Increasing Software Transparency with Lightweight Architectural Decision Records

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Think of all the decisions that make up a software development project. Countless are being made around language, framework, container, provisioning, testing philosophies and more.

The process is intricate enough with one project. Now try to apply this complex web to microservices where each service may have different architecture patterns. While Enterprise Architects may guide Solution Architect teams on some high-level decisions, each deliverable that follows requires decision-making. To ensure project transparency, it’s important to create a historical record of architecture decisions. These records give Architects visibility to project lifecycle, evolution, and decision-making rationale, allowing them to troubleshoot when needed.

To capture the numerous decisions that occur in a project lifecycle, Dev9 adopted a process called Architecture Decision Record (ADR). From a consulting angle, ADRs are extremely important – they’re a powerful tool to  guide clients on how to own, maintain, and manage the solutions we help build. ADRs effectively communicate architecture decisions.

Architecture Challenges

The rise of lean development and microservices further complicates the ability to communicate architecture decisions. While these concepts are not inherently opposed to documentation, their processes often fail to effectively capture decision-making processes and reasoning. Another possible inefficiency when recording decisions is bad or out-of-date documentation. It's often a herculean effort to keep large, complex architecture documents current, making maintenance one of the most common barriers to entry.

While a large system diagram or a surplus of sequence diagrams can reveal some of the "what" of the architecture, they're often too abstract to communicate any of the "why." In addition, some architectural decisions cannot be cleanly represented in a graphic format. For example, the decision to use universal unique identifiers (UUID) as a database’s primary key instead of an auto-incrementing INT type, cannot be represented on a diagram. It can be inferred from the code; but, eventually new people will join the project and think, "why did they do it like that?" That's the challenge we address with lightweight ADRs.

ADRs are not new. They've been around since at least 2011, possibly longer. The balancing act involves making ADRs easy enough that people implement them, without compromising useful information.

Adopting ADRs


Reduce Mental Barriers First

Writing documentation can be frustrating. It's one of the least-favorite tasks amongst developers, so it often gets done hastily. This haste results in bad or inaccurate ADRs. To ensure proper adoption of ADRs, simplify the process as much as possible - it should be dead simple to add an ADR. You’ll also need to limit the information captured. If they start turning into industrial-strength specifications, then you're right back to waterfall development.

Considering this, we suggest the following principles to capture architecture decisions using an ADR framework:


Store with Code

In microservices, architecture decisions are made at many granular levels. Keep your ADRs in direct chronological sync with the project. That way, it's easy to browse decisions and get insight when examining code. This practice writes ADRs along with evolving code, giving visibility to the robust history that is software development.


Document Decisions, Not State

You want to capture the chains of thought that contribute to your software’s current state for historical context. For example, switching from SQL to NoSQL should have a decision document. ADRs explain all the reasoning and considerations behind certain decisions. This gives new and seasoned team members ready-to-read documents to answer any questions.


Chronological Entries

Files should be able to be sorted chronology to give visibility to software development steps. New folks should be able to read the chronology and walk away with a reasonable concept of the architecture and the big decisions involved without jumping through hoops.

Proposed ADR Structure

We've done a bit of research that considers all the above points, and we think the following structure will satisfy them all. Keep in mind that one of the biggest barriers is getting developers, leads and architects to contribute and maintain files. To ensure successful ADR adoption, prioritize these efforts:


Filesystem Structure

  • Store all documents in a directory at the root level of the project, called `arch`.
  • Files named in YYYYMMDD-NN-Short-Description.md pattern.
  • Multiple files made on the same day use NN as a sequence indicator
  • Files made on days with only one file can choose to keep a 00/01 sequence indicator, or omit it.
  • Files never deleted, even when decisions superseded. The historical record is of importance.
  • Use a lightweight text formatting engine. We highly recommend Markdown since GitHub renders these nicely in the browser.


Document Structure

A sweet spot between minimalist document structure and enough relevant content is needed. Information should capture decision strategy, but should be concise enough to read quickly and easily.

Title
Each ADR needs to have a title. Again, keep it simple (i.e. "Database Storage Choice" or "Dropwizard over Spring Boot.")

Motivation
This section lets us share the key factors in the decision - context, technology, politics, availability, expediency, and more. Avoid opinionated text, these should just be the facts.

Decision
Here we will put a few sentences describing the decision that we made and the rationale behind it.

Consequences
Finally, document any potential issues or technical debt that this decision affects, positively or negatively.

Conclusion

At Dev9, we believe that historical records are important for project transparency. It also gives Architects visibility to project lifecycle, evolution, and decision-making rationale, making troubleshooting smoother. We’ve implemented this as a process to ensure that every development effort runs smoothly, but provides for an easy hand-off to the teams who follows us.  If you’re interested in further reading, please take a look at a couple of examples below.

Example 1

Dropwizard over Spring Boot

Motivation
Dev9 would generally prefer to use Spring Boot, but existing infrastructure at [client] makes this difficult. [Client] has an existing IaaS solution with pre-built starter projects in Dropwizard. More work would be required to get us going on Spring Boot, while Dropwizard would let us start writing application logic sooner. [Client] IT staff have said we're free to use Spring Boot if we package it correctly into a Docker container; but it would not be supported by them.

Decision
We are adopting Dropwizard over Spring Boot. It is politically expedient, it gets us up and running significantly faster, and it's well-supported by [client] IT teams. It also brings a lot of operational readiness factors, such as log aggregation, stat collection and aggregation, and predefined build pipelines. Even though the team's strengths are in Spring, we believe the time spent learning Dropwizard's quirks will be significantly less than the time we'd spend getting Spring Boot functional in this environment.

Consequences
Some additional time needed to come up to speed. May need additional time for onboarding new team members who are likely more familiar with Spring.


Example 2

Cucumber as Testing Framework

Motivation
[Client] Project Manager is very familiar with Cucumber and Gherkin. She already writes stories in the manner of Given/When/Then, and she agreed to be more exacting when she writes them going forward. Team has no attachment to any BDD-style frameworks, and the idea of executable documentation sounds exciting.

Decision
We are choosing Cucumber as our BDD framework for our acceptance testing. Our definition of “done” for stories will also include a Cucumber Feature File with all the glue code implemented.

Consequences
While this is a nice framework, we have a couple risks. We don't want too much testing done at the acceptance level. We still want the testing pyramid to be an effective and accurate model of our efforts. We also don't have a plan for how we'll expose these cucumber files so others can easily read them. We suspect there's a way to publish them to Sonar, but we'll prioritize that work in sprint planning.