in the design documentation and go unnoticed

Sound familiar? I don’t understand how we were pretty clear about these problems - and how to overcome them - 30+ years ago and yet this still happens in many places - but that’s a topic for another rant...

Parnas goes into detail about how to address these problems but I wont repeat them now because we’ll get to that when we look at more recent techniques. But there a number of principles in his recommendations which provide the simplest thing you could possibly do.

Let’s start with the most important - and no prizes for guessing where he gets the name of his article from - the reviewer has to take an active stance. That involves two things:

  • As a reviewer you must prepare in advance checklists and scenarios that you want to test for the system qualities that you are interested in.
  • And for those scenarios you must ask active, open questions. I.e., questions that require a descriptive answer and not simply «yes/no» questions. You want the designer to explain how the solution will solve a particular problem or how the design would need to change for a proposed future need. That is, never ask questions such as "is it highly available?". Instead, ask "which state is maintained between calls?", "what are the consequences if that server goes down?", etc.

Some other useful principles are also part of his approach to running a review

  • You will most likely need an iterative approach to the review. That is, you’ll need to run a number of sessions where you start with the overall architecture and then subsequent iterations to dig into more detail or specific areas of concern.
  • You shouldn’t approach the task as a single, all-encompassing, «let’s just review everything» workshop. Instead, you need to identify particular aspects of the design - the qualities of the system - that are most important. Also, you will most likely need multiple people on the review team and they should focus on particular qualities. When working with your typical enterprise applications there is usually a security expert who has a specific area of focus, but other system qualities such modifiability, performance, useability, testing, operations, etc, can also be assigned to particular people on the team.
  • Finally, make sure there is a design representation that is actually reviewable. That doesn’t mean you need 300 pages with inch-perfect UML specifications and mathematical proofs. But it also doesn’t mean a random bunch of box and line pictures with no description of what those boxes and lines are supposed to represent. Identify the views that you need in order to depict the system qualities that are important. Then use a notation that other people understand. UML, Archimate, or whatever.

If there is only one thing that you get from this article series, then just focussing on these takeaways will help you perform better reviews. In fact, whenever you are in a review and you hear someone ask a question such as, «Is the response time good enough?», «is it secure?», «is it service oriented?», «can that be reused?», I recommend that you print out the Active Design Reviews article, roll it up, and give them a good whack with it - and then make them read it before they are allowed to take part in another review.

That’s probably enough for the first article - its already drifting into TL;DR territory.

Before we get into specific review techniques its worth looking at the structure of a comprehensive review (in a little more detail than Booch’s 4 steps) so that it’s easier to compare them. That will be the topic for the next post.

Thanks to colleagues @marioaparicio and @morten_moe for reviewing a draft of this article.

If all you have is an Elephant and 6 Blind Men

I was in a presentation the other day where (once again) a speaker invoked the Blind Men and the Elephant parable to explain some misunderstanding

I'm sure you know the one:
  • There's a large IT project with a lot of different people involved.
  • There are differences of opinion about what is important
  • According to the speaker, the reason we can't agree is because everybody is concentrating solely on their portion of the system rather than looking at the system as a whole.
I can't remember how many times I've heard this story used and I'm sure you've also heard it plenty of times. In fact, as architects in the IT world it seems to be one of those Metaphors We Live By.

Unfortunately it also seems to be the only analogy we use to explain this situation. As such it is a good example of another analogy that is used (and abused) in our discipline - If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Here's an alternative so we can have more than a single hammer to explain different perspectives on large projects:
Fly, Bat, Worm.

This was described in Neal Stephenson's book Anathem and it goes something like this. Instead of 6 blind men groping different parts of the elephant, imagine a Fly, a Bat, and a Worm perceiving the entire elephant and trying to communicate with each other about it. The (ideal) Fly perceives everything solely through sight, the (ideal) Bat perceives everything solely through hearing, and the ideal Worm solely through touch. How can these three discuss what they have perceived? How does a deaf Fly describe something to the blind Worm, or vice versa?
"[The Fly] says 'the worm seems to be relating some kind of account of its wormy doings, but since I don't squirm on the ground and can't imagine what it would be like to be blind, I haven't the faintest idea what it's trying to tell me!'"
While different people working on a large IT project don't perceive with different senses, they do conceive their mental models of the proposed solution differently. We're not so starkly different as to be communicating like a blind Worm to a deaf Fly, but the people working on a large project have different types of knowledge through which they both understand the problem domain and devise solutions using IT. Even people with nominally similar roles can have quite different detailed knowledge models of their area.

For example, Enterprise/Solution Architects are not completely divorced from the "wormy doings" of the Operations people who "squirm on ground"[*], but they are culturally different. Even if you have experience across all the different facets of Business and IT, different levels of expertise result in different levels of detail in the conceptual models we use to understand our problems and solutions. We might use the same terms in discussions but that does not mean we are immune to cultural differences in understanding. In fact the way we use the same terms often hides the differences in understanding that we have. We may think we have reached consensus, but internally we can have quite different interpretations of those words - i.e., the contexts that govern their meaning - and therefore the consequences for how they interact to provide a solution. "Service" anyone?
[*] No offense to the excellent Ops people I know. s/Operations/Development | TechArchitect | BusinessArch/ etc as required.

Designing a system requires constructing an understanding - a conceptual model of the solution. I.e., the concepts, relationships and interactions that need to exist for the solution to work as intended. It is a constantly evolving process that combines models of the problem domain with possibilities presented by the technology in our solution domain. We need to iterate on this process to improve our knowledge of both during design. And on large projects we also need to collaborate and reach consensus with others while performing this iterative learning process.

But how we understand the problem domain and how we devise solutions within it is subjective, not objective. How we identify concepts in the domain is theory-laden. How we devise explanatory models is influenced by our culture, language, and expertise. The definition of culture when we consider its influence on developing models can be as broad as "western culture" or as narrow as "java developers", "declarative language developers", "scrum practitioners", "enterprise architects", "EAI integration expert", "enterprise architect", "DevOps", etc.

We don't perceive the same reality and simply create different models for it. We understand that reality through our existing sets of concepts. To bastardize another metaphor. We see our domains, and solutions, through culture-tinted glasses. Whether we are explicitly aware of this bias or not.

I'm not going deep into the theory in this post, but the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, cognitive psychology, neurophilosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of social science (and others) all deal with this issue in their respective fields. And while there are many debates in those fields about the extent to which subjectivity influences how we gain, use, and communicate knowledge, its certainly broadly agreed that it does influence it. If you're interested, here's a popular recent article in the NY Times on the role of language and how it shapes how we conceive reality.

The influence of subjectivity in system development is not new in IT. Some researchers and practitioners have been discussing its effects since the 60s. People such as Peter Naur, Terry Winograd, Meir M Lehman, and Bruce Blum. The most interesting aspect is that it is now slowing filtering through to the mainstream IT world's books and conferences. E.g., Domain Driven Design alluding to the influences of modelling and Kevlin Henney's JAOO presentation on the role of Metaphor (pdf) just to name two.

But we should be considering it more explicitly. As Gotleb Frege wrote,
The objects in the world are already delineated to some extent by the classifications embodied in socially inherited language. In fact, learning a language essentially means learning to grasp objective thought concepts.
We should be spending more effort understanding how this influences large-scale system design and development.

Which brings me back around to the situation that usually results in the Elephant and Blind Men analogy being deployed:
  • There's a large IT project with a lot of different people involved
  • There are differences of opinion about what is important
  • The reason they can't agree is because it is impossible for everyone to see the same holistic picture. Not because we are concentrating solely on individual portions of the system rather than looking at the system as a whole.

We observe and use the same terms to talk about the overall design but we conceive it differently based on our cognitive apparatus. We're not all looking at different parts of the same elephant. On a large IT project we can all see the whole elephant, we just see it differently - like looking at an Andy Warhol picture of an elephant.

The only way to overcome these differences is through interaction and feedback. Not to say, "but you aren't looking at the big picture", but rather, "what do you mean by that?", and "can you give me a specific scenario?".

Image references:

Blind Men and the Elephant: WikiMedia Commons
Fly, Bat, Worm: Cafepress.co.uk
Calvin and Hobbes on Relativism
Warhol Elephants

SEMAT and the origins of Software Engineering

I hope commentators on the SEMAT initiative - on both sides - have read enough history so that the rest of us aren't doomed to listen to a repeat performance of the last 40 years.

Its been interesting for me to follow the initial steps of the Software Engineering Method and Theory (SEMAT) initiative. Reading the SEMAT blog and articles revived memories from when I spent a bunch of years doing research on software engineering foundations. So I'm very curious to see how it progresses. Unfortunately, the initial buzz reminds me a lot of the fledgling steps of the original "software engineering" movement and I hope we don't waste an opportunity to deal with an important issue by continuing to bitch about the meaning of the word engineering.

Its hard to argue with the SEMAT Call to Action - especially the identification of immature practices. We do lack a theoretical foundation that provides both an explanation for the practices that have proven to be useful and a justification for proposing approaches for further improvement. (unless of course you believe we have already reached the pinnacle for software development effectiveness)

Many of the responses to the initial Vision and first workshop (google blog search semat,  twitter search #semat) are made by knowledgeable and insightful commentators. However, a great deal of what I read is simply a restatement of arguements that have been made in our discipline - that were often made more eloquently and constructively - for more than 40 years. Perhaps catching up with a bit of history can focus people on providing an improvement rather than rehashing old opinions.

P. Naur and B. Randell, (Eds.). Software Engineering: Report of a conference sponsored by the NATO Science Committee, Garmisch, Germany, 7-11 Oct. 1968, Brussels, Scientific Affairs Division, NATO (1969) 231pp.B. Randell and J.N. Buxton, (Eds.). Software Engineering Techniques: Report of a conference sponsored by the NATO Science Committee, Rome, Italy, 27-31 Oct. 1969, Brussels, Scientific Affairs Division, NATO (1970) 164pp.
The transcripts of the original two software engineering conferences are available online. They contain many working papers,  but most importantly, also transcribed debates between the participants which capture very interesting views on both sides. As a bonus, there is also the first analogies I can find between software design and the design theories of Christopher Alexander

The NATO conferences on software engineering were held in 1968 and 1969 and were intended to provoke ideas for improving software development. Indeed the term "software engineering" was meant to provoke and not to dictate a frame of mind needed to produce dependable software.
The phrase ‘software engineering’ was deliberately chosen as being provocative, in implying the need for software manufacture to be based on the types of theoretical foundations and practical disciplines, that are traditional in the established branches of engineering (1968, Preface)
There were many debates about the nature of engineering and whether or not it can be applied in software development which elicited useful insights into the nature of software development. Indeed, some of those comments allude to understandings which are considered relatively recent, such as agile development.
“[Naur] In my terms design consists of:
Flowchart until you think you understand the problem.
Write code until you realise that you don’t.
Go back and re-do the flowchart.
Write some more code and iterate to what you feel is the correct solution.” (1968 Report)
Additionally, there were points made, such as the usefulness of mathematical formalisms for software development, which are still not satisfactorily addressed today.

The important take away is that the result of the first software engineering conference was debate. The term engineering was put forward to provoke discussion on a commonly agreed set of problems - a Call to Action.

The problem was when they reconvened in 1969 for the next conference. The thing you notice in the transcripts is that the topic of debate has changed. There is no longer a sense of how should we frame our thinking to resolve these issues. The notion that software development could be "engineered" had taken hold. The only question now was, how. This was also explicitly pointed out by the editors of the transcripts:
Unlike the first conference, at which it was fully accepted that the term software engineering expressed a need rather than a reality, in Rome there was already a slight tendency to talk as if the subject already existed. And it became clear during the conference that the organizers had a hidden agenda, namely that of persuading NATO to fund the setting up of an International Software Engineering Institute. However things did not go according to their plan. The discussion sessions which were meant to provide evidence of strong and extensive support for this proposal were instead marked by considerable scepticism, and led one of the participants, Tom Simpson of IBM, to write a splendid short satire on "Masterpiece Engineering" (Editor's report)
(btw: anyone who thinks they have a witty and insightful take on why software development isn't like engineering should read "Masterpiece Engineering")

This communication gap in the 2nd software engineering conference happened very quickly and was not overcome. This resulted in a whole group of people who could have made useful contributions being removed from the debate.
The sense of urgency in the face of common problems was not so apparent as at Garmisch [1968]. Instead, a lack of communication between different sections of the participants became, in the editors’ opinions at least, a dominant feature.” (Editor's report)
Its pretty clear in the external commentary of the first SEMAT workshop that this is happening again. Whether or not they have chosen to remove themselves from the effort, there is now a significant group of people who could be helping to achieve the goals of the Call to Action who are simply not taking part.

There is always risk that the subject of debate gets 'highjacked' by a particular side - such as those who believe that software development can be engineered. Using the word "highjacked" is very emotive and implies a deliberate misdirection of a movement, but in reality it is that people are at risk of pushing an approach that simply conforms to their preconceived world-view. Many of the comments on SEMAT and software engineering in general appear obvious to their authors and their like-minded colleagues. But they make little sense to the people on the other side. They are based on incommensurable viewpoints. That is, you simply can't find common basis for comparing them.

We each have a worldview through which we understand our domain (in this case software development). Those worldviews can be incommensurable like the pro- and anti- software engineering camps. But there is no right or wrong answer answer here. The only thing that matters is whether or they provide useful suggestions for improving our discipline.

I don't know if engineering is the most useful paradigm through which software development can be improved. However, you only have to have a basic understanding of philosophy of science to understand that its not possible to tell until after theories have been developed, evaluated, and falsified.

The SEMAT Call to Action captures issues that exist in software development. The software-engineering group needs to devise theories which can be proven useful in resolving those issues. The its-not-engineering proponents should be doing the same. It will help everyone if the debate between them continues instead of becoming a divide that stifles possibilities.

I'll finish off with my favourite quote by Dijkstra and Randell in the '69 transcripts:
“Dijkstra: I would like to comment on the distinction that has been made between practical and theoretical people. I must stress that I feel this distinction to be obsolete, worn out, and fruitless. It is no good, if you want to do anything reasonable, to think you can work with such simple notions. Its inadequacy, amongst other things, is shown by the fact that I absolutely refuse to regard myself as either impractical or not theoretical.
What is actually happening, I am afraid, is that we all tell each other and ourselves that software engineering techniques should be improved considerably, because there is a crisis. But there are a few boundary conditions which apparently have to be satisfied. I will list them for you:
We may not change our thinking habits.
We may not change our programming tools.
We may not change our hardware.
We may not change our tasks.
We may not change the organisational set-up in which the work has to be done.
Now under these five immutable boundary conditions, we have to try to improve matters. This is utterly ridiculous. Thank you. (Applause).
Randell: ... ‘There’s none so blind as them that won’t see.’ ... If you have people who are completely stuck in their own ways, whether these are ways of running large projects without regard for possible new techniques, or whether these are ways of concentrating all research into areas of ever smaller relevance or importance, almost no technique that I know of is going to get these two types of people to communicate. ... You have to have good will. You have to have means for people to find out that what the others talk is occasionally sense. This conference may occasionally have done a little bit of that. I wish it had done a lot more. It has indicated what a terrible gulf we so stupidly have made for ourselves.

improving software architecture competence

How do you go about getting better as a software architect?
You'd think there would be plenty of information available.

Recently our local IASA chapter had a session on Improving Software Architecture Competence, so I threw together some thoughts to present.

I figured it would be pretty easy. There must be lots of documented experience of what individuals or organisations have done to improve themselves, right? Well, there doesn't seem to be. There is plenty of information about sw architecture course syllabuses (e.g., IASA's own education program) and no shortage of opinion about what software architects should do/read, but almost no experience reports saying, “this is what we tried and this is what we learned about trying to improve our software architecture competence”. (BTW, there may be some out there – I don't claim to have done any more exhaustive research than some simple googling).

However, I did dig up two interesting articles to summarise, and I think they are useful reading for someone interested in the topic. The first questions the ability for any sw architect to learn and improve using the kind of education techniques we currently have. The second – a workshop on improving software architecture competence – is the sole experience report I could find.
  •  “On System Design”, was an Essay delivered at OOPSLA a few years ago by Jim Waldo. In it, Waldo laments what he sees as a decline in the art and craft of system design. He points out a number of reasons for this, but the the most relevant here is his observation that we are unable to adequately train people in system design the prescriptive techniques we currently use. Indeed when considering the qualities of good designers, how they think and work may be more important than what courses they have done.
Both are useful reads if you are interested in the topic and there are plenty of notes in the presentation. If you've seen another resource on this topic I'd appreciate it if you provide a pointer in the comments.
"...good design is a capability that some people have, and others simply do not...
Whether this is an innate skill that people are born with, or one that is cultivated over time in ways that we don’t understand, is a question far too deep for me to address here. I neither know nor care...
But by the time someone is designing a computer system, whatever it takes to be a good designer is either there or it is not. When it is there, it can be developed and honed. It can also be degraded or warped. But when it is not there, there is no technique or process that can make up the deficit..."
"Everyone I talked to had a similar story of the master designer who had, either consciously or by example and correction taught him or her what they considered to be the important lessons in design
... Design, if my experience is any indication, is best learned by a long and varied process of trying, failing, and trying again under the guidance of someone who is an expert at the task". Waldo, On System Design

On a related note. I'm looking forward to Fred Brooks' upcoming book, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist

new blog

Its seems to be quite popular for Sun people to be shifting blog address and I'm doing the same.

Now that OpenESB has been made "non-strategic" and while we wait for the legal processes that take place during the acquisition of global companies, I've got some more time to spend working on software architecture in general. So I've started up an another blog where I can keep track of my ideas.
I have no idea if anyone regularly follows this blog, but if you are interested in another viewpoint on software architecture ideas then feel free to come on by.

If I end up with a job at Oracle, and one that provides something worth writing about, then I'll resuscitate the old site.