Saturday, March 29, 2008

Smelly Software Architectures

At the SPA 2008 Conference, Mark Dalgarno led an interesting workshop which explored the deterioration of software architecture over time. Mark outlined a number of different conditions which could indicate that the software architecture (assuming that there was one to start with!) is decaying from the as-intended architecture. There was an interesting debate about the importance of architecture and there was a clear distinction about architecture minimalism from those practicing agile techniques, to those engaged in large and complex systems of which software is only a small part of the overall solution.

I firmly believe that a key principle is that any architecture should be resilient to change and should be an enduring artifact. It should also be flexible and scalable, although this can depend on the expected lifetime of the architecture (architectures that are only expected to last for a year or two clearly don't need to exhibit the same attributes as an architecture which is intended to last for 10 years or more). This also requires that the architecture and design are seen as distinct activities - I have seen many examples where the architecture has been assumed and the detailed design and implementation has proceeded without any thought about the architectural options or future maintenance requirements.

How an architecture can be assessed was an interesting discussion with metrics being used (e.g. dependency counts) or consideration of some potential change scenarios although the more agile developments considered this to be unnecessary. Example scenarios were offered such as a change in the operating system version or a database upgrade and the resilience of the architecture to this change. However, it is clearly unachievable to think of all such change scenarios that could occur. Some examples of changes that weren't originally anticipated but were then implemented with some significant pain included the addition of error messages in multiple languages. The impact of a project driven by time pressures (time driven coding) were also likely to lead to a less enduring solution and a less robust architecture.

The economics of architectural decay was considered with a view that 'rewriting is considered harmful' particularly for solutions which are deployed widely where there is no acceptable alternative to maintaining what is currently implemented. While I sympathise with this as a view, any maintenance regime should always consider UUD (upgrade, update and disposal) of an in-service solution and to recognise that there may be some time when multiple versions of the same solution operating on potentially different architectures may have to be maintained in parallel.

While the session didn't offer any solutions to a difficult problem, it did pose some interesting thoughts which will require some further consideration for future software architectures.


Mark Dalgarno said...

I ran the session again at ACCU 2008. We had less time so I cut out a lot of the slides and focussed more on the exercises. I've written up the results on my blog at

Me said...

Interesting to see the comments from the revised workshop and ir appears that there is widespread agreement that a degrading software architecture can become a problem. A key issue is clearly whether it can be detected before it becomes a significant issue. Which tools should be used to measure the architecture smell and when should they be applied?