IT vs Building Architecture…

Michael Stal makes an interesting point regarding the dissimilarities between IT architecture and traditional disciplines like building architecture.

He suggests that people have unreasonable expectations of software architecture – I quote from his blog “For instance, when building a house no one would ever come up with proposals such as adding additional rooms or floors after construction is completed. But people tend to think software engineering should support exactly that kind of flexibility.”

In a sense I agree.  But as someone with a previous life in Facilities Management I also know that businesses DO request additional rooms and additional floors after construction is complete.  No major business I know has a static property portfolio, and anyone who has worked in a major business for more than a year will almost certainly have moved desks, or even buildings at some point.

The difference is that most people understand that buildings are inflexible.  So if additional floors/rooms are required, then these normally have to be built as add-ons, perhaps in different and less convenient locations.  This is known as compromise.

I agree with Michael in the sense that business people do have unreasonable expectations of software engineering (probably because it is intangible).  However, if we continue to draw the analogy with the building industry, then business people need to understand that by making late changes to specifications, a compromise position maybe the only option and this may have uncomfortable implications in terms of cost, delivery time or specification.

Having said that, the modern business world demands flexibility, agility and speed of change.  Therefore, Facilities Managers have created fluid property portfolios with some contingency space, flexible networking and telephony (wireless for example), hot desking and standby resources to speedily reconfigure layouts where necessary.

Drawing a parallel back to the software engineering world, we need to provide agility and flexibility inherent in our software systems.  We need less “hard wiring” and more loose coupling.  The business community needs to be given more power to change their own systems.  And we need a team of IT people whose sole responsibility it is to keep reconfiguring the systems “layout” to suit the business.

Have you ever heard of a major IT project that when it finally delivers, does not meet business requirements in some fundamental way (for example regulations have moved on).  I have seen loads!

Michael says “…agile processes are not an alternative but a must. In order to cope with these challenges, we have to embrace change. Change will definitely happen. Hence, we as architects must open our software systems to allow tactical extensions”.

I couldn’t agree more!

3 Responses to “IT vs Building Architecture…”

  1. Paul Preiss Says:

    Good post. I too grew up in construction and have seen clients who want buildings to do the equivalent of adding 20 use cases during the last weeks of a project.

    An IASA member named, Ryan Plant, actually follwed a professional architect around for a number of days and had all sorts of interesting comments. I believe he’s published the work somewhere.

    Anyway back to the point. While Agile processes have dramatically impacted the quality of software from both a development and business perspective, Ive been seeing some backlash especially surrounding governance. For example, one company I spoke to had more persistence frameworks than they knew what to do with. Many of them blamed the lack of architectural governance for the issue. They made the connection between that flaw and their adoption of an Agile approach.

    While Im not convinced that company didnt have those problems before their Scrum adoption Im curious about how well Agile processes have been adapted to an an architectural approach that spans the enterprise. With compliance, portfolio management, change management etc being discussed alongside of SOA and other “Enterprise” initiatives, it strikes me that there in not a solid answer yet.

  2. Alastair Bathgate Says:


    You are right, its an interesting problem.

    On the one hand, if you allow local maverick behaviour you can lose so much central control that the organisation tilts into anarchy and ultimately this will have very bad consequences (although this may not become apparent for many months or years).

    On the other hand, if the IT architecture does not permit the business to be agile one of two results will occur.
    1. The business people will find their own local solutions “despite” the IT function.
    2. The business loses competitive advantage to other organisations who have cracked the agility problem.

    I don’t pretend to have any panaceas. I do think that there are approaches where central control can be combined with local action. By doing this in a co-ordinated way, business users can have a degree of control and agility within certain boundaries (including security, compliance, change management etc). I am thinking of tools or solutions that are more like end-user computing than strategic enterprise solutions. Not Excel or VB or (perish the thought) Access, but centrally controlled systems with some business user changeability. Workflow systems may have set the trend in this regard but I support this approach in a much wider range of business areas.

    In a previous post I mentioned one well intentioned IT Project Manager in charge of a “simple” CRM upgrade who asked the business users if there were any problems that could be mopped up during the project and received 250 requests for change.
    This is a worrying sign that the IT community are not meeting the business needs – and indeed falling short by a long way!
    I am interested in your future thoughts on this debate and will keep an eye on IASA.

  3. » Blog Archive » Stop selling SOA Says:

    […] think that there are more similarities between IT and building architecture than most IT people are prepared to admit.  If I commission an architect to build me a house, I am […]

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