The slogan of our Computer Science department is “Architects of the digital world” (cs.helsinki.fi). The meaning of this slogan can be understood and approached from different perspectives. In this blog post, we aim to do our part by addressing what architecting the digital world means from the viewpoint of software, and in particular, that of software engineering research, where the word (software) architecture has been partially reserved for technical interpretation.
The digital word – and software in it – is already around us. Many of the devices, such as cars, are almost mobile computers carrying massive amounts of software onboard for controlling their behavior; our surroundings, such as homes, are packed with devices that run software, for example, to enable connectivity to our mobile devices for telling how they are doing; many if not most services are being digitalized – or have a digital component; and even many of our social interactions takes place in the digital world. The increasing digitalization just keeps expanding all that.
So where’s the architecture and architecting in all of the above? Briefly, in the blueprint that defines the DNA of the system as a whole. In the small scale, software is code created by software developers, with the assistance of software-based tools, frameworks, cloud environments, and so on. However, when things get big, complex, integrated, interoperable, or critical, conscious architecting is needed to give the whole a reasonable shape and to ensure the whole has desired properties. Often referred to as architecturally significant, such properties may include the protection of privacy, availability of services, modifiability of software to different uses, fault tolerance, energy efficiency, and so on, to mention some. Furthermore, as the modern systems and their software evolve throughout their lifespans, only future-proof architectural designs will keep the software systems sustainable. In software engineering research and practice, these are the kinds of concerns architects and architecture design methods aim at addressing.
To elaborate, architecting means, first of all, understanding what is expected of the digital world. Designing and maintaining complex and large, often interconnected software systems of the digital world demand robust architecting. Architecting is then about making the important design decisions that give the digital world its shape and answers “how to position the load-bearing structures”. Architecting is also about risk management of those parts of the digital world that have not yet been realised. When planning something not yet existing, an architect needs to envision the technical solutions with the acceptably low risk of feasibility for meeting the expectations over the entire life cycle.
It seems inevitable that the future digital world will start shaping itself with little overall control or planning, when more and more systems are constructed that depend on each other in their operations. In this new context, the role of software engineering research is to try to understand where things may start cracking and crumbling – and then see what architectural solutions would be needed to solidify the digital world. This naturally requires understanding the expectation the society sets for the digital world. In addition to the expected needs, the digital world sets constraints on software systems. For example, as more and more regulated software systems become connected, the need for architecture work becomes more stringent. Architecture becomes the essential communication tool that enables risk managers and regulatory affairs professionals to effectively perform their duties in the area of safety, cybersecurity or privacy.
To summarize: The expectations that are architecturally significant, i.e., fundamental in the design and thus hard to change if wrong and that enable or prohibit the expected properties of the digital world, include for example:
- When and how should the software protect the privacy of personal data, particularly when pieces of data are combined from distinct sources?
- How to make the public sector software systems interoperable, open and cost efficient – with some open and crowd sourced architecting?
- How to control the risks related to systems critical to society or individual human life, taking into account their various intertwined dependencies (e.g., banking systems currently used also for general-purpose user identification purposes)?
- How to take into account the sustainability goals of the future digital world (e.g., electricity consumption)?
- How to design software systems in which artificial intelligence, including machine learning, can be embedded in an understandable, trustworthy, transparent, and testable manner?
This is where the architects of the digital world are needed – to help make the architectural decisions regarding the software that runs the world. This is not only about technical issues and possibilities but also about understanding the contexts of use, decisions about policies that constrain technical solutions, incentives for collaboration for common benefit, or ensuring that the voice of minorities is also heard. It is therefore in the interest of the society that the architectural decisions of important services and systems of the digital world and their justifications are transparent and open to scrutiny.
As a research group in software engineering and architectural topics in particular, these are issues we envision to encounter on our journey when living up to the slogan of the department: “Architects of the digital world”.
– the ESE Team