Agile Architecture Principle #5 – The bigger the system, the longer the runway

Note: this is one in a series of posts under the category of “agile architecture”. In an earlier post, (Six Principles of Agile Architecture) we identified six principles that can help us reason about the challenge of architecting systems of scale in an agile enterprise.

In prior posts, we’ve discussed the first four principles. In this post, we’ll discuss #5 – The bigger the airship, the longer the runway.We started this thread sometime back with a discussion of the rationale behind the build out of some amount of architectural “runway’ for systems of scale. To summarize, we posited that investment in some amount of intentional (or intentionally emergent) architecture is warranted based on the fact that continuous refactoring of large scale systems becomes problematic for three reasons.

  • Avoiding larger scale, and unnecessary rework. Even apparently minor system-level refactors can cause substantive rework for large numbers of teams, some of whom would otherwise NOT have to refactor their component or module. It is one thing for a team to refactor their code based on lessons they have learned, it’s another to require multiple teams to refactor code they would otherwise NOT have had to refactor based on other teams lessons learned, especially when the teams backlog is already overloaded with value delivery priorities.
  • Managing the risk of potential Impact on deployed systems/users. Since even the best possible BVT (Build Verification Tests) systems are imperfect, we worry about unnecessarily disrupting the install base of users (thousand and tens of thousands for enterprise architectures, even more for successful consumer systems). In other words, the threat of a regressive bug in a deployed system is always there, the cost, risk and impact of which increases with scale. In this case, minimizing unnecessary refactoring is a primary risk mitigation technique.
  • Improve usability, extensibility, performance and maintenance. Some common, imposed architectural constructs can ease usability, extensibility, performance and maintenance. For example imposing a common presentation design and implementation can substantially improve usability and presentation layer maintenance and modification, resulting in higher end user satisfaction (and revenue!) In another example, imposing a common single-sign-on mechanism across a suite of products would simplify development implementation and maintenance, even though there was NO difference to the end user.

There’s a further reason that warrants discussion as well. At the release level (internal or external), value delivery focuses on delivering the features our customers need. Being able to deliver planned functionality somewhat predictably in a near term (60+days) release is a hallmark of mature agile teams. That ability, in turn, is how the agile enterprise is able to communicate expectations to customers, who often have many business dependencies on the release of new software. Since building and refactoring infrastructure for large scale systems typically takes longer than a single short release cycle, it is necessary that most features for a particular release can be built on infrastructure that is already in the system. Otherwise, the team won’t be able to reliably “land” the release on schedule. Therefore, you need enough runway to be able to build in features for at least a release or two, while larger scale refactorings may well be underway.

Further discussion of how agile teams go about building and extending runway can be found in Chapter 16 of SSA – Intentional Architecture, and is outside the scope of this post, but for now, we’ve made our case for Agile Architecture Principle #5The bigger the airplane, the longer the runway.

One thought on “Agile Architecture Principle #5 – The bigger the system, the longer the runway

  1. This is a fantastic post – one that does a great job of really articulating the various comments I provided in the previous posts. Well done!

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