Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blueprints 2

Reposting my comment to Nick Malik's post on Blueprints, following my previous post on Blueprints. Nick asked me to spell out the implications of my previous comment - whether I meant that we don't need accuracy, or that we should start measuring - and challenged the strong association I implied between accuracy and measurement.

Firstly, let me affirm that I think measurement (in the broadest sense) is a good idea.

I am not sure I know what accuracy means except in terms of measurement. How can we reason about things like "structural integrity" and "quality" without some form of measurement? In engineering, we don't generally expect perfect integrity or perfect quality (which is usually either physically impossible or economically non-viable); we look for arguments of the form "X produces greater integrity/quality than Y" - where X/Y is some choice of material or technique or pattern or whatever. So there are implicit metrics running through all branches of engineering. Software engineering just isn't very good (and should be much better) at managing these metrics and making them explicit. As a result, we don't always see software engineers delivering the maximum integrity and quality for the minimum cost and effort.

So when I'm talking about measurement, I'm certainly not only interested in cost estimation and other project management stuff. I think architects should be thinking about things like the amount of complexity, the degree of coupling, the scale of integration, and you certainly can't read these quantities straight from a UML diagram.

Of course a building blueprint doesn't tell you everything you need either. If you are designing an airport, the blueprint will show how much flooring you need, but will not show whether there is enough space for the passengers to queue for passport control. If you are designing a tower block, you have to have some way of working out how many lifts to put in. In software engineering this kind of stuff is dismissed as non-functional requirements.

All engineering involves estimation. "is this bridge going to fall down" is an estimate.

In a traditional waterfall development, many people thought it was a good idea to address the functional requirements first (logical design), and then tweak the design (physical design) until you satisfied the non-functional requirements as well. But when you are composing solutions from prebuilt enterprise services, this approach just doesn't wash. Indeed, it may now be the other way around: if a service assembly fails some functional requirement, you may be able to plug/mash in some additional service to fill the gap; but if it fails the non-functional requirements you may have to throw the whole thing away and start again.

Finally, I don't say only big projects need accuracy. If a government builds a tiny service to be used by the entire population, a small project might have a massive impact. A garden shed may not need a professional architect: that's not because a garden shed doesn't need accuracy, but because an amateur builder can work out the quantities accurately enough herself.

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