As a rule, minimalism prefers lightweight solutions. For software architecture, this means taking a simple, straightforward approach to designing your architecture.
Software developers working within a minimalist framework avoid unnecessary complexity, designs, dependencies, features, and code.By embracing minimalism, you can reduce the friction created in the development process by extensive top-down restrictions. Your teams are free to design and implement what they need to.
In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into what minimalist architecture is and provide strategies for how to apply minimalist principles to your own architecture.
What is a minimalist approach to software architecture?
Essentially, a minimalist approach means developing an architecture that’s only as complex as the project’s scope requires. Here are some helpful principles for software architects wanting to take a minimalist approach:
- Focused and purposeful: Every part of the architecture should focus on specific project objectives and serve a clear purpose.
- Reflects best practices: Software architecture basics are observed and applied throughout the design. Avoid design practices known to reduce the quality of the code and add unnecessary dependencies.
- Free of redundancy: Code and design are not repetitive. Redundancy adds code and dependencies without adding value.
- Accessible: Clean architecture that others can understand, use, and modify. Ensure teammates can refer to your work later without finding unconventional code.
Benefits and pitfalls of a minimalist approach
Minimalist design brings several advantages, such as:
- Cooperation with other teams: After software architecture is defined, other teams will develop for domains, applications, and/or components. Minimalism gives these developers and designers the freedom to make decisions.
- Future freedom and flexibility: As the organization’s needs and priorities shift for your enterprise architecture, having a minimalist architectural design preserves the flexibility to adapt.
- Maintain compliance: Architecture that focuses on system needs includes system-wide compliance.
- Maintenance is manageable: Typically, the more that’s defined in the architecture, the more organizations have to maintain later. By embracing minimalism, maintenance is limited to essential dependencies and definitions.
- More agility: When your design has a smaller footprint it uses fewer resources so your system can stay agile.
- Enhanced user experience: Better performance and greater flexibility within the architecture allows your development teams to focus on delivering an improved user experience.
That said, here are some things to avoid when taking a minimalist software architecture:
- Excessive restrictions: Defining non-architecture issues from the top-down builds in unnecessary restrictions.
- Undefined architecture: Failing to define the architecture enough to meet the organization’s needs forces developers to make up for missing architecture.
- Solving problems outside of the scope: Tackling challenges outside of the intended goals can create an imbalance within your architecture that can have system-wide consequences.
How to take a minimalist approach
Now that you understand what a minimalist approach is, here are four steps you can take to apply this framework to your own architecture.
1. Focus on essential dependencies
As you start defining your software architecture, remember that you can't avoid dependencies altogether. Focus on the core, essential dependencies that are necessary for your system to function properly.
Being a minimalist, you’ll need to be very strategic about the code dependencies you allow in your architecture. Otherwise, you risk adverse outcomes for your applications or expensive system overhauls.
Code that requires specific content or references an outside application is a dependency. As dependencies increase, so does complexity and the potential for added constraints or maintenance issues your team could encounter further down the line.
If code is tightly coupled together, it is interdependent on other libraries and code components. Any disruption can break your architecture, which is reason enough to tread carefully. Languages, platforms, frameworks, and libraries can all become potential weaknesses in the wrong context.
Developers who create workarounds and accommodations for architectural decisions add additional resources that increase the risk of an expensive rebuild. Both monolithic and microservices architectures can have code dependencies.
Be aware of these dependency types as you plan your architecture. Wherever you can simplify dependencies, do so. Here are some common dependencies to avoid:
- Nesting: One portion of code or application exists inside another, making it dependent on this other code in order to function. If something happens to the code, the original application could break.
- Calling: Using outside code or applications within your architecture creates calling dependencies. If outside code is updated, other applications may need to be updated in order to function properly.
- Bundling: When one application depends on code nested within another application, these two applications are bundled together and one or both may be dependent on the other.
- Transitivity: Similarly, three or more applications can have overlapping relationships of dependency, creating additional complexity in your architecture.
Unless these dependencies are necessary for your architecture, minimize them so they don’t interfere or break down in the future.
2. Consider compliance
At the architectural level, compliance decisions are often necessary. HIPAA, GDPR, PCI, and other requirements may apply to your system and how you build your software architecture helps you ensure that your entire system meets these standards. Without defining compliance in your architecture, you risk non-compliant portions impacting your applications
- Build-in compliance: Shape your architecture around necessary compliance standards for your industry and applications.
- Use architecture compliance checks (ACCs): Conduct an ACC after building your architecture to ensure compliance.
- Watch for dependency disruptions: Code dependencies and tight coupling may also impact compliance.
3. Take a user-centered perspective
Ultimately, your system and applications were made for your users. A user-centered perspective focuses on designing an architecture that best serves their needs. Developers and architects may be tempted to focus on their own needs at the expense of user considerations, but this creates potential risks, such as a system that doesn’t meet scope.
Quality attributes that impact UX
At the architectural level, your decisions directly determine quality attributes for the entire system. Focusing on essential dependencies allows you to ensure your system has the right quality attributes and doesn’t constrain other designers and developers or create a bad user experience.
- Usability: Flexibility and how well the system meets UX requirements
- Reliability: Uptime and dependable performance considerations
- Availability: Functionality and local recovery
- Security: Data protection, authentication, access, and vulnerability
- Compatibility: Support for the systems and applications your organization needs
- Maintainability: Ease of maintenance and system support
- Scalability: Your system’s ability to scale in the present and for future growth
4. Architectural control
As the architect, you’re in a unique position with a lot of potential control over the final system. Using this control effectively allows you to solve problems for the entire organization that applications simply can’t do on their own. That said, too much architectural control can lead to resentment if your decisions undermine goals other stakeholders are trying to achieve.
With a larger architecture, each additional decision may have less impact. It’s up to you to identify the right balance between control and creative freedom in your software architecture.
Consider how to keep your architecture in balance:
- Local vs global scope: Some decisions aren’t ideal within a local scope. Your architecture is a good place to address this.
- Think about your stakeholders: Architecture decisions impact stakeholders differently, so consider how much control your stakeholders may tolerate.
- Create a robust architecture: Although minimalism is important, having a strong architecture that covers everything your system needs allows you to reduce the risk that you’ll have to overhaul your architecture later.
How simplified software development improves your architecture
By choosing a minimalist approach to your architecture, you can help your organization achieve key business outcomes and address difficult problems at the system level.
Simplifying your development allows you to focus on essentials along with business objectives. Minimalism provides software architects with the opportunity to shape the entire system without sacrificing other organizational goals.
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