Architecture for the Microsoft platform: defining standards, principles, reference architecture and patterns

BlueprintIT architecture is a funny old game… you see, no-one does it the same way. Sure, we have frameworks and there’s a lot of discussion about “how” to “architect” (is that even a verb?) but there is no defined process that I’m aware of and that’s broadly adopted.

A few years ago, whilst working for a large systems integrator, I was responsible for parts of a technology standardisation programme that was intended to use architecture to drive consistency in the definition, design and delivery of solutions. We had a complicated system of offerings, a technology strategy, policies, architectural principles, a taxonomy, patterns, architecture advice notes, “best practice”, and a governance process with committees. It will probably come as no surprise that there was a fair amount of politics involved – some “not invented here” and some skunkworks projects with divisions defining their own approach because the one from our CTO Office “ivory tower” didn’t fit well.

I’m not writing this to bad-mouth a previous employer – that would be terribly bad form – but I honestly don’t believe that the scenario I’ve described would be significantly different in any large organisation. Politics is a fact of life when working in a large enterprise (and some smaller ones too!). And what we created was, at its heart, sound. I might have preferred a different technical solution to manage it (rather than a clunky portfolio application based on SharePoint lists and workflow) but I still think the principles were solid.

Fast-forward to 2016 and I’m working in a much smaller but rapidly-growing company and I’m, once again, trying to drive standardisation in our solutions (working with my peers in the Architecture Practice). This time I’m taking a much more lightweight approach and, I hope, bringing key stakeholders in our business on the journey too.

We have:

  • Standards: levels of quality or attainment used as a measure or model. These are what we consider as “normal”.
  • Principles: fundamental truths or propositions that serve as a foundation for a system or behaviour. These are the rules when designing or architecting a system – our commandments.

We’ve kept these simple – there are a handful of standards and around a dozen principles – but they seem to be serving us well so far.

Then, there’s our reference architecture. The team has defined three levels:

  • An overall reference model that provides a high level structure with domains around which we can build a set of architecture patterns.
  • The technical architecture – with an “architecture pattern” per domain. At this point, the patterns are still technology-agnostic – for example a domain called “Datacentre Services” might include “Compute”, “Storage”, “Location”, “Scalability” and so on. Although our business is purely built around the Microsoft platform, any number of products could theoretically be aligned to what is really a taxonomy of solution components – the core building blocks for our solutions.
  • “Design patterns” – this is where products come into play, describing the approach we take to implementing each component, with details of what it is, why it would be used, some examples, one or more diagrams with a pattern for implementing the solution component and some descriptive text including details such as dependencies, options and lifecycle considerations. These patterns adhere to our architectural standards and principles, bringing the whole thing full-circle.

It’s fair to say that what we’ve done so far is about technology¬†solutions – there’s still more to be done to include business processes and on towards¬†Enterprise Architecture but we’re heading in the right direction.

I can’t blog the details here – this is my personal blog and our reference architecture is confidential – but I’m pleased with what we’ve created. Defining all of the design patterns is laborious but will be worthwhile. The next stage is to make sure that all of the consulting teams are on board and aligned (during which I’m sure there will be some changes made to reflect the views of the guys who live and breathe technology every day – rather than just “arm waving” and “colouring in” as I do!) – but I’m determined to make this work in a collaborative manner.

Our work will never be complete – there’s a balance to strike between “standardisation” and “innovation” (an often mis-used word, hence the quotation marks). Patterns don’t have to be static – and we have to drive forward and adopt new technologies as they come on stream – not allowing ourselves to stagnate in the comfort of “but that’s how we’ve always done it”. Nevertheless, I’m sure that this approach has merit – if only through reduced risk and improved consistency of delivery.

Image credit: Blueprint, by Will Scullin on Flickr (used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence).

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