Future Scenarios in Architecture…

I recently needed to consider the state of a System Architecture and consider the changes likely to be needed over time. Thus, I was trying to produce a “Roadmap” for the architecture into the future. The challenge was that the future is uncertain. Some items can be planned for, and others are dependent on the way the business and technological environments develop. These developments can be considered to be the product of various “forces” playing out in the environment of the system. How then can you address this complexity?

The field of business strategy has looked at this issue of an uncertain future and come up with a number of approaches for managing considering it. One of these is called “Scenario Planning”, and basically consists of building a set of different future scenarios which are considered plausible. They are not attempts at predicting the future, only of painting plausible futures. It is then possible to consider how these scenarios may play out according to the decisions you are taking now. This allows a form of sensitivity analysis on the decisions that you are making.

A process for approaching this would be to:

1. State the architecture decisions that need to be made.

2. Identify the major environmental forces that impact on the architecture.

3. Build four scenarios based on the principal forces.

4. With the scenarios in hand, identify architecture opportunities within each scenario.

5. Examine the implications of the decisions across the range of scenarios.

As an example, lets assume that you need to decide between two architecture design patterns, A and B. For the example “A” provides a highly resilient and fault tolerant solution but involves significant additional hardware, operational administration and development costs over “B”. The decision that needs to be made is whether the extra capability of “A” is justified. If this is a new system then it may not initially require large processing volumes, and may be able to accept a system outage. The scenarios, however, could be used to examine under what circumstances the additional capability would be justified. If the system catches on, for example, how long might it take for the system to become business critical? Would you have time to re-engineer it? This may lead you to decide the additional capability is justified now, or would allow you to understand what changes in the environment might lead to the additional capability being needed.

In terms of the Architecture Roadmap then, the Scenarios developed and decisions taken may then be included in the roadmap. With this in mind a Planning Scenario is chosen. This defines the assumption set on which the roadmap has been built. In doing so, however, the other scenarios are not discounted but used as alternatives to which to architecture should be resilient. Where the architecture isn’t resilient to a scenario, then the roadmap will be able to indicate symptoms that will indicate that the architecture needs to be revisited. These then become business risks that must be managed based on the selected architecture.

All of this seems relatively complicated, so why bother? The answer is that architecture decisions are taken on a regular basis under the in the knowledge that the requirements of the system are known and understood. This may be true of the explicit requirements elicited from users, but these are based on assumptions about the future. In reality the future is generally much more surprising than we would like to believe, and so taking the time to consider what this might mean for the decisions you are taking can be worthwhile. An exercise like this can be considered surprisingly quickly, and may significantly help decision making.

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