Why do I need an architecture anyway? Isn't an architecture just a bunch of blue sky? What can I do with an architecture when I finish it? Use it to start my fire? An architecture and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee. What a waste of time!

This seems to be the attitude of many people when it comes to architecture. This attitude is especially prevalent in the salty old worker who has been around 20 years and has seen it all.

If you are building a one-room, candlelit, open fire log cabin with an outhouse back in the woods where there are no covenants or building codes, then you are probably right. You don't need a blueprint or an architecture. Just start cutting those trees and digging the hole. If, however, you want to build a complex structure, such as a multistory building with electricity and indoor plumbing, where there is a building code and people actually care about cleanliness and comfort, then you probably do need an architecture or a blueprint. In fact, you may never get started without a blueprint because the city won't issue a building permit.

What are your information systems more akin to – a one-room log cabin or a complex multistoried building? When you have online systems that need monitors and sophisticated hardware, data warehouses that grow data to infinity, multidimensional processing supporting drill down and drill across, archival processing that occasionally must be accessed as if it were online storage, operating systems, database management systems (DBMSs), applications and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that all must be integrated (and more), most shops look much more like the multistoried building than the one-room log cabin.

Here are 10 good reasons why you need an architecture if you are building or managing a complex information systems environment:

  1. Managing complexity of development across time. In this case, you are building a system or making major repairs to one. How do you know that what you are building today will fit with what will be built next year? No one knows exactly what is going to be built next year and they certainly do not know who will be building it. How do you integrate what is happening today with the unknowns of the future? The answer is through an architecture or a blueprint. It is through an architecture that the activities of today are coordinated with the plans for tomorrow. The architecture contains a high-level view of the entire environment. Today you are filling in one part of the environment. Tomorrow someone else will be filling in another part of the puzzle. Different development efforts are integrated together across time through an architecture.
  2. Prioritization. There are always more things to be done than there are time or resources. Because of this constant competition in today's world of information technology (IT), there is constant prioritization. How do you know that you are making the right choices when it comes to prioritization? The architecture that shows you where you need to be five years from now goes a long way in telling you what else is in the queue and how important it is.
  3. Design choices. At each step along the way, there are design choices to be made. In almost every case, one design will work as well as another. How can you tell when a design choice is good or bad? The answer is that design choices are best made when they fulfill the functionality mandated by the architecture and when they conform to the structure and the esthetics of the architecture.
  4. Changes will need to be made. Comparing today's world to tomorrow's world, as portrayed by an architecture, it becomes obvious where changes need to be made. The differential between the two architectures tips off the developer as to where changes are to be made and what those changes need to look like.
  5. Bringing together the interests of different organizations. Many people have a stake in future systems. It is not easy to show how the needs of an organization can be satisfied while at the same time satisfying the needs of other organizations. The architecture is a place where an organization can look in depth and see how their needs will be met. At the same time, the organization can see how the needs of other organizations can be met as well. When it comes to balancing the needs of multiple organizations, an architecture is an ideal place to start.
  6. Bringing together different technologies. One of the most important needs is that of blending different technologies. As time passes, many different technologies that all are part of the IT environment start to emerge. Certainly there is DBMS and operating system technology, multidimensional technology, hardware and data communications technology, archival and multistorage technology, and Web-based technology. All of these technologies must be blended to operate smoothly and efficiently. The architecture is the ideal place to outline the boundaries and interfaces of operation for the different technologies that will constitute the IT environment of the future.
  7. Basis of comparison. It is always useful to look and see what other people have done to solve the problems facing you today. By seeing what other people have done, your mind is opened to options. You look at the architecture for future systems and you see technology, components, positioning of components and so forth. In a single place, you can see the larger design of how components have been structured, what components there are, what technologies are being used and so forth.
  8. Migration path. After the decision has been made to migrate to an architected environment, looking at today's environment and tomorrow's environment suggests a path for migration. First this component will be converted, next this component will be added, then this component will be deleted, and so on. Once it is understood what must be done, the order in which those activities need to occur can be identified.
  9. Estimation. How big is any component going to be? How big will the development effort be? How big is the audience that will be serviced? These are important issues that are very relevant to the planning process.
  10. Focus. In something as large as an IT environment, it is very easy to get to be distracted. There are many reasons why focus is hard to achieve and sustain. The architecture allows the developer and manager to see things from the top – to see the large picture all at once. Without the large picture, focusing on the job of migration becomes very difficult to do.

There are undoubtedly many other values of an architecture. The reasons for the value of an architecture listed here are only scratching the surface – and the surface is very broad. The next time someone suggests that architecture is a blue-sky subject, ask if he or she is building a log cabin.

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