Architecture Patterns Across Disciplines

I have spent a good few weeks over the past few months examining the flow of data for a data storage solution. The purpose was to find the bottlenecks in the data being transported between locations that are several hundred miles apart. The analysis looked at the overall storage architecture in both sites including the time it takes the data to travel based on the bandwidth and latency of the fibre optic cables and the intermediate components.

It occurred to me that the architectural and engineering patterns I use as an IT Architect are equally applicable to other fields of engineering and I wondered whether systems architecture skills could be transferable if supported by engineering specialists in specific disciplines.

This may be important because there is anecdotal evidence that in complex systems the cost of development of IT infrastructure and applications are becoming the biggest proportion of investment. This may increase the need for IT Architects to have a greater understanding of how to integrate IT systems with other engineering disciplines.

Architecture Pattern

I thought it would interesting to do a comparison of my data storage solution to a chemical engineering solution to see what common architecture and engineering patterns there are.  To do that I took the problem I had of analysing transfer of data and applied it to transfer of fluids. Similar architectures exist with transfer of fluids such as transfer of oil products between production, processing and storage/distribution sites.

The picture animated GIF above shows how similar the solutions can be at an architectural level. In both solutions the Architect needs to consider the capacity of the storage, capacity of the transfer ‘pipes’ and the time time taken to transfer the data or liquid. The requirements will then drive the selection of the components and/or limit the capability of the system.

The requirements for availability with the risk of failure will drive how resilient the architecture needs to be. In this case there different routes over the 200 miles with redundancy in the ‘pumps’ used to transfer the data or liquid.

Considerations of safety and security are there in both cases with the requirement to ensure the fibre link is protected from accidental or deliberate damage. With the fluid solution the same consideration is needed for protection of the pipe transporting the fluid. In both systems there needs to be monitoring that is remotely accessible and is secured from external interference to ensure continued operation.

In the table below I have given a comparison that shows how some of the architectural components are similar in both solutions.

Transfer of Data - Word

At a high level, the comparison I have made seems to show the skills are transferable.

In the book The Art of Systems Architecting the following descriptions are given:

  • Engineering can be described as a deductive process which ‘deals almost entirely with measurables using analytic tools derived from maths and hard sciences’.
  • Architecture is an inductive process ‘largely dealing with unmeasurables using non-quantitative tools and guidelines based on practice lessons learned’.

Maier and Rechtin summarise it as ‘Engineering is more of a science, and architecting is more of an art.’ In the IT solutions I describe and work with – the distinction between architecture and engineering is often blurred.

As an IT Architect I often have no specialist understanding of some technologies (as it was with the disk storage technology) but I am able to use my ‘architectural thinking’ with the technology specialists or engineers to design the overall architecture or resolve the technical problem. It is these ‘non-quantitative tools and guidelines’ or heuristics that are applicable across engineering disciplines.

MIT and USC in the United States recognised that connection and have developed this thinking with their Systems Architecture courses for nearly 20 years. More recently University College London have developed this with the development of the Centre for Systems Engineering.

From the example above comparing transfer of data with transfer of fluids it shows there is transferable architecture thinking between different engineering or technology disciplines. If you are interested in further understanding Systems Engineering, IBM offers a free download of  Systems Engineering for Dummies that discusses the principles.

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