Software Development

5′ on IT-Architecture: root concepts explained by the pioneers of software architecture

The last couple of weeks I am working on a new software architecture course specifically for the insurance and financial sector. During the preparations I was reading many of the most cited articles on software architecture. The concepts described in these articles are so fundamental (and still up-to-date) that every architect really should to know about them. I have enjoyed reading such ‘old’ stuff. I first read most of the cited articles during my studies at university in the mid 90s. It is surprising to realize that, the longer you’re in this business, the more you agree to the ideas explained – in articles that were written 40 years ago! I’ve decided to qoute the original text passages – may be I thought it would be overbearing to explain it in my own words ;-) I hope you enjoy reading these text passages from the pioneers of software architecture.

On the criteria for system decomposition

‘Many readers will now see what criteria were used in each decomposition. In the first decomposition the criterion used was to make each major step in the processing a module. One might say that to get the first decomposition one makes a flowchart. This is the most common approach to decomposition or modularization. It is an outgrowth of all programmer training which teaches us that we should begin with a rough flowchart and move from there to a detailed implementation. The flowchart was a useful abstraction for systems with on the order of 5,000-10,000 instructions, but as we move beyond that it does not appear to be sufficient; something additional is needed.

The second decomposition was made using ‘information hiding’ as a criterion. The modules no longer correspond to steps in the processing. […] Every module in the second decomposition is characterized by its knowledge of a design decision which it hides from all others. Its interface or definition was chosen to reveal as little as possible about its inner workings.’

in: On the Criteria To Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules, D.L. Parnas, 1972

On the information hiding design principle

‘Our module structure is based on the decomposition criterion known as information hiding [IH]. According to this principle, system details that are likely to change independently should be the secrets of separate modules; the only assumptions that should appear in the interfaces between modules are those that are considered unlikely to change. Each data structure is used in only one module; it may be directly accessed by one or more programs within the module but not by programs outside the module. Any other program that requires information stored in a module’s data structures must obtain it by calling access programs belonging to that module.

Applying this principle is not always easy. It is an attempt to minimize the expected cost of software and requires that the designer estimate the likelihood of changes. Such estimates are based on past experience, and may require knowledge of the application area, as well as an understanding of hardware and software technology.’

in: The Modular Structure of Complex Systems, D.L. Parnas, 1985

On module hierarchies

‘In discussions of system structure it is easy to confuse the benefits of a good decomposition with those of a hierarchical structure. We have a hierarchical structure if a certain relation may be defined between the modules or programs and that relation is a partial ordering. The relation we are concerned with is ‘uses’ or ‘depends upon’. […] The partial ordering gives us two additional benefits. First, parts of the system are benefited (simplified) because they use the services of lower levels. Second, we are able to cut off the upper levels and still have a usable and useful product. […] The existence of the hierarchical structure assures us that we can ‘prune’ off the upper levels of the tree and start a new tree on the old trunk. If we had designed a system in which the ‘low level’ modules made some use of the ‘high level’ modules, we would not have the hierarchy, we would find it much harder to remove portions of the system, and ‘level’ would not have much meaning in the system.’

in: On the Criteria To Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules, D.L. Parnas, 1972

On the separation of concerns

‘Let me try to explain to you, what to my taste is characteristic for all intelligent thinking. It is, that one is willing to study in depth an aspect of one’s subject matter in isolation for the sake of its own consistency, all the time knowing that one is occupying oneself only with one of the aspects. We know that a program must be correct and we can study it from that viewpoint only; we also know that it should be efficient and we can study its efficiency on another day, so to speak. In another mood we may ask ourselves whether, and if so: why, the program is desirable. But nothing is gained —on the contrary!— by tackling these various aspects simultaneously. It is what I sometimes have called ‘the separation of concerns’, which, even if not perfectly possible, is yet the only available technique for effective ordering of one’s thoughts, that I know of. This is what I mean by ‘focussing one’s attention upon some aspect’: it does not mean ignoring the other aspects, it is just doing justice to the fact that from this aspect’s point of view, the other is irrelevant. It is being one- and multiple-track minded simultaneously.’

in: On the role of scientific thought, Edsger W. Dijkstra, 1974

On conceptual integrity

‘Such design coherence in a tool not only delights, it also yields ease of learning and ease of use. The tool does what one expects it to do. I argued […] that conceptual integrity is the most important consideration in system design. Sometimes the virtue is called coherence, sometimes consistency, sometimes uniformity of style […] The solo designer or artist usually produces works with this integrity subconsciously; he tends to make each microsdecision the same way each time he encounters it (barring strong reasons). If he fails to produce such integrity, we consider the work flawed, not great.’

in: The Design of Design, Frederick P. Brooks, 2010 (originally introduced in: The Mythical Man Month, 1975)

Reference: 5′ on IT-Architecture: root concepts explained by the pioneers of software architecture from our JCG partner Niklas.

Ilias Tsagklis

Ilias is a software developer turned online entrepreneur. He is co-founder and Executive Editor at Java Code Geeks.
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