In Favor of Architecture Design

An upfront architecture design phase can save a lot of time, and pain, prior to entering an Agile code development phase. Particularly, when complex requirements, high performance or new technology are involved.

Agile software development methodologies seem to dismiss architecture design, in favor of incremental development, and refactoring as needed. In my opinion, investing in upfront design not only accelerates projects, but can avoid unpleasant surprises, and painful delays. Architecture design and agile methodologies easily work hand in hand: the architecture design phases focuses explicitly on eliminating technical risk. Once the technical framework has been validated, implementation follows, applying the traditional agile methodologies

The “Agile” arguments go as follows: identify a new user story / feature, write a test that fails (but that’s required to meet the user story), write the code to pass this test (as well as all preceding ones) – repeat. In the process, keep the code as simple as possible, and since the code is simple and since you have an extensive suite of tests that validate existing functionality, refactoring is easy and fast.  While this methodology is indeed very powerful, it is not universally applicable. In addition, there are intrinsic advantages for upfront design

The main advantage of upfront design is “doing it right the first time”. By spending time upfront analyzing all the requirements, and technical challenges, and by evaluating competing approaches, one can avoid many dead-ends that one encounters when following an incremental approach. In the worst case of incremental design, one may run into a “killer” requirement near the end of the project which causes a complete refactoring of what’s been done before.

Further, even if one ends up with the right implementation in the end, one will simply save time by coming up with the “right design” the first time, and thus avoiding multiple refactoring efforts. While some issues only come up as one codes, spending sufficient time upfront will almost always eliminate unnecessary iterations.

In some cases, however, a phase solely dedicated to architecture design is almost always warranted. For example:

  • To partition a complex project in multiple components that can be handed off to a team of developers
  • To work through complex – and possibly conflicting – requirements
  • To ensure critical performance, resource utilization or scalability requirements
  • To validate the suitability of new technology that will be incorporated into the product: completeness of features, interfaces, or performance and scalability.
  • To validate with end users the usability of User Interfaces

In particular, features that impact different layers of the code (e.g. UI, business logic, database) need upfront design in order to avoid time-wasting back and forth between developers. Letting the whole team work it out is simply not efficient. A recent such project was for us to enable an application for multi-tenancy. Similarly, I have found that any project that involves clustering, fault-tolerance or high performance requires a dedicated and focused design – and validation – effort. Finally, incorporating any new technology – like an open-source package – must go through a prototyping phase: you never quite get what you expect …

By the way, an architecture design phase, should follow the principles of Agile Software development: keep it simple, use incremental milestones that demonstrate completion of a subset of requirements.

To be effective, the architecture / design phase must limit itself to what is strictly necessary, namely what motivated the design effort in the first place: e.g. functional partitioning or performance validation.  Anything that can be left to implementation must be.

Finally, the design phase must be concluded with a design review! …. More on this later.

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