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A Practical Approach to Computer Systems Design and Architecture

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11 Dec 2013CPOL40 min read
This article gives an introduction to system designing and architecture. It introduces a new concept that allows beginners to easily break and design complex software systems. It uses a modular based development approach with a pattern that we all practice in our day to day life.

Screenshot - Puzzel.jpg Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Overview
  3. The Approach to Design a System
  4. Start Designing our Document Management System
  5. General Advices
  6. Think Fresh and Approach like a Newcomer
  7. Additional Hints for System Designers
  8. Final Note
  9. Coincidence
  10. Summary
  11. History
  12. References

1. Introduction

Our Business Analyst went abroad last week to meet a new customer who selected us to develop his Content Management System. The analyst had met and extensively discussed details about the business needs with the customer. Our hard working Business Analyst returned after two weeks with a detailed Business Model document on hand, where he together with a coworker prepared the formal requirement specification in a hurry. During this process they conferred with the customer to clarify some requirements. The formal requirement document was sent to the customer for initial approval, where it was returned with minor adjustments. The requested minor adjustments were made by the business analyst himself to get the final approval from the customer's end. It was a good effort; we got the fixed set of requirements three weeks after we first met the customer. The Business Analyst sent the business model to the system architect. Soon, the Non-Functional Requirement Document was finished and was approved by the customer with no changes. As the next immediate process, the use cases were defined. The System Architect finalized the design of the system together with the System Analyst. The database admin followed by identifying/ defining the entities and their relations together with DDL (Data Definition Language) for the system. The UI (User Interface) designer designed the system user interface to finalize the initial design effort. At last, the deployment model was defined and we started implementing the system steadily, after getting all the required approvals from the customer end.

What I just mentioned was an imaginary system development process, which has limited real world applicability. In real world practice, there are many variables that make one feel that system design/ development methodologies need to be adjusted from customer to customer, as well as from project to project. This article is a challenging attempt to introduce a concept (model) that holds onto all extreme cases of modern day system designing requirements.

The first step in designing a system requires thorough study of the problem domain. This implicitly means time, followed by money, which threatens the customer who doesn't have an adequate visibility over the advantages of a properly designed system. It just makes things worse when the current day diversity of requirements argues the value of one's experience. The experience gives you confidence but if one soon says that "Oh, This is just the same solution we delivered last year" he'll soon end up losing the customer by delivering the wrong product.

There are good design methodologies out there, but very often due to time limitations (where clients push for quick releases, while developer struggles with extremely tight deadlines), solution providers aren't confident to apply them. Today, Solution Providers tend to implement systems without designing them properly. More often, development starts after loosely evaluating the depth of the project. The System Requirement Specification is often changed in the middle of the development. This is due to insufficient clarity of business requirements at the start of the project, as well as insufficient domain expertise. The customer often waits until the solution provider releases the system to understand it. The customer uses the first few releases of the system to understand the direction of the project and to apply corrections. Unfortunately, some of these changes shake the whole foundation of the system, forcing designers to rethink the initial design. But these impacts are hardly seen by the customer's non-technical eye. A fight ensues between customer's money and the developer's 24 hours a day.

The customer estimates the correct time to enter the market at the initial stage of the project. The massive competition in the software market place makes it important to take decisions to pin-point accuracy. The most important thing is to hit the market on time.

2. Overview

2.1 What Solution Providers Do Today?

You don't need civil engineering expertise to understand the instability of building a foundation without knowing the number of stories of the finished building. The same philosophy applies to software architecting as well. Expanding a system which is developed for a limited set of features is just adding more problems than features. A high percentage of solution providers push for ad-hoc development approaches. They use extreme programming to achieve tight deadlines. Customers are also encouraging them, having a daydream of re-factoring the system, once it is running at a profit earning stage. Another reason for customers to treat System Design as a low priority is the time designers/ analysts take to investigate/ design a system. The Customer, according to some terminology, is GOD, regularly expecting tangible outputs from the solution provider. But a proper system design process may make him wait several months. In order to support the customer's needs, solution providers often plan bi-weekly or monthly system releases from the starting day of the project. This extreme need burns out resources in the middle of development.

Developers are used to starting the system development process with a scaled down version of the system, and gradually patching the rest of the system around it. This results in an unstable product with lots of repetitive, badly grouped code. Additionally, it creates programmer-dependant code modules, since each module is coded by individuals with different skill sets. Inconsistent code makes debugging the system a nightmare. This costs time as well as money in many direct/ indirect ways, while making it impossible to expand.

2.2. Why We Should Design Systems Properly? Do I have to Answer This?

Properly architected systems always gain that strategic advantage over common issues of the software development life cycle. A well architected system is cheaper than a patched together system when it comes to dealing with changes and upgrades. The architectural discipline regularizes code, while supporting and managing the implementation with short predictable development times. The consistency of the design allows managers to pull/ push resources from/to different sections of the project with minimal training. These are some of the few advantages you gain with a properly designed system.

In order to drive the system development effort smoothly, the designer should introduce a steady design/coding pattern at the early stage of the process, allowing every developer to gain mastery over it. This also opens the opportunity to remove the dependency on the architect at a later stage of the project.

3. The Approach to Designing a System

Let me highlight first that I do not draw the famous use case diagrams and sequence diagrams when designing systems. In-fact I have another approach that lets you understand the system better and allows you to directly draw the class diagram. But before drawing the class diagram, I encourage you to draw an activity diagram and/ or a system overview diagram and/ or a module interaction diagram and/ or any other type of diagram, which helps you to fully understand (feel) the system.

As I have reiterated many times, designing a system mainly depends on the designer's understanding of the problem domain. So the better you understand, the easier the system design will be. However in modern days, it is less probable to assume that designers get a sufficient time frame to fully investigate the system, before starting to design.

As the first step, the designer has to be a master of the problem domain. A well written System Requirement Specification (SRS) document can be used as the introduction to the system. The system designer should read it repeatedly and should carefully understand each and every important feature hidden in odd corners of the document. But in most cases, the designer does not get a proper SRS prior to the system design. (At least, this is the case with service based companies.) Instead he is forced to grab the requirements through initial business meetings and telephone conferences. This unfortunate circumstance is the ideal case for a designer to think of a throw away prototype or even two. A prototype is the best and cheapest way to define a product specification, before committing yourself to unknown territory. In case of a disagreement with a prototyped system, the designer should strategically drive the customer to write the specification for him. The traditional advice is to wait till you get to the depth of the system before starting the design. But in practice, you can speed up by referring to online resources, such as articles, open source projects, and other similar products without heavily depending on the SRS document (note: new comers always need help from seniors to correctly identify resource pools, since complex business requirements are hardly seen by new technical eyes). The domain expertise you gain will not only guarantee a good design, but will also help to better predict the future of the system and to keep adequate spaces for later expansions. In addition to this, new comers have to be attentive not to underestimate important business requirements by evaluating them only from technical angles. This is another crucial area, where a client could be extremely rigid and even decide to reject the system, complaining that the solution provider delivered a wrong product.

Discover the system by asking questions. I have a technique that I've used since the very first system I designed. I am presenting it here for you as the second step of approach to designing a new system. Open a notepad or get a piece of paper, and then start asking questions about the system. In this effort you are free to ask any question, but in order to get a better start, start the process with the three main questions (about input, process, and output of the system) listed below.

  1. What are the Input(s) of the system?
  2. What are the Processes of the system?
  3. What are the Output(s) of the system?

In order to optimize the throughput, start to rethink the system with a fresh mind by forgetting all the information you gathered through various resources. This approach will help you understand the definitions of the product, even when the product specification is not very clear. As you practice this technique, you will be surprised to see the way it opens up new areas of the system. As you may already know, according to this method, interestingly, the questioner has to be the answerer and it has to be you. Sometimes you may not be able to answer a specific question. But at least you will end up having a list of questions to find answers to. I have seen designers struggling when they are thrown a project with widely (loosely) defined requirements. They do not know where to start and what to ask or not ask. If you are facing the same issue, then try this technique and see if it works.

A good question would be one that creates several derivative questions by the answer given to it. So an answer to a question may produce another question (one or more), or a leaf level operation, or a function of the system (use case of the system). This technique does not have rules or definitions. The questioning and answering process can drift freely in multiple directions by the questions created from the answers. Questions that are not answerable may need to be directed to the client. And those that are not answered by the client have to be creatively handled by the system designer in a way that doesn't affect the solidity of the system. You can creatively group them into separate module(s) for later implementations.

As an example, let's try to apply this methodology to discover the feature list of a simple Document Management System (DMS). The questioning will start at a very abstract level with three main questions.

  1. What are the inputs for this?
    Files such as Word, txt, media, etc. (I would say any type of file.)
  2. What are the processes of the system?
    It is a document management system and it will help my client to manage his documents properly.
  3. What are the outputs?
    Allow users to view file(s) online as well as allow them to checkout/ remove file(s).

If you get fairly good answers to all the three questions above, I would say that you have understood the system. The above three questions virtually can be used to discover any system. The answers you write to these three questions will create many more derivative questions. This process will help us uncover all use-cases or rather, in simple terms, leaf level functions of the system. (A leaf level function is an independent, granular level operation that describes a specific function of the system.) It also helps us discover all external/ internal (system) actors of the system. The process of asking questions and writing answers will continue until we get to leaf level functions where we cannot ask any more questions about the answers.

Screenshot - FigureX.jpg

Figure 1: A graphical representation of a generic system is being analyzed by asking questions

Let's go and analyze the first question (i.e., about inputs) a little more to see what it will discover for us. Just allow who, what, when, why, and how, etc., to create questions for you. In the sample below, I have used '*' to indicate the words that create questions. You may also follow the numbering sequence to better recognize the way it drifts.

1. What are the inputs for this?
Files such as Word, txt, media, etc. (I would say any type of file.)

2. How do users upload a document?
The *User* gets a *web interface* to browse, select, and upload a document.

2.1 How do users reach this web interface?
The user has to be *registered* with the system to access this via the provided credentials.

2.1.1. How do users get registered with the system?
All *employees* will be registered by the DMS system administrator. This will happen as they deploy the system. How does the admin know the employee's profile, and how do employees obtain their credentials?
Both of these will be manual processes, where the admin will obtain the employee profile data from the HR department and each employee will get an access code by calling the System Administrator manually.

Note: Here we have found that system admin *only* can create users, and obviously he can delete/ update them. What about employees' privacy?
The system should allow employees to change their passwords.

2.1.2. Is the User Registration page a restricted one for general users?
Yes, the system admin alone will see this page.

2.2. Who is a user anyway?
A user of this system *can be from four different divisions*, namely Administrative, Accounting, Marketing, and Development. Each user will belong to one and only one of these four divisions. So this means that each user of this system will have different privileges and access permissions.

2.2.1. Do users of different divisions need to have different privileges?
Yes. The users of each division will have different privileges. A user from Marketing or Development division will have *default privileges* where they can upload and mange their documents but users from accounting division can *overlook* Marketing division, and the Administrative division can overlook any other division, apart from doing default functions of the system. (The power/ privileges of each division is like: Administrative > Account > Marketing = Development.) What is the default privilege of a user?
This includes upload documents, view documents online, check-out documents for editing, and delete a document. Again, any document uploaded will be shared among users of the same division automatically. A document belonging to one division can be shared with another division only by explicitly giving permission. A private document will not be supported by this system (confirmed by the client software requirement specification). Note: I will not create question(s) out of this. What is overlooking a user?
This is the privilege of accessing documents uploaded by other users without needing any permission from the document owner. Note: I will not create question(s) out of this. Note: Above answers introduce us to two modules called User Management, Security and Privileges. In order to analyze them further, you have to treat them separately by asking questions starting form input, process, and output of each module. Let's not dig into that section right now.

3. How do documents flow through this system?
*Select* and *upload* the document by the user > System will validate the input file > *Files added* to "to be approved" section > Administrator *Approves and publishes* the file > File is available for users.

3.1. Do we need a workflow management system here?
I don't think so, let's hardcode the workflow, since we don't expect them to be dynamically adjusted. This is not a very complex system. So it is not necessary to have a separate module to manage workflows, and I am happy without it.

Now, we have found a few granular level operations belonging to the document uploading section. Let's list them as below:

Client side:
Select a document from the local directory base
Read the byte stream to system memory
Send it via the web to the server

Server Side:
Read the byte stream from memory
Write it to a local temporary location for validations
Input Validation Module validates the input file
Move the validated file to the correct user's shared location
Add this new file to the repository system as a "File to be Approved"
Load the files that are to be approved for the system administrator to view them
System administrator validates the content of the file and approves them to be viewed online
Change the file metadata status from "tobeApproved" to "Approved"
Note: Ideal place for a diagram..

3.2. Are we going to have versioning here?
Yes, we need to have versioning. So any update to an existing file will run through a version handler that assigns the correct version number. Note: This can be analyzed further deep..

3.3. Do we need to notify users when a new document is successfully published?
The user who owns (uploads) the document will get an email noting the reject/ accept status. In addition to that, we have to send another notification to users who have subscribed to be notified as this operation happens. Note: This introduces a new module to the system named Notification module. I will not dig into this section either.

3.3. Can a user undo an update?
I need to talk to the client about this.

3.4. Can multiple users checkout a document at the same time?
Let's stop this now…

Look at the way it expands, it just keeps on expanding as you ask questions. I omitted lots of questions since the article is getting longer, but I believe that this sample question and answer set will provide enough guidance to understanding the concept. This process needs to be repeated (go through the questioning and answering process again and again) several times to fully discover the system. Firstly, you have to recognize the main modules of the system. I have already identified a couple of modules named input validating module, user management module, security module, notification module, and not the last nor the least, the main document management module. Module reorganization is one of the important parts of this technique. If you can identify the modules of the system quicker, that will lead to easier designing. The ones who do not have experience will always find it harder to recognize the modules of the system initially. But as you practice the technique several times, you will gain that ability. (This comes with experience, and to get it quicker, you can apply the technique over and over on the same system, until you feel comfortable with the module break down).

In my early days, I always started by recognizing the full list of leaf level functions of the system (granular level use cases of the system). Then I followed that by grouping the functions to form classes (classes will group same types of functions/ operations). These classes are the ones that form the modules of the system. As I reached this point, the deep understanding automatically guided me to identify the modules of the system. I recommend new-comers take this path until you gain mastery over the concept. The recognized modules have to be further analyzed by asking questions (as explained above) starting from the three main questions about the input, process and output. The modules have to be truly object-oriented and independent. They have to have clear definition and should fully cover the specific sections of the system. They also have to have well-defined functionally rich communication channel(s) for external party communications.

Once you design a couple of systems, the module breakdown will become easier and the concept will become friendlier. This experience will also reveal to you that some of those modules come repeatedly in every other system you design, so you can easily recognize/ reuse them.

You may follow this process to identify all the leaf level functions and main/ sub modules of the DMS system.

3.1. Breaking the system with easy concepts

Think of a governing body of a country or a private organization, and how they are being managed. Both of these complex organizations have hierarchical structures with many smaller departments (divisions) linked to the top. The more important finding is that they are proved to be rock solid. In this application designing technique, we treat the software system as a real world organization. Careful study finds that all software systems can be easily mapped to a real world organization. This mapping helps to easily identify/ define modules and also to control the system designing effort throughout the project life cycle. When you have that luxury of visualizing a software system via a pure manual real world organization (more friendly) you can quickly and accurately respond to requirement changes without hurting the stability of the system. When a change to the software system is proposed, virtually apply it to the manual system first, and it will help to identify the best way/ place to apply it in the software system. This approach will be better suited for complex systems, but will obviously work for simple systems too. In order to successfully map a software system to a real world organization, you need to correctly analyze the software system in a way that explains how it would process in a purely manual environment. The next step is to automate that manual process with a software model. It is highly recommended to keep similar modules, communication pattern, rules and naming conventions in between manual systems and software systems for better visualization.

Let's have a look at a typical organization as below and try to see, how it would respond to a typical request.

Screenshot - Figure1.jpg

Figure-2 Showing a typical organization hierarchy
  • CEO – Chief Operation Officer of this system is acting as the front end (User Interface of the software system) of the organization. The main responsibility of the CEO is to interact with the outside world, and identify/ guide managers in the correct sequence to complete a task. The CEO will directly map to the front interface of our sample Document Management System (DMS).
  • Super senior, senior and junior Managers – The manager's duty is to utilize resources (workers or sub managers) in the correct sequence to complete a particular task. A complex organization may have several levels of managers (super senior managers, senior managers and junior managers). Higher level managers will use one or many lower (immediately) level managers to complete a task. According to our diagram, we have three senior level managers named Accountant, Manager Operation, and Manager Delivery, where each manager is given a set of junior managers to perform their duties. As you can see, all junior managers are equipped with a group of workers.
  • Workers – Workers do all granular level operations and more often, workers are given purely independent tasks, which they can perform without making any dependency over any other task or worker.

Rules of the Organization

  • Higher level managers have the knowledge of the capacity of junior level worker groups. Hence, they know what worker to pick, in order to complete a task.
  • Same level entities are not allowed to communicate with each other, but if a task is needed by two or more same level managers to complete, then that task will be handled by the manager who is immediately senior to the two or more same level managers that are needed to complete that task.
  • An entity is only responsive to the immediately higher entity, and only utilizes the immediately lower entities.

In order to understand the organization well, let's see how this organization will respond to a typical request, made by the CEO.

Screenshot - Figure2.jpg

Figure-3: A request is been processed utilizing different types of workers of the organization

In this sample, the CEO of the organization has issued a request named "request 1" to "Manager Operation" (This operation assumes to be an independent one from Accountant and Manager Delivery). The CEO knows which manager he needs to issue the command to process this particular request successfully. In this case "Manager Operation" has received the request from the CEO. He proceeds by making the request named "request 1.1" to "Manager 1". The "Manager Operation" and CEO are in waiting mode now while "Manager 1" is processing the first part of the request. "Manager 1" has triggered a request named "request 1.1.1" to "Worker 3" to complete the "Task 3". As "Manager 1" receives the result of "Task 3," he issues the next request to complete "Task 1" to the same worker. After getting the result, "Manager 1" uses another worker named "Worker 1" to complete "Task 3". This completes "request 1.1.2" followed by "request 1.1". "Manager 1" now responds to "Manager Operation" with the results of "request 1.1". The "Manager Operation" picks the correct junior manager to handle the second part of the main request i.e. "request 1.2". As a result, "Manager 3" receives the "request 1.2" from the "Manager Operation", where he responds to it by making the "request 1.2.1" to "Worker 4" to complete the "Task 3". Finally, "Manager 3" responds to "Manager Operation" with the result of "request 1.2" which completes the whole processing of "request 1".

In our system design approach, we will also use the same concept to break and design the software systems. You will first identify the granular/ leaf level functions of the system (Tasks of the system) and will group them into classes, where each class is responsible for similar types of operations. These classes are pretty much similar to workers of the above diagram. As the number of workers of the organization increases, you add managers to manage the worker group. The same will be done in the software system too. Again as the number of managers grows, that group will be pushed down and a few senior managers will be introduced to the top to control them. However during this process, you need to carefully group classes of the system to form modules as well. (The modules can be formed by grouping similar types of classes). The number of managers and the depth of the manager pool inside a module can be decided by the complexity of the module (or the number of worker classes loaded or grouped into the module). These modules will be treated as separate divisions of an organization, where each module will be controlled by one or more managers, positioned considering the complexity of the system. These module controlling managers will help modules interact with each other.

4. Start designing our Document Management System

Initial analysis of the Document Management System has discovered a set of modules with their leaf level functions. As explained before, it is important to break the system into smaller modules before designing them; the better you modularize the system, the easier the system maintenance will be. Following that concept, let's modularize our DMS system horizontally as well as vertically. This will allow us to design each module separately by treating each as a separate division of the main organization. Even though we didn't fully analyze the DMS system, what we have discovered is detailed enough to explain the concept with an example. As the third step of designing a system, we will draw a system architecture diagram as below. This diagram will help us visually abstract the system and understand the key modules with their interaction in our DMS system.

Screenshot - Figure3.jpg

Figure-4: System Architecture Diagram of the Document Management System
  • Manager Operation – Manager Operation is acting as the head for all divisions, where divisions are the Document Management Division, Email/ Notification Division, and User Manager/ Security Division. The Manager Operation will coordinate all functions of the system while helping each division interact with one another as and when it is appropriate.
  • E.g.: Once a document is published, several emails needed to be sent, so then manager operation will first request the manger of the DMS division to publish the document and depending on the state of the publication the manager operation will request the email/ Notification division to send the correct email to the document owner and other subscribers. In this attempt the system has used two divisions to complete the task and these two divisions have being controlled by the Manager Operation.

  • DMS, Notification, User Manager/ Security – These are similar to three divisions of a generic organization. I have separated the leaf level workers in to three groups named Data Access Layer, Template Handlers and Other Operations. The DAL (Data Access Layer) is dealing with all database related operations such as get, add, update, and delete data, where as the section named "Other Operations" is responsible to any other leaf level operations as required.
  • Common Operation – This module does the common operations. A correctly designed common operation module can be easily reused in any system. This division is shared among all components or modules of the system. In real world organizations also you find common divisions, such as company library, company canteen, reception etc. In most cases, you may use this module to group classes that log exception/ transactions, store shared objects, handle errors etc.

Let's further analyze the User Management module of our Document Management System. Let's see how it supports the functioning of three basic features of the user management module named add, edit and remove user(s). (Please refer to the class diagram below). According to the diagram, firstly, you have the system user interacting with the DMS interface. There, we only have one senior manager named "Manager Operation" to control the full system and one junior level manager (to head the user management module). The manager named "User Manager" directly communicates with the junior manager of the sub module named DAL (Data Access Layer for the User Manager module). The data access layer is responding to the corresponding immediate manager only via the abstract class named "HandlerData". Inside the DAL you can see there are three classes to handle three basic types of data related operations named Edit, Add and Remove data (In this sample all handlers are same as workers of the above described organization). The drawing of the class diagrams completes the fourth and final step, of our approach to design the system.

Screenshot - Figure4.jpg

Figure-5: Class Diagram of Scale down Version of a UserManager Module

E.g.: Adding a User: The user is requested to fill the registration form via the user interface. As the user clicks on the submit button, the UI side is expected to do all required client side validation to verify the input. Then the user profile is stored inside the model class named User (where it can store user profile with correct entity relations) pass it to the main manager of the DMS system named ManagerOperation by invoking the method named AddUser. The main operation manager correctly identifies the module to talk to, to complete the request. So it invokes the method named AddUser of the manager named UserManager (of the module named UserManager) where that talk to the DAL (Data Access Layer) via junior manager class named HandlerData to store data in the database. Once this process is completed the ManagerOperation evaluates the status of the operation. Then, depending on the status, it will invoke the main manager of the notification module to send a welcome email to the newly registered user.

The analysis of this system shows that a generic DMS system can be easily mapped to a real world organization. You can continue the process to build the whole DMS to form an organization that manages documents. This approach will produce a consistent system that has distributed its functionality across several modules, allowing easy maintenance. This method can be used to design any system, including a web site, web service, other types of services (windows service etc), form based application (windows form etc) or library. However, if you follow any other architecture/ design/ coding pattern, you may end up using one method for web site and another to create a form based application and it may be some thing totally new when it comes to any other type.

5. General advice

5.1. Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) concepts

Object-oriented programming (well known as OOP) is the concept of defining and combining independent objects to form a software system. It has four base techniques namely inheritance, encapsulation, polymorphism and abstraction. Today, almost all popular programming languages (such as C++, C#, Java, PHP, Ruby, Python, etc.) support OOP.

In my mind, I recognize OOP as another unnoticed theory of the nature, which waited until the right time of the information age to be noticed. It was noticed in the 1960s and is now successfully used in the virtual form of nature (the so called software field). Just to understand the relation between the two, let's think of the functionality of a part of the human body (let's say a hand) and a well architected software module of a system. If you carefully study them, you will realize that both of these are provided with similar kind of communication interface where a set of standard instructions drive the objects in the required manner. There is nothing new in OOP. It strongly emphasize modularity in software (just like the nature does). It is something already known and experienced.

Having these things in mind, designers are welcome to use any object oriented concepts as and when they are appropriate in software systems. It will achieve the flexibility and maintainability of a complex software system. Please refer to online resources for more details on this topic.

5.2. Design Patterns

As the OOP concept becomes widely popular in the software world, the designers start to encounter similar types of challenges in every other object-oriented design they do. Right on time, there comes a set of widely accepted solutions to these challenging problems with the name "Design Patterns". The Design Patterns describe a set of recurring solutions to common problems in software design. This was originally described by a book written by four authors known as the "Gang of Four" or simply "GoF". Hence their pattern set was named as GoF patterns. And the design patterns are still evolving.

The design patterns will brighten the design, so you should use them. Please refer to online resources to find more details about design patterns.

5.3. Modular based development and reuse of modules

The modules of a software system have to be treated as divisions of an organization. This means that each division has to have one or many managers, considering the complexity of the modules. The "module managers" help inter module communications and also help to bind them together to form the entire system. A bigger module can be broken into several sub modules, where each module has to be treated just like sub divisions of a division. It is recommended to have separate sub modules inside each module to handle leaf level operations such as accessing a database, accessing a file server etc. The modules can be designed using the expertise you have on various design patterns and object oriented programming concepts.

Properly designed modules can be reused in other systems too. Some of the famous modules that can be reused are, Logging, Notifications, Exception, File Directory IO etc. When you start with this approach you will find it hard to reuse the modules at first. You will find that you have to enhance the modules to reuse them in every new system. This will happen until you correctly define the specification of the module or until you learn to design truly object oriented modules, but it is recommended to expand the functions of the module until they are rich enough. This should be a continuous process that will gradually create powerful, more complete, and functionally rich modules that you can reuse in future projects.

Here, in addition to delivering a smart product to your customer, you can open up a new market, if you can develop an extensible framework for all commonly used modules.

5.4. Quickly develop the Data Access Layer (DAL)

It is important to separate the data access layer and quickly nail it down. The Data Access Layer (DAL) consists of classes that directly operate with the database, so it is like the engine of the system. This separation will better modularize the system and also helps developers edit the data access layer (this causes lots of changes at the early stage of a project) without hurting other part of the system. For more information about this section, you may refer to following two articles.

5.5. Group operations into classes

When you identify similar types of functions or operations, group them together. In the above example I created three separate classes for Add, Edit, Delete operations (refers to Figure 5). This way you can keep consistent coding across the methods of the class, since all the methods of the class are doing similar types of operations. This way you can handle exception/ logging etc the same way for all the functions of the class.

5.6. Keep front layer free

User Interface or the Front Interface of your application has to be kept free from application logic related coding. The whole idea behind this approach is to be able to replace the front layer (User Interface) without hurting other parts of the system.

Screenshot - Figure5.jpg

Figure-6: Explain how the front end can be easily replaced by different types of interfaces

E.g.: As an example think of a web site you developed using .NET/ ASPX pages. In that case the front interface of the application is the set of ASPX pages and their code behind files. If you have followed the concept above as you were implementing the system probably you should have set of ASPX pages that are free from application logic and also another set of modules which contains the core application logic. This simple breaking allows you to introduce a web service interface (ASMX file) to distribute the system across two machines to expand the system. This can be done just by replacing the ASPX files with a web service interface. This will separate the heart of the application to a separate application server and ASPX files to a web server as the above diagram explains.

5.7. Visualize the system

This allows designers to visually model the system to capture the structure and behavior of architectures and components. Visual abstractions help you understand the bigger view, while opening hidden areas of the system. This includes identifying components of the system correctly; understanding how each component of the system fits together; understanding how each component communicates with each other; and finally make each component design consistently. In my practice I draw an activity diagram and a System Architecture Diagram (as drawn in Figure -4) if the system is very complex but only the second, when it is not so. I encourage you to visually display the system before starting the design.

5.8. Naming convention

  1. Use lengthy meaningful/ readable names when naming variables, methods, classes, modules, and any other. This will also excuse you from not commenting your code.
  2. Follow the naming convention of the technology owner; if your application is developed using Microsoft .NET, then follow the Microsoft standard, and if it is any thing else, then follow their naming convention. By doing so you will have the luxury of directly using their sample code in your application without going through a naming convention adjustment process.

6. Think fresh and approach like a newcomer

Today the technology changes at a rapid rate, allowing new things to evolve every day. Designers are expected to keep their knowledge up to date with the most recent technologies, so that they can utilize them early in their designs. But the superiority of the new technology may also lead the overwhelmed designers to overuse the technology. I have heard some designers say that "we designed our system according to the X model, it is the latest, and that does not recommend doing it", my simple advice is not to make bottlenecks in your system just because you have to follow the latest technology or because everyone else was doing it that way. There are no magical formulas suitable for everything, so if the technique (or the model) does not suit, be brave to change. Think what is needed. Identify what suits you most. Then take your decisions, while letting everything else stand aside. Concepts are there to help you and better guide you, but not to control you. I invite you to be creative, but I'd also like to remind you to not reinvent the wheel.

7. Additional hints for System Designers

  • Keep interfaces simple. An interface should capture the minimum essentials of an abstraction. Don't generalize; generalizations are generally wrong. Again, the interface must not promise more than the implementer knows how to deliver.
  • Make it fast, rather than general or powerful. It is much better to have basic operations executed quickly than more powerful ones that are slower (of course, a fast, powerful operation is best, if you know how to get it).
  • Don't hide power. When a low level of abstraction allows something to be done quickly, higher levels should not bury this power inside something more general.
  • Do a prototype. If there is anything new about the function of a system, the first implementation will have to be redone completely to achieve a satisfactory (that is, acceptably small, fast, and maintainable) result. It costs a lot less if you plan to have a prototype. Unfortunately, sometimes two prototypes are needed, especially if there is a lot of innovation, but go for it.
  • Divide and conquer. This is a well known method for solving a hard problem: reduce it to several easier ones.
  • Handle separately. Handle normal and worst cases separately as a rule, because the requirements for the two are quite different. The normal case must be fast. The worst case must consider all cases.
  • Memory is cheap. Therefore cache the answers to expensive computations, rather than doing them over.
  • Compute in background when possible. In an interactive or real-time system, it is good to do as little work as possible before responding to a request. The reason is twofold: firstly, a rapid response is better for the users, and secondly, the load usually varies a great deal, so there is likely to be idle processor time later in which to do background work.
  • Make actions atomic or restart-able. An atomic action (often called a transaction) is one that either completes or has no effect.
  • Allow Customer to Lead. If the requirements are not finalized, keep the design as open as possible. You may strategically drive the customer to lead the requirement gathering process.

8. Final note

There probably isn't a 'best' way to build a computer system; much more important is to avoid choosing a terrible way. The software designing methodologies are still evolving and can be considered as fairly new. The software system is an automation of a known manual process, indeed software cannot be defined for things that are not seen/ heard in the physical world. Every process gets refined as it is being reused. The processes of the physical world (manual processes) have evolved/ reused for many generations and have tuned to perfection. The system designers can take advantage from observing available manual systems when designing a software system to automate such process. They can first study the manual system and automate the manual system with a software system.

So the safest path the system designer can take is to design/ implement the software system as closely as its parallel manual system of the physical world, of course with the improvement when possible.

9. Coincidence

HIPO - Hierarchy plus Input-Process-Output, is a technique for use in the top-down design of systems, and was originally found by IBM in 1970s. The second step of the above proposed design technique is some what equal to HIPO technique. But HIPO had serious flaws that caused it to fall out of favor. But now there is another emerging technique named HIPO-II, which competes with the most advanced design methods while maintaining its original simplicity.

The technique I have presented here is one of my own and is not some thing I've learned or heard before. I have found it is extremely practical and helpful to deal with current day system designing requirements. In summary it is a consistent, logical and also a teachable technique. Amazingly some part of this technique is mapped with the IBM HIPO technique. I think it is yet another example that proves that every thing is going on a cyclical path.

10. Summary

The approach presented here for system designing, can be broken in to four main steps as listed below.

  • Identify, study and be a master of the problem domain
  • Analyze the system by asking questions
    • Identify the list of granular level use cases or the functions of the system and internal/ external actors.
    • Form classes by grouping similar functions together.
    • Form modules by grouping similar classes together.
    • Recognizes module's communication paths
  • Visualize the system with a diagram, showing the module interactions
  • Identify the relations of the classes and draw the class diagrams of the system separately for each module
    • Place "module managers" correctly in-between modules to bind them together to form the complete class diagram of the system.

I have ideas and contents to fill a book on this same concept. But I'd rather make it the minimum, having concerns about this article's download time. So I am concluding this article, hoping that it was written well enough for you to understand the concepts.

11. History

  • 19-11-2006
    • Added Summary section.
    • Updated/ improved overall wording of the article.
    • Added figure 1.
    • Updated figure 2 and 3.
    • Updated the sample Questions and Answers list.
  • 07-01-2007
    • Table of Contents added.
    • Updated paragraphs under OOP (section 5.1) and design patterns (section 5.2).
  • 29-07-2007
    • Revised and updated.

12. References

  1. Hints for Computer System Design - Butler W. Lampson
  2. A State of the Art Report: Software Design Methods - Robert L. Vienneau and Roy Senn
  3. HIPO and Integrated Program Design - J. F. Stay


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Architect Virtusa Pvt. Ltd.
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka
In-depth coverage of Microsoft .Net, Cloud and many other cutting-edge Technologies.

- The Mandelbrot set – someone has called it the thumb-print of God – is one of the most beautiful and remarkable discoveries in the entire history of mathematics. My profile picture is generated with that equation.

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionOpenKM Pin
Fuensanta Martínez24-Nov-14 3:51
MemberFuensanta Martínez24-Nov-14 3:51 
SuggestionA suggestion for changing the article or for a new one that stays in the business domain? Pin
Member 1125126120-Nov-14 12:33
MemberMember 1125126120-Nov-14 12:33 
GeneralRe: A suggestion for changing the article or for a new one that stays in the business domain? Pin
Nirosh22-Nov-14 3:07
professionalNirosh22-Nov-14 3:07 
QuestionInspiring and direct Pin
barbatron11-Dec-13 10:58
professionalbarbatron11-Dec-13 10:58 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Mic8-Aug-13 12:49
MemberMic8-Aug-13 12:49 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
ibelev21-Feb-13 10:46
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Generalsystem design and architecture Pin
utaji leonard5-Mar-11 7:35
Memberutaji leonard5-Mar-11 7:35 
GeneralRe: system design and architecture Pin
Nirosh7-Mar-11 21:30
professionalNirosh7-Mar-11 21:30 
GeneralDecent article Pin
BillW3326-Jan-11 9:26
professionalBillW3326-Jan-11 9:26 
GeneralRe: Decent article Pin
BillW3313-Feb-14 8:11
professionalBillW3313-Feb-14 8:11 
GeneralSimple, yet Informative Article Pin
bsneh7-Jan-11 1:30
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GeneralGood to see but Pin
saiful_vonair12-Apr-09 16:04
Membersaiful_vonair12-Apr-09 16:04 
GeneralRe: Good to see but Pin
Nirosh16-Apr-09 3:37
professionalNirosh16-Apr-09 3:37 
GeneralGood Article Pin
kklowanshi21-Jan-09 3:43
Memberkklowanshi21-Jan-09 3:43 
GeneralRe: Good Article Pin
Nirosh16-Apr-09 3:53
professionalNirosh16-Apr-09 3:53 
QuestionThanks a lot for sharing :) Pin
egyamado13-Oct-08 17:03
Memberegyamado13-Oct-08 17:03 
AnswerRe: Thanks a lot for sharing :) Pin
Nirosh13-Oct-08 17:20
professionalNirosh13-Oct-08 17:20 
GeneralThanks for sharing Pin
simply_joe25-May-08 23:38
Membersimply_joe25-May-08 23:38 
GeneralRe: Thanks for sharing Pin
Nirosh27-May-08 22:14
professionalNirosh27-May-08 22:14 
GeneralWTH Pin
antecedents3-Feb-08 8:42
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GeneralRe: WTH Pin
Nirosh4-Feb-08 23:14
professionalNirosh4-Feb-08 23:14 
GeneralRe: WTH Pin
Germyan5-Feb-08 18:16
MemberGermyan5-Feb-08 18:16 
GeneralRe: WTH - (actually, very nice work) Pin
David Roh27-Jul-08 6:49
MemberDavid Roh27-Jul-08 6:49 
Hi Nirosh,

Actually, this is very nice work - thank you very much for taking the time and effort to share it.

You have got my five.

David Roh
GeneralRe: WTH - (actually, very nice work) Pin
Nirosh27-Jul-08 18:42
professionalNirosh27-Jul-08 18:42 
GeneralWOW! Pin
User 9148334-Aug-07 13:55
MemberUser 9148334-Aug-07 13:55 

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