Developer .NET UPDATE, March 4, 2003

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February 18, 2003--In this issue:


  • Technical and Application Architecture


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(contributed by Bill Sheldon, [email protected])

  • For years, you've probably been hearing about various forms of convergence in technologies. The most common is the convergence of television and the PC. Similarly, software engineering and systems engineering are converging. As systems grow in both capabilities and complexity, the overlap between the OS and software development has increased. In particular, the OS and OS software-based tools are playing a larger role in software development. The Windows .NET Framework is an excellent example of how these two technologies are converging.

    Most software developers see the Framework as a set of tools that let them develop better software, whereas systems engineers see the Framework as a new element that affects the OS and OS tools with which they're concerned. Whether the task is improving scalability, security, or compatibility, the systems engineer and the software developer need to work together. In other words, the roles of the systems engineer and software developer need to converge. That's not to say that you can't still have a career as a software developer or as a systems engineer. However, senior software developers and senior systems engineers typically need exposure to technologies beyond their specialties.

    Architecture is helping these two groups converge. You're probably familiar with traditional architects who design buildings, bridges, and other structures. The architects to whom I'm referring design information infrastructures. The common element for both traditional and information architects is that the architecture concentrates on high-level patterns that recur. For example, the element that the traditional architect works with might be a ceiling type, whereas the element that the information architect works with might be a firewall. Both elements are fairly generic components that will be specified, but details of the implementation (e.g., which ports will be open on the firewall) probably aren't defined as part of the architecture. Not all elements of architecture require great insight; in fact, the idea is to simplify the process of designing systems.

    One challenge with using the word "architecture" is that it applies to several roles within the information industry. You commonly hear the collection of servers and their network relationship referred to as architecture, and the collection of logical components that make up an application as architecture. As a result, different names have been developed to describe the people who specialize in certain subsets of information architecture. Two such subsets are technical architects, who tend to have a systems engineering background, and application architects, who tend to have a background in software or database applications.

    You'll probably hear a lot about technical and application architecture in the coming months. Although these disciplines have been evolving for many years, they're now only starting to be recognized and labeled.

    Typically, technical and application architects are existing key IT staff members (e.g., senior software developers, senior systems engineers) who fill a particular role on a team. For example, the architect in an Internet site project team might be a systems engineer, whereas the architect in a software project team might be a developer who specializes in databases or applications.

    Most developers tend to specialize in application architecture. Application architects tend to concentrate on determining the software tiers, defining database entities, and deciding the type of security to apply to an application. In addition to selecting the application's major elements, the application architect tries to predict any effect that time might have on those elements and hence on the application.

    Just as a traditional architect recognizes common patterns among buildings (e.g., Gothic, baroque), an application architect recognizes common patterns within software. One well-recognized reference for generic patterns is Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Addison Wesley Professional, 1995) by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John M. Vlissides (aka the "Gang of Four"). This book is the basis for many theoretical discussions about software architecture. However, although theory is great in the classroom, the transition from theory to practice can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. More recent books--such as Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture (Addison Wesley Professional, 2003) by Martin Fowler, David Rice, Matthew Foemmel, Edward Hieatt, Robert Mee, and Randy Stafford--discuss patterns that you can apply in today's development environment.

    Although such books provide excellent background material, the real question is how these patterns affect applications. Fortunately, Microsoft is stepping up to the plate in this area. The Microsoft .NET Architecture Center site ( provides resources for both application and technical architects. The information isn't generic but rather provides specific recommendations about how to structure complex applications in the Framework environment. Another excellent starting place for application architects is the "Application Architecture for .NET: Designing Applications and Services" guide (

    Notice that I said "complex" applications. Although application architecture is great, you shouldn't spend a great deal of time creating a custom architecture for a simple application. In most cases, the basic elements of UI, business components, and database design are adequate for simple applications. However, even if your applications aren't complex, the application architecture materials can help you understand how the applications you design today might evolve. The materials will also bring to light some key elements that you can think about in your applications' designs so that you'll be able to adapt the applications later if necessary.

    Next week, I'll discuss some of the sample code that's available on the .NET Architecture Center site. This code can act as the basis for implementing some common application components.



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    (contributed by Sue Cooper, [email protected])

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