The Software Architect's Professsion
That was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders. -- Seneca c.4BC-65AD
I hesitated as I reached for The Software Architect's Profession: An Introduction (Software Architecture Series) on the library shelf.
Did I really want to read another treatise on the role of the software architect? Hasn't the term architect been so abused as to now be worthless, even downright counter-productive? In this, I think I am one with Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky who discussed the questionable value of the title "Software Architect" on StackOverflow podcast #44.
I was pleasantly surprised; this is a great little book for stimulating some thinking around the role of an architect for the advanced reader. But I worry that it attempts to position itself as "An Introduction". A novice, unprepared to read the text critically, may easily be mislead by the book's definitive statements about what a software architect is and what they do.
Personally, I believe the book is fundamentally flawed in three important aspects:
1. Are we really in Crisis because we lack a Software Architecture Profession?
Firstly, the premise that today's Crisis in Software...
[the] parade of failures and half-failures that has grown over the years as a result of a world without an established profession of software architecture
...is wholly unsupported by any direct evidence. The authors' central argument is of course flawed based on the appearance of a causal relationship where in fact only coincidence has been established beyond doubt. A number of well-known software runaways and failures are mentioned, but I don't know of any where the original case studies attributed the failure primarily to the lack of "an established profession of software architecture". The authors get around this problem by redefining the conclusions and suggesting that all faults may eventually be explained by architecture. It seems to me self-serving and circular.
2. A Flawed Analogy with Building Construction
Second, the authors attempt to reinforce their argument with the proposition that the analogy with building architecture is self-evident. Buildings need architects. Software is like building. Therefore software needs architects. Hmmm. I am reminded of Bernard Rudofsky's book "The Prodigious Builders" which celebrates the history of vernacular architecture. That is, architecture without Architects (unfortunately a stunningly boring book for what ought to be a highly inspirational subject).
I particularly disagree with the authors' contention that software is not developed: it is built (with a sense of finality). The Google-inspired trend towards the perpetual beta is the most visible evidence to the contrary. The authors object to the notion that to develop implies to unfold, uncover, and make known. On the contrary, I find this a most apt description of what we do within the software profession: the youth and continuing innovation within the field does mean that software development and the architecture it requires is more akin to exploration, invention and discovery than to a formalised application of the tried and true.
3. Premature Specialisation
I began to renew my hope for the book as it explored the historical foundations of architecture. Michelangelo can truly lay claim to the title of Architect ("master builder"); his work on St Peter's Basilica epitomizes the unltimate balance between function, beauty, and structure,
Vitruvius is famous for asserting in his book De architectura circa 50BC that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be strong or durable, useful, and beautiful. A sense of proportion and harmony is represented in Leonardo Da Vinci's famous illustration of Vitruvian Man.
Such ideas begin to shape the conventional definition of an architect. A master who not only understands structure, utility, and beauty in order to successfully render a design into plans, but has the practical experience to supervise their realisation through construction.
At this point, I think the authors are getting onto the right track. However they stumble at the last post by then inexplicably turning this into an argument for a limited and specialised concept of a "Software Architecture Profession", where the architect only retains responsibility for venustas (design/beauty). Utilitas (function/utility) is the client's problem, and firmitas (form, materials, logistics) is the province of the engineers, scientists and code monkeys.
Time for the Renaissance?
The authors' call for the codification and ossification of a software architecture practice is I think at least 50 years premature.
What an "Architect" needs to be concerned with is still going through successive waves of tumultuous change. Up to the green-screen era, computer system architecture necessarily had a strong hardware component. Come the GUIs and increasing processing power in the 90s, it seemed a singular focus on "software architecture" as a technical discipline was a valid vocation. Now the waves of web-driven innovation and the emergence of the "Rich Internet Application" is again challenging our notions of what architecture entails. And again, the "real world" is encroaching the pure software realm with the rise of increasingly powerful and widely available mobile computing platforms (think iPhone, Android), and the revolution in pervasive automation (think Arduino).
I think the Java Posse were spot on when they discussed the growing need for cross-fertilisation and collaboration between designers and developers on podcast #247 - Design and Engineering. This is a time of divergence, not convergence, in the business of producing software & technology-based systems.
In truth, I question how appropriate both words are in the term "Software Architect":
- Software - it is perhaps only in the last 10-20 years that it has been possible to construct computer software at the level of complexity that warrants the existence of an architect in the classical sense. And I suspect that in another 10 years it will seem ludicrous to suggest that you can be an Architect of only software ("just a turn-of-the-century fad"). Software is just one component of a "built environment" that encompasses everything from the information infrastructure and systems technology to the psychology, art and design of human interaction; ultimately leading to a desired collaboration between people and machines in the context of real-world objectives.
- Architect - the common use of the term in the computing field has stripped this word of it's more noble dimensions. No longer is the architect "the person with the vision and skill to make dreams a reality". They are more likely to be the person in the corner who produces nothing but paper, leaves no fingerprints on the pages of history, and is generally ignored by those who are really making things happen.
I don't know what you should call the people who have the experience and ability to lead others to do amazing things with the information technology we have at our disposal.
I'm just pretty sure that "Software Architect" doesn't even come close to being adequate. And building a "profession" around a woefully inadequate definition is a one-way ticket to irrelevance and obscurity.
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Great Innovation for Bathroom Readers
... but I have to know: is there a MAXI version? A pity it seems to have been designed by designers for designers, and not your typical O'Reilly, Apress or Wrox reader;-)
PicoCool - Elegant Solution for Bathroom Readers
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Why would you open source a framework?
Interesting to listen to Scott Hanselman and Richard Campbell talking over the rationale for open sourcing Microsoft's ASP.net MVC framework on Hanselminutes show #175.
Part of the answer was a general desire to nudge Microsoft further towards embracing open source: "Why wouldn't you?". Which is admirable.
Partly it is a desire to open up the innovation envelope: Scott talked about his experience releasing TweetSandwich, and then seeing the unexpected derivative applications developed using the source as the base. Designing a framework is a daunting task. By definition, most of the framework's possible uses are not known ahead of time.
Take a listen to The Java Posse #241 which also came out this week, where they discuss the challenges of design as it applies to frameworks. One of the great concepts they talk about is how the best frameworks invariably have well designed escape hatches, to make sure you can overcome that typical problem of '..but the demo worked so well!'
Personally, I think having access to the source code of the framework is one of the most effective 'escape hatches' you can have.
Even if you never plan to fork or modify the framework, the ability to dive in and examine the source when things are not quite working as expected is really the difference between a framework you can work with, and a framework that will be discarded after a couple of projects. It is one of the great things about rails: often the documentation comes up short, but when you look at the api, the source code is but a click away!
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Tweeting from your database with short urls
There's something cheekily enjoyable about getting all manner of 'non-human' things to tweet. I've heard of plants tweeting, but until I saw Lewis Cunningham's post announcing ORA_Tweet, I hadn't even thought of getting Oracle Database onto twitter.
Saturdays are good for little projects, so I thought I would add URL shortening service today;-)
Since twitter famously limits you to 140 characters, it is conventional to use a url-shortening service to include hyperlinks in your tweet. So my little play for today was to pair that idea up with ORA_Tweet.
There are a range of URL shortening services available including snipurl and tinyurl (here's a survey of services). I've been using is.gd for a while though, since it sports the simplest GET request 'api' you could imagine, making it great for ad-hoc programmatic use.
So I add an extra package called SHORT_URL which has just two functions:
FUNCTION encode_url(encode_url the main wrapper around the http://is.gd call to get a short url for the one you provide.
p_url IN VARCHAR2 )
p_text IN VARCHAR2 )
encode_text is a more convenient function that takes a block of text, and will replace all the urls it contains with the appropriate shortened versions.
Then there's just one change to the ORA_TWEET package body:
45c45Now you can go wild with URLs in your database tweets:
< url => 'status=' || SUBSTR( short_url.encode_text(p_string) ,1,140));
> url => 'status=' || SUBSTR(p_string,1,140));
BEGINBuilding on Lewis' original justification for building ORA_Tweet, you could for example include links to a report page or admin screen when your long-running process sends you its "I'm done" tweet.
p_user => 'twitter_username',
p_pwd => 'twitter_password',
p_string => 'ora_tweet v1.1 is complete! Now with url shortening ... see http://database-geek.com/2009/03/15/ora_tweet-tweet-from-oracle-a-plsql-twitter-api/' )
That's if you need justification;-)
If you are interested, the source is up on my github account now: ORA_Tweet_With_Shorturls.zip
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