Architecting Out Complexity

Complexity kills. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT. Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use. Complexity introduces security challenges. Complexity causes administrator frustration.

So said Ray Ozzie ex-Microsoft Chief Software Architect and creator of Lotus Notes.

Complexity, or more precisely, overly complicated systems (not to be confused with complex systems) is one of the key anti-patterns architects must continuously fight against. Complexity is caused not just by adding additional and unwanted functionality (although that certainly does not help) but also by muddled architectural thinking as well as poorly made architectural decisions. Here’s the real problem though, the initial architecture of almost any system, unless it borrows very heavily from other, similar, architectures will rarely be without complexity. There will almost always be refinements that can be made, over time, that remove complexity and make for a cleaner and more streamlined design. Sometimes you may even need to throw away the initial architecture and start again, using what you have learnt from the initial architecture to take out complexity. Frederick Brooks (author of The Mythical Man Month) famously said of software designs “plan to throw one away, you will anyway“.

The other problem with complexity in systems is that it tends to increase over time due to software entropy. As more changes are made, some not envisaged by the architect because change cases were not adequately thought through, a system naturally becomes more complicated and harder to maintain. It almost seems that the lifecycle of a system could be represented by the complexity curve in the diagram below.

Complexity does not just apply to systems, it also applies to whole styles of architecture. Cloud computing would still seem to be fairly early on in the complexity curve in this respect. Cloud computing is almost the ultimate in information hiding. Just put everything in the cloud and get what you want when you want it. If you’re inside the cloud looking out however you need to deal with a whole lot of pain to create that outward facing simplicity. If you’re a cloud architect therefore you need to understand and design for that complexity otherwise over time our clouds will become weighed down with out of date junk that no one wants. This is definitely a topic I’ll be returning to over the course of 2012.


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