All hail the mighty connector

Feb 6, 2009 | George Fairbanks

Components and connectors are the backbone of the runtime view in
software architecture, but the connector appears to play second fiddle
to the component. The 1968 NATO

that coined the term “software architecture” specifically asked for
components, but did not mention connectors. Components are shown as
two-dimensional boxes, while connectors must make do as
one-dimensional lines.

Despite the perception of connectors as simple data movers, real work
can be done in connectors. Connectors can convert, transform, or
translate datatypes between components. They can adapt protocols and
mediate between a collection of components. They can broadcast events,
possibly cleaning up duplicate events or prioritizing important
ones. Significantly, they can do the work that enables quality
attributes, such as encryption, compression, synchronization /
replication, and threadsafe communication. It is hard to imagine
systems achieving qualities like reliability, durability, latency, and
auditability if their connectors are not contributing.

It is useful to identify two perspectives on connectors. The first is
the “micromanaged” connector that is just a part that does a job we
assign to it. If it fails that is because we did not supervise it
sufficiently. Its job is only to do what we told it to
do. Micromanaged connectors usually do the simplest job possible and
are usually simple connectors. The second kind of connector, a “goal”
connector, has an assigned goal, or objective, that it is responsible
for accomplishing. A developer who builds a goal connector must avoid
failure by looking into the problem, discovering possible failure
cases, and ensuring that the connector handles them. Goal connectors
are usually complex as they have real domain work to do, and are
responsible for seeing it completed.

Consider the seemingly simple task of keeping a hot backup copy of a
component, ready for failover. There must be communication between the
master and slave, because the slave should maintain the same state as
the master. Our first thought may be to make a procedure call to the
slave every time the master changes. That might work if the two
components were co-located on the same machine, but backups are often
kept on separate machines for reliability, so we consider using remote
procedure calls or events. But now there are more concerns: What if
messages do not arrive? Is the latency between master and slave
acceptable? Does the master process the replication synchronously or
asynchronously? Does the data need to be compressed, or can we
efficiently send deltas? Perhaps worst of all, are there transactional
problems, where if a master fails in a transitional state we need to
revert the slave back to the last known good state? By assigning a
goal to this connector we reduce the chance that we revert to treating
it as a trivial mover of data. If it were simpler, one or both of the
components would be forced to assume additional responsibilities,
diluting their cohesion and purpose. Assigning the synchronization
goal to a connector simplifies our components, making them easier to
build, maintain, and comprehend. It also simplifies our system
description by raising its level of abstraction.

One way to encourage interesting connectors is to assign them
goals. Another way is to treat components as domains and assign the
job of bridging the domains to the connectors. Michael Jackson
described a patient monitoring system where sensors on the patient
reported body temperature and pulse and the system’s job was to alert
a nurse in case of emergency. He showed that two different kinds of
alarms were needed: one where the patient is suffering a heart attack,
and another less urgent alarm where the patient has removed the
sensors. Let’s look at this example from the perspective of using
connectors to bridge the domains. The first domain is that of
collecting accurate sensor readings. There may be digital to analog
conversion, smoothing, signal transformation, and other work to be
done in order to sense the patient’s temperature and pulse. The second
domain is that of alarms. There will be several severities of alarms
and various ways of informing people. We might configure low severity
alarms to blink a light, medium severity alarms to sound a local
beeper, and high severity alarms to do all that plus sound a remote
beeper. Defining the domains this way, we might even be able to reuse
these components in a different context other than patient monitoring,
because each component handles a single domain, rather than knowing
about the other component or about patient monitoring. When two
domain-specific components interact, we will need to write some code
that understands both domains. In this case, we need to write code
that sounds a medium severity alarm if the patient has accidentally
removed his sensors, and a high severity alarm if he is suffering a
heart attack. If we place this code in the sensing or alarm components
then we have lost their domain neutrality. We can instead place it in
the connector, which at one end will take in sensor events and at the
other end emit alarm events. It is impossible to avoid having code
that knows about both sensors and alarms, but we can locate this code
in the connector and insulate the components.

The takeaway lesson is that connectors should be treated as equals of
components in software architecture. If we give them simple jobs then
we do ourselves a disservice, and likely pollute our components,
hurting their cohesion and increasing coupling. Two concrete
strategies are to assign goals to connectors and to use connectors to
bridge domains.


George Fairbanks is a software developer, designer, and architect living in New York city

124 W 60th St #37L
New York, NY 10023
+1-303-834-7760 (Recruiters: Please do not call)
Twitter: @GHFairbanks