Is data modeling (entity-relationship) part of software architecture?

Apr 6, 2008 | George Fairbanks

David Garlan recently asked me what I thought about data modeling and its relationship to software architecture. I’m including the answer here because it was effective at articulating some of my philosophical assumptions about software architecture that are not shared by all researchers and practitioners.

  • The currently defined field of software architecture has a bias to address quality attributes to the exclusion of functionality. I think this may have originated because researchers wanted to differentiate their work from earlier work on high level design, which primarily addressed functionality.
  • It is impossible to meaningfully discuss many architecturally-relevant topics without referencing domain-specific types, e.g., cars, accounts, sensor readings. You need to reference them when defining ports/roles and behaviors. Modeling these types has historically been covered under high-level design, not software architecture.
  • In order to effectively zoom-out of implementation complexities (and premature commitments), software architecture should seek out surrogate representations of low-level commitments. Properties in Acme are a good example of this because they do not commit to a data representation.
  • In MAp (and CAM, Catalysis, …) we commit to types of information, but not their representations. This allows us to refer to essential types (cars, accounts, sensor readings) while maintaining a zoomed-out view of a large system.

Since data(base) modeling commits to a data representation, it hurts your ability to zoom out. It also introduces discussions of N-th normal forms and efficient use of varchar vs. string(20). What MAp calls “information modeling” commits you to the existence and relationship between types, but not their concrete data representations, which allows it to uncover design defects related to the problem domain.

Data modeling is a large and specific concern at companies, because the data and its schema may span applications and outlive all of them. It may have a place in architecture descriptions simply because its significance to companies, but I am unconvinced that it is an architectural style or at the same level of abstraction as the rest of the software architecture ideas.

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

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