The Fall and Rise of the Full Stack Architect

strawberry-layer-cake

Almost three years ago to the day on here I wrote a post called Happy 2013 and Welcome to the Fifth Age! The ‘ages’ of (commercial) computing discussed there were:

  • First Age: The Mainframe Age (1960 – 1975)
  • Second Age: The Mini Computer Age (1975 – 1990)
  • Third Age: The Client-Server Age (1990 – 2000)
  • Fourth Age: The Internet Age (2000 – 2010)
  • Fifth Age: The Mobile Age (2010 – 20??)

One of the things I wrote in that article was this:

“Until a true multi-platform technology such as HTML5 is mature enough, we are in a complex world with lots of new and rapidly changing technologies to get to grips with as well as needing to understand how the new stuff integrates with all the old legacy stuff (again). In other words, a world which we as architects know and love and thrive in.”

So, three years later, are we any closer to having a multi-platform technology? Where does cloud computing fit into all of this and is multi-platform technology making the world get more or less complex for us as architects?

In this post I argue that cloud computing is actually taking us to an age where rather than having to spend our time dealing with the complexities of the different layers of architecture we can be better utilised by focussing on delivering business value in the form of new and innovative services. In other words, rather than us having to specialise as layer architects we can become full-stack architects who create value rather than unwanted or misplaced technology. Let’s explore this further.

The idea of the full stack architect.

Vitruvius, the Roman architect and civil engineer, defined the role of the architect thus:

“The ideal architect should be a [person] of letters, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of juriconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations.”

Vitruvius also believed that an architect should focus on three central themes when preparing a design for a building: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty).

vitruvian man
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

For Vitruvius then the architect was a multi-disciplined person knowledgable of both the arts and sciences. Architecture was not just about functionality and strength but beauty as well. If such a person actually existed then they had a fairly complete picture of the whole ‘stack’ of things that needed to be considered when architecting a new structure.

So how does all this relate to IT?

In the first age of computing (roughly 1960 – 1975) life was relatively simple. There was a mainframe computer hidden away in the basement of a company managed by a dedicated team of operators who guarded their prized possession with great care and controlled who had access to it and when. You were limited by what you could do with these systems not only by cost and availability but also by the fact that their architectures were fixed and the choice of programming languages (Cobol, PL/I and assembler come to mind) to make them do things was also pretty limited. The architect (should such a role have actually existed then) had a fairly simple task as their options were relatively limited and the number of architectural decisions that needed to be made were correspondingly fairly straight forward. Like Vitruvias’ architect one could see that it would be fairly straight forward to understand the full compute stack upon which business applications needed to run.

Indeed, as the understanding of these computing engines increased you could imagine that the knowledge of the architects and programmers who built systems around these workhorses of the first age reached something of a ‘plateau of productivity’*.

Architecture Stacks 3

However things were about to get a whole lot more complicated.

The fall of the full stack architect.

As IT moved into its second age and beyond (i.e. with the advent of mini computers, personal computers, client-server, the web and early days of the internet) the breadth and complexity of the systems that were built increased. This is not just because of the growth in the number of programming languages, compute platforms and technology providers but also because each age has built another layer on the previous one. The computers from a previous age never go away, they just become the legacy that subsequent ages must deal with. Complexity has also increased because of the pervasiveness of computers. In the fifth age the number of people whose lives are now affected by these machines is orders of magnitude greater than it was in the first age.

All of this has led to niches and specialisms that were inconceivable in the early age of computing. As a result, architecting systems also became more complex giving rise to what have been termed ‘layer’ architects whose specialities were application architecture, infrastructure architecture, middleware architecture and so on.

Architecture Stacks

Whole professions have been built around these disciplines leading to more and more specialisation. Inevitably this has led to a number of things:

  1. The need for communications between the disciplines (and for them to understand each others ‘language’).
  2. As more knowledge accrues in one discipline, and people specialise in it more, it becomes harder for inter-disciplinary understanding to happen.
  3. Architects became hyper-specialised in their own discipline (layer) leading to a kind of ‘peak of inflated expectations’* (at least amongst practitioners of each discipline) as to what they could achieve using the technology they were so well versed in but something of a ‘trough of disillusionment’* to the business (who paid for those systems) when they did not deliver the expected capabilities and came in over cost and behind schedule.

Architecture Stacks 4

So what of the mobile and cloud age which we now find ourselves in?

The rise of the full stack architect.

As the stack we need to deal with has become more ‘cloudified’ and we have moved from Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) to Platform as a Service (PaaS) it has become easier to understand the full stack as an architect. We can, to some extent, take for granted the lower, specialised parts of the stack and focus on the applications and data that are the differentiators for a business.

Architecture Stacks 2

We no longer have to worry about what type of server to use or even what operating system or programming environments have to be selected. Instead we can focus on what the business needs and how that need can be satisfied by technology. With the right tools and the right cloud platforms we can hopefully climb the ‘slope of enlightenment’ and reach a new ‘plateau of productivity’*.

Architecture Stacks 5

As Neal Ford, Software Architect at Thoughtworks says in this video:

“Architecture has become much more interesting now because it’s become more encompassing … it’s trying to solve real problems rather than play with abstractions.”

 

I believe that the fifth age of computing really has the potential to take us to a new plateau of productivity and hopefully allow all of us to be architects described by this great definition from the author, marketeer and blogger Seth Godin:

“Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways.”

What interesting and important things are you going to do in this age of computing?

* Diagrams and terms borrowed from Gartner’s hype cycle.

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