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Architecture Change: Breaking Conway's Law

03.24.2010
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In Architecture Change: Recognizing Conway's Law we looked at the profound influence Conway's Law has on architecture.

Recently I've looked at two gutsy declarations that an architecture was broken. One recognized that a three-tiered architecture was too complex for their needs. The other recognized that the Ontology tools weren't performing well, and perhaps weren't helping.
My point is that these architectural mistakes are the result of Conway's Law. They aren't inherently flawed.

The Root Cause

What's flawed is not the architecture. What's flawed is the organization that built the architecture.

A three-tiered architecture is workable. In some cases, it's necessary. In other cases it could be overkill. But it isn't the cause of the problems.

An Ontology is often a good thing. However, using the ontology to represent what is -- essentially -- a Star Schema fact table is poor use of the technology.

Declaring the architecture broken is not a technical statement. It' an organizational statement. It says that the organization, the teams, the areas of responsibility are broken.

Rule 1: A Broken Architecture Is A Broken Organization

Complexity

One can try to make a distinction between Essential Complexity and Accidental Complexity. One can claim that essential complexity is part of the solution and accidental complexity is just other staff that accretes. This doesn't make any sense, since software development is not "accidental". Software doesn't "happen". It's hard to call something "accidental complexity" without saying that software involves random accidents. Blaming "accidental" complexity is a dodge, an attempt to obscure the root cause.

One might call it incidental or tangential complexity. But that still hides the fundamental problem.

To be more honest, one must separate Problem Complexity from Solution Complexity. The Problem Domain may be inherently complex. In which case, simplification is hard and 2 tiers, 3 tiers or N tiers don't matter. The problem itself is hard, no matter what architecture is chosen.

An ontology, for example, is very helpful when the problem itself is inherently hard. The formalization of relationships in an ontology can help beat a path through a tangled problem domain.

In most cases of a broken architecture, the solution is has grown out of scale with the problem's inherent complexity. If we're doing actuarial risk analysis, we don't really need an ontological model of "Risk": we need facts that help us measure the risk factors.

Rule 2: A Broken Architecture Means the Solution Doesn't Fit the Problem

Corollary: The Organization Doesn't Fit the Problem

Kinds of Broken

Why would we declare an architecture broken? Generally, we've got a grotesque failure due to the very structure of the solution. These can be decomposed into five areas.

  • Failure to satisfy the need; i.e., the software doesn't have the required functions or features.
  • Failure to use resources effectively; i.e., the software is slow, uses too much disk or too much network traffic.
  • Failure to be maintainable; i.e., bugs cannot be fixed.
  • Failure to be adaptable; i.e., new features cannot be added.
  • Failure to fit other organizational needs (cost, licensing, etc.); i.e., it's too expensive.

The two broken architectures I've heard about recently have different problems. One is unacceptably slow (as well as hard to adapt). The other is described by some as impossible to maintain and adapt.

Rule 3: All Architectural Problems Are Symptoms of Organizational Problems


In short, a broken architecture is not a simple technical problem and it doesn't have a simple technical solution. It's an organizational problem, and it has a multi-part solution.

Making Progress

It's important to acknowledge that Conway's Law, like Mutual Attraction and Thermodynamics is a feature of the universe. It cannot be "broken" or even "subverted". You cannot win, you cannot break even, you cannot quit the game.

Axiom: Conway's Law Cannot Be Broken.

Given that Conway's Law is like Thermodynamics, you have to work with it.

Conclusion: Architecture Must Drive Organization; Problem Must Drive Architecture

The only way to make progress is to restart the project at a fundamental level. You have to -- effectively -- fire everyone and rehire then to create brand-new team. The broken architecture came from a broken organization. To fix the architecture, you need to fix the organization.

Example #1, Unmaintainable Stored Procedures

Consider an application with stored procedures (SP) so badly broken as to be unmaintainable. Let's say it's many hundreds of lines of code. A Cyclomatic Complexity so high as to be laughable. Clearly, the folks responsible for building this need to be reassigned and new folks need to be brought in. If the new folks are simply assigned to the same old separate SP/DBA group, then a new unmaintainable mess will eventually replace the existing unmaintainable mess.

Conway's Law applies: If the SP developers are separate, they will evolve in their own direction. If you want to have a "technical" reason for SP's, then you have to prove that they're more effective than a non-SP implementation. That means spike solutions to compare SP's and your other application programming languages point-by-point.

To prevent stored procedures from getting out of control there are two choices.

  1. Don't use stored procedures. Put that logic in with the rest of the application, where it belongs. Same code base, not a separate language buried in the database. One team, one language.
  2. Don't make stored procedure writing a separate "team". The stored procedure writing must be part of application writing. One team, multiple languages.

Note that choice #2 leaves it to the team to use stored procedures if they have a provable improvement on performance. Things are not handed over to the DBA's because SP's must do all database interface or SP's must maintain "low-level" rules or other blurry lines. Things are not handed to the DBA's -- the team solves the problem.

Example #2, Too Many Tiers

Consider an architecture with too many tiers. The inter-tier communication is blamed as creating "accidental complexity". This is a dodge. The coordination between teams is what creates complexity.

To prevent inter-tier communication from being a problem, one doesn't need to remove tiers. One needs to remove organizational structure. There's really only one choice.

Fail: Team Follows TechnologyWin: Team Follows Features

For a given feature set, everyone involved has to become part of one, unified team working one one sprint attending one daily stand-up meeting.

"But that's unwieldy," you say. "DBA's have to be kept separate."

That's Conways' Law in action.

To work with Conway's Law, you must create a team that owns the feature set -- all tiers -- all technologies -- and can make all the implementation choices required to bring that feature set to the users.

Example #3, Overuse of Ontology

Consider an inappropriate use of an Ontology where a Database would have been a better choice.

  1. Remove the old team. Assign them to hard problems where the ontology pays dividends, get them away from easy problems where the ontology is a solution looking for a problem.
  2. Create a new team around the new solution. Each feature has a team that has a complete skill set -- front-end, bulk processing, persistence, web server, database, network -- everything.
  3. The new team stands alone and builds the solution.

Excuses Excuses


The number one cultural impediment is the "Skill Focus" excuse. These are just Conway's Law in action.

  • "We can't have application programmers doing database design. They might 'mess things up'."
  • "We don't want our DBA's assigned to application development teams. They have operational responsibilities that trump new development."

The number two cultural impediment is the authorization excuse. These are also Conway's Law, wrapped in the mantel of "security".

  • "We can't allow application developers sudo privileges to configure Apache (or MySQL, or Oracle, or -- frankly -- anything.)"
  • "We can't assign a DBA or SysAdmin or anyone to support new development..."

Conclusion


Stop organizing teams by skills.

Start organizing teams by deliverable.

Stop carving out random technology features without proof that the technology solves a problem. Stored Procedures, Middle Tiers, Ontologies are just potential solutions. Don't commit to them until they're proven.

Start creating spike solutions to measure the value of a technology. If a spike solution doesn't work, stop development, change the plans, change the schedule and start again based on the lessons learned.

Stop forcing a deadline-driven death march.

Start learning technology lessons and making project changes based on what was learned.
References
Published at DZone with permission of Steven Lott, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Josh Marotti replied on Wed, 2010/03/24 - 11:28am

Good stuff here!  Thanks for the insight!

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