Carlos Leyva

Silicon Stories

Chapter 6: Architecture

Shack, House or Skyscraper?

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If you are building a shack in the back yard so that Lassie can stay (mostly) dry when it rains, then you need not give much thought to architecture. You could probably slap a shack together in an afternoon (2 weeks for me) that would meet Lassie’s requirements. On the other hand, if your are contemplating building your dream home, you better plan on setting aside countless hours for ruminating through Architectural Digest and visiting with your architect of choice.

In order to build your dream house you will need to give significant thought to the use of space, the size of the lot, the location of windows vis-à-vis sunrises and sunsets, the number of stories, the size, location, and layout of various rooms, and the million and one aesthetic details that always seem to drive men crazy. In addition, your house contains a number of complex subsystems that will require your attention:

to name a few. Clearly the architectural requirements of your dream house are an order of magnitude more than those of a shack.

If you are building a skyscraper then you need to concern yourself with these subsystems and many more. However, it is not the greater number of subsystems alone that adds to the increased magnitude of architectural complexity in skyscrapers. The subsystems required for a skyscraper are more complex and they need to scale. There is also an increased need for redundancy. In short, building a skyscraper is a couple orders of magnitude (at least) more complex than your dream house.

It is often difficult to make accurate comparisons across disciplines but lets see if we can’t beat this analogy to death. A typical enterprise eCommerce site, supporting thousands of users, probably contains a degree of complexity akin to building a skyscraper, and can often cost as much when all is said and done (i.e. including the hidden costs that no one ever talks about). Building a business-web that includes key partners and suppliers is analogous in complexity to building a plaza of skyscrapers that interact in ways that, heretofore, have never been imagined. Such an undertaking is clearly a different beast altogether.

It would be unconscionable of a CEO to construct a skyscraper, or worse yet a plaza of skyscrapers, to house his employees and organization without being deeply involved in the process. Yet these same CEO’s, and their boards, are often clueless about architectural decisions being made within their firms that are of far greater import than any possible configuration of bricks and mortar. You will live with the results of your software architecture investments for the next twenty years, and as valuable (and important) as the commercial plumbing offerings are (see below), choosing between them will ultimately be one of the easier architectural decisions you make.

We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us.

—Sir Winston Churchill

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