The Art And Science Of IT Architecture Design

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The Art And Science Of IT Architecture Design
J. Dowling - June 3, 2002


To assure flexibility and lasting value, information system designs and product selection must be guided by an architectural plan for infrastructure and applications systems. The Art of architecture design is in extracting business requirements; the Science is translating them into technology solutions.

Note: This note first appeared in a column by James F. Dowling in Mid-Range Computing. Look for other previously published Mid-Range Computing columns by Mr. Dowling at this site or visit Midrange Showcase at

The Art of Architecture Design  

When an Architect begins an engagement with a client the discussion is not around materials, colors, and manufacturers of lighting fixtures. It is around occupants, their activities and habits. An architect wants to know who will occupy the space, what they will be doing and how they will interact. By considering the application of the space, an architect can apply the scientific aspects of space design, light management, materials and construction code to design a space that meets the customer's needs and desires.

If occupant activities and habits drive the architecture of space, what drives the architecture of information technology systems? The same things. The people who will use the systems, how they work together and what work they need to perform drive information technology architecture. Architecture describes how the parts of a system will come together to fulfill and purpose. Therefore, the art of architecture design is in learning what the mission of the system will be. Architects employ a trick to reach shared understanding quickly and in a way that does not limit their individual creativity when it come time to create a solution.

The trick is in the art of conversation for discovery of needs. When exploring requirements for information technology systems, focus on the infrastructure first, then the movement of data and then access to data and finally business transactions. Information technology infrastructure is driven by speed, distance and volume requirements for data movement and access. In effect, the dynamics of the business drive the dynamic capabilities of information technology infrastructure. When the business manager talks about "rapid expansion," "globalization," "continual cycle-time reduction," or "build-to-order" the information technology architect hears network, server, application design and zero-latency data flow requirements.

The trick is to get the business manager to talk about the business, what is causing it to change, how it will change and when. In effect, take the discussion one or more levels of abstraction above the information systems that might be involved.

What about the Science of architecture design?  

Building architects understand space, light, traffic, work optimization and other environmental factors. Information technology architects must also understand the environmental aspect of potential systems and subsystems. Both architects must employ a repeatable process that ensures thorough consideration of requirements and results is a solution within which the stakeholders can live and work productively.

Information technology architects have a more difficult job than do their counterparts who design buildings, bridges and gardens. Foremost, they must contend with requirements that change faster than systems can be constructed. Secondarily, the tools and components that information technology architects use change almost as rapidly as do solution requirements. In both cases, time is money and therefore a rapid and repeatable process that bases detail design choices on facts that relate to the productive use of the solution is essential.

Process for Information Technology Architects: One Approach  

One process for information technology architecture design that is consistent with the above, follows.

Step One - Understand what is causing the enterprise to change the way that it conducts business. Hold a conversation with business managers where they describe the forces acting upon them, what they are considering to do about those forces, and how they will measure successful business operation. For example, "We will introduce a new multi-national version of our software and we intend to sell more than two-hundred copies in overseas markets."

Step Two - Extract the drivers of business change and operation then translate them into attributes of an appropriate information technology infrastructure architecture. For example, "Global network, multi-language, multi-currency, systems."

Step Three - Consider the success criteria and drivers and translate them into a set of capabilities that must be in place to support the stated business operations. For example, "Additional legal entities and new Sales and Financial systems."

Step Four - Validate the findings of Step Two and Three with business managers. This yields a shared understanding of what business issues need to be addressed and does not commit information systems solutions yet.

Step Five - Design the information technology infrastructure architecture including networks, servers, data warehouse, application integration, messaging and other essential services. Pay particular attention to identify and support interoperability with trading partners. Establish a roadmap of infrastructure components such as, "XNS network protocol will not be supported outside the New Haven Campus; TCP/IP will employed for all new networked applications and will replace XNS in 2005."

Step Six - Design an application systems portfolio that addresses the business process automation needs including transaction processing, data access, reporting and analytical capabilities.

Step Seven - Create a short list of product/supplier candidates for each application and assess the impacts of each on the infrastructure design. Adjust or anticipate exceptions accordingly. For example, "All application systems will operate on Sybase or Oracle, however, Informix Online offers the optimal price/performance for Application-Q and therefore it will be employed as an exception."


It certainly helps to have a number of information technology solution archetypes available as building blocks. Many consulting firms and information technology architecture forums can provide access to both archetypes and the architectural considerations of particular product solutions.

With a little coaching and access to information, smaller enterprises can do as good or better architecture design than much larger firms who lack either the Artful manner of understanding business needs or the Scientific approach to matching needs with solutions.

This column will continue to explore the change/size paradox-big companies desiring speed and growing companies desiring stability. The author would appreciate feedback on material presented as well as suggestions for future study and reporting. The general theme is IT management and the goal is to make it easier to get clients what they want and what they need to succeed.

About The Author  

Jim Dowling is VP of the Alignment Consulting Practice at TechnologyEvaluation.Com, Inc. located in Woburn, Massachusetts. TEC researches IT products and suppliers as well as the ways companies obtain business value from IT. TEC's consulting services remove time, risk and ultimately cost from IT related decisions.

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