Thursday, April 24, 2008

How mature is the software architecture discipline?

In 1996 Professors David Garlan and Mary Shaw of the Carnegie Mellon University published an influential book: “Software Architecture – Perspectives on an Emerging Discipline”. In chapter 1 the authors discuss a model for the evolution of an engineering discipline. The diagram can be found here.


Before discussing the diagram let’s establish a few key concepts. With respect to maturity of engineering disciplines based on pure sciences (e.g. chemical engineering) the software engineering discipline and to a greater extent software architecture discipline is generally considered to be very immature. But why? The authors state that “engineering practice enables ordinary practitioners create sophisticated systems that work … reliably.” Has the software architecture reached this state?

It’s important to note that engineering discipline practitioners make the bulk of money by solving routine design problems. Routine design aims at “solving familiar problems” and designing solutions by using the knowledge base from previous projects and experiences (e.g. an e-commerce shopping cart site). Innovative design aims at solving original and unique problems, such as controlling an unmanned helicopter through a remote control center. It’s important to note that with software architecture discipline the bulk of the money is made solving routine problems by ordinary practitioners.

So how do engineering disciplines evolve?

The engineering disciplines evolve from ad hoc state in two steps. Initially, talented and passionate amateurs pioneer the discipline. They achieve their goals by all means necessary – usually irrationally using available resources. Later the routine production occurs. With time the need for advancement arises and supporting science for an engineering discipline emerges. The maturing science eventually turns into a “professional engineering practice,” where science will become the main driving force of a discipline.

What will it take for the software architecture discipline to become mature? This question will be addressed in the future post.

Other ideas to think about: if software architecture discipline is not based on hard science at its higher levels of abstraction, will it ever reach the same level of maturity as a civil engineering?

Constantin K.
Firebrand Architect™

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