Systems Architecture: Definition & Characteristics

Instructor: David Whitsett

David has taught computer applications, computer fundamentals, computer networking, and marketing at the college level. He has a MBA in marketing.

Before you build a computer system, you should conceptualize the purpose and the structure. You should define the various parts and what roles they play. In this lesson, we'll examine systems architecture and look at its characteristics.

A Theoretical Model

An automobile designer goes through a progression of steps in developing a new vehicle. The first stage is a whiteboard session where basic ideas are discussed. The second step is mapping out the product's workflow, how the end users will interact with it and what components will go into the package. Then a prototype is created.

The process for computer systems architecture is similar. The systems architecture process is where the concepts that will be the backbone of the actual system are developed. It is a conceptual model that describes the structure and behavior of the proposed system or of an existing system. The model could include the technical framework, end user requirements, and a list of system components (hardware and software).

The key decisions that need to be made during the systems architecture process are:

  • The attributes of the new system
  • The style of architecture
  • Type of software used (custom or off-the-shelf)
  • Types of technologies used
  • How the system will be deployed

Whiteboards are great tools for laying out a systems architecture

Process Steps

There is more than one possible approach to this process and you will see it described in different ways, but here is a generalized look at how a systems architecture for a new system is developed.

  • Identify architecture goals - In the beginning, you need to define what you want to accomplish with the new system, who will be using it, and any constraints you have in putting it together. This is also when you define the scope of the project and how much time you will spend completing each step. It's time to head to the whiteboard!
  • Key scenarios - This is where you describe in detail how users will interact with the system in accomplishing key objectives. Attributes are discussed along with their functionality. You want to choose test cases that will help you make decisions about the viability of the new system.
  • Application overview - Now you figure out what your software will look like. Will your staff write it or will you buy an off-the-shelf package? Will it be a mobile app, Internet app or a rich client program? You have to take into account company IT policies and what hardware is available. This is also the point where you determine the style of architecture (think platform), with choices like service-oriented architecture (SOA) or client-server architecture. It's another great time for the whiteboard.
  • Key issues - The point of this phase is to look for areas where potential problems could arise. This includes things like adding new technologies into the business (could be disruptive), the potential availability of the system, and the quality attributes.
  • Prototype solutions - Create a prototype (preliminary model) of the proposed solution and test it against your key scenarios and issues.

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