Non-Functional Requirements and the Cloud

As discussed here the term non-functional requirements really is a complete misnomer. Who would, after all, create a system based on requirements that were “not functional”? Non-functional requirements refer to the qualities that a system should have and the constraints under which it must operate. Non-functional requirements are sometimes referred to as the “ilities,” because many end in “ility,” such as, availability, reliability, and maintainability etc.

Non-functional requirements will  of course an impact on the functionality of the system. For example, a system may quite easily address all of the functional requirements that have been specified for it but if that system is not available for certain times during the day then it is quite useless even though it may be functionally ‘complete’.

Non-functional requirements are not abstract things which are written down when considering the design of a system and then ignored but must be engineered into the systems design just like functional requirements are. Non-functional requirements can have a bigger impact on systems design than can functional requirements and certainly if you get them wrong can lead to more costly rework. Missing a functional requirement usually means adding it later or doing some rework. Getting a non-functional requirement wrong can lead to some very costly rework or even cancelled projects with the knock-on effect that has on reputation etc.

From an architects point of view, when defining how a system will address non-functional requirements, it mainly (though not exclusively) boils down to how the compute platforms (whether that be processors, storage or networking) are specified and configured to be able to satisfy the qualities and constraints specified of it. As more and more workloads get moved to the cloud how much control do we as architects have in specifying the non-functional requirements for our systems and which non-functionals are the ones which should concern us most?

As ever the answer to this question is “it depends”. Every situation is different and for each case some things will matter more than others. If you are a bank or a government department holding sensitive customer data the security of your providers cloud may be upper most in your mind. If on the other hand you are an on-line retailer who wants your customers to be able to shop at any time of the day then availability may be most important. If you are seeking a cloud platform to develop new services and products then maybe the ease of use of the development tools is key. The question really is therefore not so much which are the important non-functional requirements but which ones should I be considering in the context of a cloud platform?

Below are some of the key NFR’s I would normally expect to be taken into consideration when looking at moving workloads to the cloud. These apply whether they are public or private or a mix of the two. These apply to any of the layers of the cloud stack (i.e. Infrastructure, Platform or Software as a Service) but will have an impact on different users. For example availability (or lack of) of a SaaS service is likely to have more of an impact on the business user than developers or IT operations whereas availability of the infrastructure will effect all users.

  • Availability – What percentage of time does the cloud vendor guarantee cloud services will be available (including scheduled maintenance down-times)? Bear in mind that although 99% availability may sound good that actually equates to just over 3.5 days potential downtime a year. Even 99.99 could mean 8 hours down time. Also consider as part of this Disaster Recovery aspects of availability and if more then one physical data centre is used where do they reside? The latter is especially true where data residency is an issue if your data needs to reside on-shore for legal or regulatory reasons.
  • Elasticity (Scalability) – How easy is it to bring on line or take down compute resources (CPU, memory, network) as workload increases or decreases?
  • Interoperability – If using services from multiple cloud providers how easy is it to move workloads between cloud providers? (Hint: open standards help here). Also what about if you want to migrate from one cloud provider to another ? (Hint: open standards help here as well).
  • Security – What security levels and standards are in place? for public/private clouds not in your data centre also consider physical security of the cloud providers data centres as well as networks. Data residency again needs to be considered as part of this.
  • Adaptability – How easy is it to extend, add to or grow services as business needs change? For example if I want to change my business processes or connect to new back end or external API’s how easy would it be to do that?
  • Performance – How well suited is my cloud infrastructure to supporting the workloads that will be deployed onto it, particularly as workloads grow?
  • Usability – This will be different depending on who the client is (i.e. business users, developers/architects or IT operations). In all cases however you need to consider ease of use of the software and how well designed interfaces are etc. IT is no longer hidden inside your own company, instead your systems of engagement are out there for all the world to see. Effective design of those systems is more important than ever before.
  • Maintainability – More from an IT operations and developer point of view.  How easy is it to manage (and develop) the cloud services?
  • Integration – In a world of hybrid cloud where some workloads and data need to remain in your own data centre (usually systems of record) whilst others need to be deployed in public or private clouds (usually systems of engagement) how those two clouds integrate is crucial.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that non-functional requirements should actually be considered in terms of the qualities you want from your IT system as well as the constraints you will be operating under. The decision to move to cloud in many ways adds a constraint to what you are doing. You don’t have complete free reign to do whatever you want if you choose off-premise cloud operated by a vendor but have to align with the service levels they provide. An added bonus (or complication depending on how you look at it) is that you can choose from different service levels to match what you want and also change these as and when your requirements change. Probably one of the most important decisions you need to make when choosing a cloud provider is that they have the ability to expand with you and don’t lock you in to their cloud architecture too much. This is a topic I’ll be looking at in a future post.

Consideration of non-functional requirements does not go away in the world of cloud. Cloud providers have very different capabilities, some will be more relevant to you than others. These, coupled with the fact that you also need to be architecting for both on-premise as well as off-premise clouds actually make some of the architecture decisions that need to be made more not less difficult. It seems the advent of cloud computing is not about to make us architects redundant just yet.

For a more detailed discussion of non-functional requirements and cloud computing see this article on IBM’s developerWorks site.

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