In the fast-paced world of software development, simplicity in design and system architecture is VERY often overlooked as a critical component of a successful project. While there is a tendency to focus on performance, scalability, and other technical aspects, the truth is that simple architectures are more efficient and ultimately more successful in the long run. Why? In this discussion, we will explore the benefits of architectural simplicity, the reasons for complexity, and provide recommendations for driving simplicity in software architecture.
Benefits of Architectural Simplicity
Simple architectures offer several key benefits that contribute to the overall success of a software system.
Ease Cognitive Load
A simple architecture is easier to communicate and comprehend. Architects and development leads often do not consider the cognitive load required by developers to understand a system enough to effectively work on it without breaking everything they touch.
Just imagine if you took an auto mechanic from 1970 and asked him to understand and fix a modern EV like a Tesla or a complex gas-electric hybrid like a Prius? He (or she) would be utterly lost and would have to spend a ton of time just trying to figure out how the car works, before even trying to fix anything.
That’s what a lot of companies do today with really complex micro service collections, code as service and other widely diverse architectures. Before developers can even begin to work on such a system they have to understand a ton of complex concepts: languages, frameworks, containers, container orchestration, networking, scaling, cloud infrastructures API interfaces, message busses, and so on. Then they have to understand all the particular ways your architecture uses those tools. It is a huge learning curve, and slows developer productivity.
All of that is a far cry from the simplicity of a classic Ruby on Rails monolith, for example. In an architecture that’s a monolith, there are far fewer moving pieces, and you don’t have to understand containers, orchestration, deal with inter-micro service orchestration or any of the other problems created by more complex architectures.
I’m not making a stand on micro services vs monoliths here. Rather, simply stating that often times a simpler architecture will offer significant benefits over something overly complex that you probably don’t really need. At least not yet. Don’t build complexity until you really need it.
By working to define and implement a simple architecture with a smaller model and fewer drawings, developers and stakeholders can quickly grasp the architecture, leading to better alignment across teams and efficient implementation. It saves time, money and frustration to keep it simple!
Ease of Implementation
Simple architectures are often far easier to implement and manage in a production environment . They have fewer moving parts, interactions, and potential points of failure. Compare a monolith with an application server, a database and a caching layer like Redis or memcached. In this architecture, 3, maybe 4 key tools power the whole thing. It is super easy to understand how it works, and therefore how to run and maintain it.
While it may take more time to identify a truly simple design through trial and error, the overall implementation process is streamlined. It is worth the effort.
Simplified Deployment and Operations
Simple architectures are easier to deploy and operate. With fewer moving parts, the deployment process becomes very straightforward. Once in production, simple architectures can be easily scaled and monitored, leading to fewer operational challenges.
There are a ton of great tools to manage deployments using continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD). Even something as simple as Jenkins works great – unless your architecture is super or overly complex. Overly complex architectures make deployments and coordinating the deployments of tightly coupled components time consuming and error prone. (Tightly coupled / poorly abstracted micro services are abominations and I’ll definitely have things to say about that in the future. )
Focus on keeping your build and deployment architecture as simple as possible. This combined with a straightforward system architecture can greatly simplify and streamline your CI/CD pipelines maintaining maximum efficiency.
Flexibility for Modification and Evolution
Simple architectures are easier to modify and evolve. By adhering to the principles of Agile practices and specifically LEAN – development teams can be more productive with fewer complexities to manage and fewer points of impact when making changes. This makes the process of change overtime much, much easier.
Never heard of LEAN – learn more here?
I’ll summarize LEAN – it is all about eliminating waste. Even if nothing else in the LEAN world appeals to you or suits your team, you should always be looking to eliminate wasteful work in your projects. I’ll be sure to write a LOT more about that in the future because in my experience companies and project teams waste a lot of effort on meaningless busy work. But I digress…
Understanding Architectural Simplicity
Defining simplicity in software architecture can be challenging as it encompasses various concepts and practices. Here are some key considerations to drive architectural simplicity:
Strive for the Simplest Option
When designing a software system, strive for the simplest option that meets the functional and non-functional requirements. This approach, often referred to as Occam’s Razor, emphasizes choosing the most simples solution among multiple possibilities.
Apply YAGNI (You Ain’t Gonna Need It)
Avoid designing for future requirements that may never materialize. Instead, focus on building what is needed at present and only that. By avoiding over-engineering, you can reduce complexity and unnecessary development efforts. The vast majority of the time you won’t need to do more.
The most common way this manifests is “building for scale”. For example, you are building an internal time keeping app for a large company of approximately 5000 employees. Spending a lot of time to implement clustering, sharing, auto-scaling and other large to huge scale focused capabilities is almost certainly a waste of time. Time keeping happens once a day x 5000 employees. One server should be plenty to handle that level of load. Maybe two.
If your company grows exponentially, or decides to sell the time keeping software – now you might have to consider scaling. But how likely is that? And how fast will that happen? You won’t simply wake up tomorrow and have 5 million users keeping time on that system. Nope. It will take months to years – you’ll have time to make changes for scaling.
Key takeaway: Do it when you need it – don’t anticipate a need u will never have!
Avoid Premature Optimization
Another aspect of YNGNI is over optimizing. Avoid over-optimizing the design at the initial stages. Start with concrete implementations and refactor into interfaces as needed. This iterative approach allows for better interface definition and function names, resulting in a more suitable level of complexity for the system.
Embrace Simplicity, Not Familiarity
Simplicity is not equivalent to familiarity. Embrace simplicity even if it requires using unfamiliar technologies or techniques. The focus should be on finding the simplest solution that solves the problem at hand, rather than relying on familiar approaches that may not be the most efficient.
Reasons for Complexity
Despite the numerous benefits of simplicity, software architectures often become complex due to various reasons. Here are some common factors contributing to complexity:
Complexity can be seen as a way to add value to a solution, showcase technical prowess, or support empire-building within an organization. However, complex designs can become difficult to build, maintain, and evolve, ultimately hindering the success of the software system.
Development is Fun
Developers often enjoy tackling complex problems and using new technologies. Developers also tend to do this to pad their resume with the latest and greatest technologies – even if they don’t fit the need of the business or a better more proven solution exists. This enthusiasm can sometimes lead to overcomplicating the architecture, as developers pursue exciting challenges and overlook the long-term implications of complexity.
Keeping Up With the Joneses
The ever-evolving technology landscape tempts developers to incorporate the latest trends and technologies into their designs. While innovation is essential, blindly adopting new technologies without considering the impact on simplicity can lead to unnecessary complexity.
Simple Is Hard
Designing simple solutions is often more challenging than designing complex ones. It requires a deep understanding of the problem space, available technologies, and prior design experiences. Maintaining simplicity over time requires continuous effort and vigilance against entropy.
The structure of an organization can influence the complexity of software architectures. Conway’s Law states that the architecture of a system often reflects the communication structures within an organization. Complex organizations tend to produce complex architectures.
Recommendations for Driving Architectural Simplicity
To achieve architectural simplicity, it is essential to adopt specific practices and techniques consistently throughout the software development process. Here are some recommendations to drive architectural simplicity effectively:
Perform Some Design Up Front
While an agile approach is valuable, some level of up-front planning and design is critical. Set an initial vision, align the delivery team and stakeholders, and continuously monitor progress to ensure alignment with the vision.
Design Throughout Delivery
Over time as you gain insight and experience, adapt the architecture in small, logical ways to ensure you can meet the business needs.
Architecture should be continuously evaluated throughout the development lifecycle. Be prepared to make course corrections based on changing requirements or new insights gained during implementation. Intentional architecture ensures that decisions are made deliberately, considering the larger vision.
Ask Questions, Often
Challenge assumptions, clarify ambiguities, and ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of the problem and requirements. Regularly question design decisions and consider alternative approaches. Communication and collaboration are vital for maintaining simplicity.
Understand Decision Tradeoffs
Recognize that all decisions involve tradeoffs. Consider multiple options for each decision and evaluate the benefits, challenges, and risks of each alternative. Understand the return on investment of specific requirements to make informed decisions.
Create Proof of Concepts
Use proof of concepts to gain confidence and verify the viability of architectural decisions. Start with minimal implementations to validate specific aspects of the architecture, and iterate as needed. Proof of concepts can help reduce complexity and uncertainty.
Communicate Effectively and Often
Clear and frequent communication is essential for successful architecture delivery. Utilize concise documentation and favor written documentation vs shared understanding. Regularly review the architecture with the delivery team to reinforce the vision and prevent misunderstandings.
Embrace Minimum Viable
Focus on delivering the minimum viable product that satisfies early customer needs. Avoid over-engineering and prioritize architectural features based on the most likely scenarios, rather than addressing all edge cases.
Make Architecture Everyone’s Responsibility
Encourage the entire delivery team to think architecturally, regardless of their seniority. Foster a culture where all team members are involved in decision-making and challenge design choices. A collaborative approach ensures that simplicity is embraced by all stakeholders.
By implementing these recommendations, software development teams can prioritize simplicity and drive architectural success.
Architectural simplicity is a critical factor in the success of software systems. Simple architectures are easier to communicate, implement, deploy, and modify. They facilitate efficient operation, scalability, and responsiveness to changing business needs. Despite the benefits, complexity can creep into architectures due to various factors.
To drive simplicity, it is essential to adopt a proactive approach that includes upfront design, continuous evaluation, effective communication, and a focus on tradeoffs. By making architectural simplicity everyone’s responsibility and embracing a mindset of continuous improvement, software development teams can build robust and successful systems.
Simplicity should be at the forefront of software architecture. Embrace simplicity, challenge complexity, and continuously strive for architectural designs that are as simple as possible to meet the goals. Remember, simplicity is the key to unlocking long-term success in software development.