Reference Architectures and Governance

In the March 5th issue of InfoWorld, I was quoted in Phil Windley’s article, “Teaming Up For SOA.” One of the quotes he used was the following:

Biske also makes a strong argument for reference architectures as part of the review process. “Architectural reviews tie the project back to the reference architecture, but if there’s no documentation that project can be judged against, the architectural review won’t have much impact.”

My thinking on this actually came from a past colleague. We were discussing governance, and he correctly pointed out that it is unrealistic to expect benefits from a review process when the groups presented have no idea what they are being reviewed against. The policies need to be stated in advance. Imagine if your town had no speed limit signs, yet the police enforced a speed limit. What would be your chances of getting a ticket? What if your town had a building code, but the only place it existed was in the building inspector’s head. Would you expect your building to pass inspections? What would be your feelings toward the police or the inspector after you received a ticket or were told to make significant structural changes?

If you’re going to have reviews that actually represent an approval to go forward, you need to have documented policies. At the architectural level, this is typically done through the use of reference architectures. The challenge is that there is no accepted norm for what a reference architecture should contain. Rather than get into a semantic debate over the differences between a reference architecture, a reference model, a conceptual architecture, and any number of other terms that are used, I prefer to focus on what is important- giving guidance to the people that need it.

I use the term solution architect to refer to the person on a project that is responsible for the architecture of the solution. This is the primary audience for your reference material. There are two primary things to consider with this audience:

  1. What policies need to be enforced?
  2. What deliverable(s) does the solution architect need to produce?

Governance does begin with policies, and I put that one first for a reason. I worked with an organization that was using the 4+1 view model from Philippe Kruchten for modeling architecture. The problem I had was that the projects using this model were not adequately able to convey the services that would be exposed/utilized by their solution. The policy that I wanted enforced at the architecture review was that candidate services had been clearly identified, and potential owners of those services had been assigned. If the solution architecture can’t convey this, it’s a problem with the solution architecture format, not the policy. If you know your policies, you should then create your sample artifacts to ensure that those policies can be easily enforced through a review of the deliverable(s). This is where the reference material comes into play, as well. In this scenario, the purpose of the reference material is to assist the solution architect in building the required deliverable(s). Many architects may create future state diagrams that may be accurate representations, but wind up being very difficult to use in a solution architecture context. The projects are the efforts that will get you to that future state, so if the reference material doesn’t make sense to them, it’s just going to get tossed aside. This doesn’t bode well for the EA group, as it will increase the likelihood that they are seen as an ivory tower.

When creating this material, keep in mind that there are multiple views of a system, and a solution architect is concerned with all of them. I mentioned the 4+1 view model. There’s 5 views right there, and one view it doesn’t include is a management view (operational management of the solution). That’s at least 6 distinct views. If your reference material consists of one master Visio diagram, you’re probably trying to convey too much with it, and as a result, you’re not conveying anything other than complexity to the people that need it. Create as many diagrams and views as necessary to ensure compliance. Governance is not about minimizing the number of artifacts involved, it’s about achieving the desired behavior. If achieving desired behavior requires a number of diagrams and models, so be it.

Finally, architectural governance is not just about enforcing policies on projects. In Phil’s articles some of my quotes also alluded to the project initiation process. EA teams have the challenge of trying to get the architectural goals achieved, but often times without the ability to directly create and fund projects themselves. In order to achieve their goals, the current state and future state architectures must also be conveyed to the people responsible for IT Governance. This is an entirely different audience, one whom the reference architectures created for the solution architects may be far too technical in nature. While it would minimize the work of the architecture team to have one set of reference material that would work for everyone, that simply won’t be the case. Again, the reference material needs to fit the audience. Just as a good service should fit the needs of its consumers, the reference material produced by EA must do the same.

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This blog represents my own personal views, and not those of my employer or any third party. Any use of the material in articles, whitepapers, blogs, etc. must be attributed to me alone without any reference to my employer. Use of my employers name is NOT authorized.