Monday, January 16, 2012

The Benefits of a Standardized Application Architecture

There is much literature on software architecture and design. Most of that literature focuses on coding patterns and best practices. That is, the literature focuses on an applications internal structure and improving quality at a code level, usually with a single application as the intended scope. In fact, most application architectures are created and deployed for a small number of applications. It's time we looked at the larger picture and considered the benefits of deploying an standardized software architecture across multiple custom applications across the enterprise. Over the past several years, I've had an opportunity to do just that, and observed several benefits that are worth documenting.
Let's start by defining terms so we're all on the same page. I define application architecture as the internal structure of an application. That is, an application architecture details software products it uses internally and the programming patterns employed. For example, application architecture details whether the application uses a layered architecture of one of the other architecture patterns, the exception, logging, and transaction management strategies used, etc. This is different from “applications architecture” (with an “s”) that is used in some EA circles to describe what business data is produced and consumed by each application in business terms.
Most organizations will standardize the hardware platform and operating system to be used. Most organizations will also standardize significant vendors involved, such as Microsoft (in the case of .Net) or J2EE container vendor and relational database will be used. Some organizations will provide base services and methods for securing, deploying and monitoring applications. Many organizations won't standardize much more than that leaving the application architecture up to individual teams.
Over the past several years, I've had the opportunity to guide the development of a standard application architecture in the Java/J2EE space that is used for over a dozen applications. The application architecture defines the entire technical stack including the web framework and ORM used. The architecture specifies a package structure and a specific software layering paradigm along with coding conventions. This architecture provides a standard method for instrumenting applications for performance, memory, logging, and exception management purposes. This application provides base build and deployment procedures.
This standardization of application architecture provided a consistency between the applications that allows for several benefits:
All applications can easily consume architectural improvements. For example, we developed a strategies (with several open source products) to measure performance of each application, provide run-time log-level management, provide memory shortage alerts and low-watermark history, and much more. All custom applications in the enterprise were easily configured to consume these features. This lowers the price tag should it be necessary to replace one of the products used in the tech stack; the solution and migration procedures are developed once and merely reused for all applications.
It is much easier to switch developers between applications. In most organizations, J2EE applications are different enough that there is a significant burn-time for new developers or to move developers from one application to another. As these applications are written in very similar ways, having experience with one application equates to having experience with all of them.
Developer time is optimized in several ways. First, a standard technical stack puts limits on the list of products a developer needs to be current in. With most organizations, the combined technical stack for all applications is normally much larger. Second, development speed for new applications is improved as all basic technical decisions have already been made.
The common architecture leads to a significant base of code that is commonly shared between applications. This implements DRY and keeps developers from having to re-invent the wheel.
The benefits are numerous and have definitely resulted in lower support costs. While I can't divulge exact numbers publicly, the number of support personnel needed for this collection of applications is far less than other organization developing J2EE applications that I'm aware of. It's clear to me that the benefits received stem from the consistency between the applications; not from any specific technical advantages from the individual products used.
There are some challenges to this approach. We've become very careful about what code makes it into the 'common' code base that's shared across the applications. Once it's published and used, the impact of change can be wide-spread. As a result, nothing is published to the 'common' code base until more than one application needs it.
We're a bit slower to consume newly released versions of the open source products used. Any new product release caries the potential for breaking something. We're mitigated this risk by effectively “versioning” the technical stack and common code base so that applications can consume new versions of the architecture at different times.
Some developers consider themselves artists. This type of developer won't like the idea of standardizing the application architecture as it limits their creativity. In this world, creativity (or artistry) comes into play when a new type of technical problem or need surfaces that hasn't already been addressed by the standard application architecture. After several years, the rate that new technical problems and needs have surfaced has decreased substantially;
While my primary experience with deploying a standard architecture of this type is in the J2EE space, there's every reason to believe that other development platforms would see similar benefits to standardizing the application architecture and deploying it across multiple applications.
I'm curious about your thoughts and experiences. I'm particularly interested if you've experienced benefits or costs to an approach like this that isn't already listed.


  1. Do you have any documentation on you approach and getting buy in from developers?